Politics & Government

Andy Beshear has beaten Matt Bevin in the courtroom. But can he win in a campaign?

This is the third of three profiles of the major Democratic candidates for governor of Kentucky.

The two men who have defined Attorney General Andy Beshear’s political career collided on April 19, 2016, when Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin stood behind a podium in the state Capitol and read a five-page prepared statement alleging “questionable activities” in the administration of former Gov. Steve Beshear.

The kindling was in place — Andy Beshear had just sued Bevin over cuts to public universities and a former Beshear aide was about to plead guilty to accepting political bribes — and Bevin doused it in gasoline and lit the match with his announcement, igniting a feud that still rages three years since. The two men found in each other a rival to battle in courtroom filings, newspaper headlines and social media posts.

It was Steve Beshear who ushered his son into office. The father’s fundraising machine gave his son a massive financial advantage over his opponents in 2015, and the family’s name recognition pushed Andy Beshear to a slim victory in the race for attorney general. But Andy Beshear also inherited a deeply embarrassing scandal from his father, which now threatens his political future.

“I don’t think anybody’s in the position they’re in without their parents,” Andy Beshear said. “My parents raised me, they made sure I got a great education, they taught me the values that I have. Oh, I wouldn’t be half the person I am without my mom and my dad, but that’s on a very personal level. Professionally, if you talk to people I’ve worked with, whether it’s in the AG’s office or elsewhere, they’ll tell you I’m one of the hardest workers out there.”

Oddly enough, it was Bevin, the political firebrand, who has helped Andy Beshear shrug the shadow of his father. As attorney general, Beshear has defined himself as much by his willingness to stand up to Bevin as by the services his office provides — helping senior citizens, fighting sex traffickers and child pornographers, and suing opioid manufacturers and distributors.

“There was a clause after Andy’s name: Andy Beshear, comma, Steve Beshear,” said Terry Sebastian, the former spokesman for both Andy Beshear and Steve Beshear. “But that went away. People stopped saying ‘that’s Steve’s son’ and talked about the accomplishments Andy had.”

Beshear has built his gubernatorial campaign around Bevin, calling himself a fighter who can get results while positioning himself opposite the governor on issues like the pension crisis and health care. His overarching message dates back to his response to Bevin’s press conference three years ago: Bevin is a bully who must be stopped.

“I believe that Matt Bevin is the biggest disaster of a governor of my lifetime,” Beshear told the Herald-Leader before sliding into a list of Bevin’s controversial statements. “I believe that Matt Bevin has simply shown through his actions and words that he is unfit for office and whatever has driven him to this state, the state that he is in, he cannot continue to govern.”

Now, finally, the fight is where it was destined to end up — on the campaign trail. Beshear, the perceived front runner in the Democratic primary for governor, is possibly a week away from the fight for which he’s long been preparing.

To get there, he and running mate Jacqueline Coleman will have to convince Democrats that he is their best shot to beat Bevin in November.

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Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, left, greeted Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear before the governor’s State of the Commonwealth address in Frankfort on Feb. 8. Timothy D. Easley AP

An inherited legacy

After the first Democratic gubernatorial debate, former Auditor Adam Edelen was asked whether he thought Beshear would be the frontrunner in the primary if his last name weren’t Beshear. Edelen didn’t miss a beat.

“No,” he said.

Beshear grew up in Lexington, the youngest son of a politician. He was born in 1977 while his father was still a member of the House of Representatives and his childhood was spent watching his dad rise through the ranks in Democratic politics. Andy turned 2 shortly after Steve was elected attorney general, 6 shortly after Steve was elected lieutenant governor and was 10 when he watched his father lose his first gubernatorial bid.

By the time Steve Beshear won the state’s highest office in 2007, Andy Beshear had just turned 30. He was working at his father’s old law firm, Stites & Harbison, after getting a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and political science from Vanderbilt and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

He now had a family and political ambitions of his own.

It was this Andy Beshear who benefited from the political fundraising machine his father built, outraising State Sen. Whitney Westerfield by more than $2.6 million on his way to a victory of less than half a percentage point. It was this Beshear who hired the Personnel Cabinet secretary from his father’s administration to be his deputy attorney general.

That ended up being a costly decision. Shortly after taking the role of deputy attorney general, Timothy Longmeyer pled guilty to soliciting more than $200,000 in bribes for state business deals. At least $1,000 of the money came when he was working in Andy Beshear’s office, where a man named James Sullivan was hoping to figure out a way to get contracts for law firms.

“We’ve all been betrayed by someone that we trust and it’s complicated and a very difficult emotion,” Beshear said. “Because this is an individual (Longmeyer) who had a sterling reputation for honesty. What people would tell you about him is that he’ll never get you in trouble.”

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There was no evidence presented in court that Beshear knew about the bribery scheme. In his trial, Sullivan mentioned a meeting with Beshear at a Panera Bread, where he said Beshear asked Sullivan to raise money for a national group of attorneys general and Sullivan asked Beshear about law firms who were hoping to get contracts. Beshear, who described the meeting as “standard,” directed Sullivan to Longmeyer, according to Sullivan’s testimony.

The whole affair has become a frequent talking point for Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.

“I think everyone needs to know what went on,” Stivers said. “When you have an individual that’s working for your father and you bring him in as your number two person, that’s a lapse in judgment, a lack of knowledge of what’s going on with your employees. And he’s ultimately responsible.”

Beshear points to his response after he found out Longmeyer had been taking bribes as a reason to trust him. He appointed a special prosecutor who convicted Longmeyer under state charges and fully cooperated with the FBI.

“It’s how we react when that’s uncovered that I think shows people who we really are,” Beshear said.

His reaction has not kept the issue from becoming one of his largest political liabilities. Bevin, who has been quick to characterize the Democratic candidates as the “old names” of Frankfort, has spent $1 million in taxpayer money on a law firm to investigate alleged corruption in Steve Beshear’s administration. Edelen, who was chief of staff to Steve Beshear, has launched television ads about Andy Beshear’s connections to Longmeyer.

But while the Beshear name may have come with some baggage, it also came with an advantage. Steve Beshear was a popular two-term governor who won the state’s highest office even as the state voted Republican nationally. That name recognition gets passed down to Andy Beshear, which will be invaluable in what is expected to be a low turnout election on May 21.

If people aren’t turned off by the family connection, it could spell good fortune for Beshear.

“I think people in general are tired of dynasties and establishment candidates,” said Scott Lasley, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and a former chairman of the Warren County Republican Party. “Is it specifically directed toward Beshear? No.”

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Former Gov. Steve Beshear speaks to the media during a press conference held at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Frankfort, on April 27, addressing Gov. Matt Bevin’s claim of corruption with Beshear’s administration. Bobby Ellis

His own man

If you have watched any of the debates in the gubernatorial primary, you’ll have noticed that Beshear is practiced at answering the question he wants to answer and not the question he’s asked.

Beshear is steadily determined to talk about his record as attorney general. If the topic is crime, he’ll find a way to tout his work to prevent human trafficking and child sexual abuse. If the topic is health care, he’ll find a way to call himself the “most aggressive attorney general in the country” when it comes to suing opioid manufacturers. If the topic is internal politics of the Democratic Party, he’ll still sneak in a mention of his effort to prevent senior citizens from being scammed by con men.

Then there are the lawsuits. In his three years in office, Beshear has filed suit against the Bevin administration at least six times.

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First was the lawsuit over Bevin’s proposed 2 percent cut to state universities. Beshear won.

“I think that’s important. Because everyone’s against Bevin now that he’s unpopular, but that was three months into my term,” Beshear said. “Matt Bevin had just won by nine points and I had just won by 0.1 percent. All the politicos and everybody else out there told me I was crazy and that would be the end of any ideas of running for anything, but it was the right thing to do.”

Then it was the lawsuit over Bevin’s decision to restructure the University of Louisville board (both claimed victory). Then a lawsuit over Bevin’s decision to replace the board of the Kentucky Retirement Systems (dismissed because the legislature passed a law supporting Bevin’s actions). Then the famous lawsuit challenging the state’s new pension law (Beshear won unanimously). Then the restructuring of the Kentucky Board of Education (still being argued), a lawsuit challenging the Bevin administration’s decision to subpoena the names of teachers who participated in sick-outs (Beshear lost in federal court) and the lawsuit challenging the Bevin administration’s attempts to block Beshear’s contract with a law firm to sue an opioid manufacturer (being argued).

“I’m doing my job,” Beshear said. “All of these lawsuits are because Matt Bevin has exceeded his authority as governor. Sometimes he’s even claimed absolute authority and my job, as attorney general, in a democracy, with our separation of powers, is to make sure no one exceeds their role, because we do not have a king.”

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Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear responds to a question during a debate at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

While Beshear often uses the lawsuits as an example of how he has stood up to Bevin — particularly the pension lawsuit — his opponents have argued that battling Bevin in the courtroom is very different than battling Bevin on the campaign trail. Beshear, of course, thinks they’re similar: “You have to set out the facts, you have to make your case, you have to show that you’re a person of integrity while they are breaking the law.”

Bevin’s unpopularity — he’s considered the most unpopular governor in the nation — has long been discussed in a vacuum. Voters have not yet been given the either-or choice of Bevin or a Democrat. Even though a Mason-Dixon poll in December showed Beshear leading Bevin in a hypothetical general election match-up, the governor has a special advantage: President Donald Trump.

Beshear may describe Bevin as a name-calling bully, but he has been reluctant to say the same about the president, instead complimenting his administration for providing money for the cold-case unit in the attorney general’s office.

Shaming Bevin into a clean campaign, as Beshear has attempted to do in the primary, won’t work either. Bevin has gone after Beshear before and likely won’t be afraid to go after him again.

“If it ends up being a Bevin/Beshear battle, people see that as a mud wrestling match,” Lasley said. “The disdain between the two of them is going to be dripping at every comment.”

Meanwhile, Bevin is waiting.

“It would be my dream,” Bevin said of running against Beshear on WHAS radio two years ago.. “… To me, that would be fantastic. He’s not even competent as an attorney general.”

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