LOUISVILLE — A Kentucky sheriff who bristled when Rand Paul’s Senate campaign listed him as a supporter lined up behind the Republican on Friday after a discussion about drug issues.
Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson said he was ready to endorse Paul after the tea party-backed candidate offered assurances that he won’t seek funding cuts for regional drug task forces and Operation UNITE, a federal initiative providing undercover narcotics investigations and addiction treatment. The anti-drug efforts are seen by the region’s law enforcement community as crucial in the fight against the drug trade.
Paul has previously said he prefers local initiatives over federally based responses to combat drug trafficking and addiction problems. His Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, favors using federal money to curb the drug trade.
Conway campaign spokesman John Collins said it was a sign that Paul will “say anything to get people to support him.” “Rand Paul can’t tell the truth to Kentucky voters,” Collins said.
Earlier, Johnson twice withheld an endorsement in interviews with The Associated Press, and expressed irritation at the Paul campaign for including him on a list of sheriffs and incoming sheriffs supporting Paul.
Johnson’s change of heart capped a day of twists and turns that began with two Republican sheriffs from southeastern Kentucky telling the AP that they had not endorsed Paul.
In doing so, they disputed Paul campaign press statements from earlier in the week.
Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton said the campaign had “reconfirmed” both endorsements, but winning over Johnson came several hours later. It occurred after Paul and the sheriff had a lengthy discussion, Johnson said.
It’s a sensitive issue for Paul, who is depicted as soft on crime by Conway, the state’s attorney general.
After Benton said the Paul campaign had “reconfirmed” both endorsements, McCreary County Sheriff Gus Skinner moderated his stance. He initially said he was not supporting any U.S. Senate candidate, but about five hours later altered his comments to say he was supporting the Republican ticket. Asked if he was specifically endorsing Paul, Skinner didn’t mention him by name but repeated that he was supporting the GOP and its candidates.
Asked if he had spoken with the Paul campaign since his first interview, Skinner replied, “That’s my business.”
Paul is locked in a hotly contested race against Conway, with the Democrat trying to elevate crime as a top issue as they compete to replace two-term GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, who is retiring.
Skinner said in his initial phone interview that he had reservations about being portrayed by Paul’s campaign as a supporter, adding that he was focusing on his own re-election campaign.
“I don’t like someone else coming up and saying that I’m supporting this one or that one,” he said.
The Paul press release went out the same day Conway launched a television ad hitting Paul on crime.
That ad shows Paul telling a Kentucky Educational Television commentary program in 2008 that “things that are nonviolent shouldn’t be against the law.” The ad also shows several sheriffs listing a series of nonviolent crimes — including burglary, mortgage fraud and promoting prostitution.
Paul has called the ad “dishonest,” saying he supports existing laws against nonviolent crimes.
The libertarian-leaning Paul found himself on the defensive on the drug issue this summer after AP quoted him saying he doesn’t think drugs are a “real pressing issue” in the Senate race.
Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, has since offered assurances that he realizes drug abuse is a problem.
Johnson said in an earlier interview that putting the burden on local law enforcement agencies to bankroll anti-drug efforts is “out of touch with reality,” especially in poorer counties like his.
“If he thinks it’s my problem and nobody else’s, without federal assistance, then he’s living in a dream world,” Johnson said.
Skinner, whose department faces similar financial challenges, said that without assistance from drug task forces that receive federal funding, “it would be very hard for me to combat the war on drugs.”
Skinner said he previously spoke with a Paul representative about the drug issue and came away reassured about the Senate hopeful’s views on combating drugs.
“My understanding is that as far as the drug task forces and keeping law enforcement on the streets to combat drugs, he’s behind that,” Skinner said.
Meanwhile, Colan Harrell, the GOP nominee for sheriff in Whitley County, said he supports Paul because of his party affiliation, but said he has misgivings about Paul’s stance on drug enforcement.
Harrell, whose name also appeared on the Paul press release as a supporter, seemed taken aback that some sheriffs and incoming sheriffs had suddenly been thrust into the glare of the Senate campaign.
“Why is it to me to endorse a senator?” he asked. “They endorse county sheriffs. Isn’t this kind of backward?”