Politics & Government

Beshear calls Trump’s tweets ugly, but he and Bevin both decline to label them racist

Beshear, Bevin give victory speeches after primary

Kentucky gubernatorial candidates Andy Beshear and Matt Bevin give their victory speeches after winning the 2019 primary for their parties.
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Kentucky gubernatorial candidates Andy Beshear and Matt Bevin give their victory speeches after winning the 2019 primary for their parties.

Days after President Donald Trump was criticized for sending tweets telling four congresswomen of color to “go back” to their home countries, even though three of them were born in America, neither candidate running for governor in Kentucky Wednesday was willing to call the tweets racist.

Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican who had just finished touting his relationship with Trump during a gubernatorial forum at the Kentucky Farm Bureau, grew testy when asked about the tweets by a reporter.

“I will let the president speak for his own tweets,” Bevin said. “Do I think the president is racist? Absolutely not. I know him personally, he knows me and my family personally. Anybody, like yourself, who is trying to imply that is literally just trying to be divisive. Shame on you.”

Attorney General Andy Beshear, Bevin’s Democratic challenger in this fall’s race for governor, condemned the tweets but refused three times to say whether he thought the tweets are racist.

“I think that they were wrong and ugly and he never should have tweeted them,” Beshear said. “I don’t think anybody should be told to go back to another country. Those are U.S. citizens, they ought to be treated with respect, it is ugly, it is wrong.”

Beshear’s answer illustrates the fine-line the Democrat must walk as he attempts to win an election in a state Trump won by 30 percentage points in 2016.

The tweets, which Trump sent Saturday about a group of four progressive Democrats, have sparked a fire-storm in Washington D.C., that has largely unfolded along party lines. Democrats have been quick to condemn the tweets and call them racist while Republicans have stayed mostly silent. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump is not a racist but that everyone should tone down their political rhetoric.

Bevin’s popularity has taken a hit from several controversial statements he made about teachers, but Trump remains popular, prompting Republicans to attempt to nationalize the race to give Bevin a boost. On the campaign trail, Beshear has actively avoided criticizing the president, saying only once that he wants to end “the negative policies of Donald Trump.”

The Republican Governors Association is trying to tie Andy Beshear, the democratic candidate for Kentucky governor, to national Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a new attack ad.

During the forum, Bevin revisited a line he has used on the campaign trail, painting Beshear as someone who would attempt to block Trump’s policies. (Beshear is currently signed on to a lawsuit that is attempting to block a Trump proposal to expand association health plans.)

“Do you want a governor of your state actively working against the president?” Bevin said.

A more aggressive Beshear prowled the Farm Bureau stage Wednesday, as he went directly after Bevin on a number of issues, including his support of Kentucky’s agriculture community. Calling the governor’s budget a “value document,” Beshear said the governor failed to mention agriculture in either of his budget addresses when talking about his priorities for Kentucky.

“The State of the Budget address is the one chance a governor can talk to this commonwealth about the things he cares about the most,” Beshear said. “And if you look back, in neither of this governor’s budget addresses has he mentioned agriculture once. That is going to change because I am going to prioritize agriculture right here in Kentucky.”

Bevin dismissed Beshear’s line, saying his proposed budgets allocated money for several agricultural priorities.

“The idea that you have heard nothing in terms of agriculture is only in the ears of those who aren’t listening,” Bevin said.

Beshear also espoused a lofty vision about becoming a hub for agricultural technology and, after criticizing Bevin for some of the economic development incentives given to companies, said he would work to recruit agri-tech companies to Kentucky.

“We can absolutely lead and it will be Kentucky under a Beshear/Coleman administration that is viewed as leading this country in agriculture,” Beshear said.

Bevin was the pragmatist, highlighting his theme of being unafraid to take on difficult political decisions. Several times through the debate, he chided Beshear for promising things he couldn’t pay for. In one example, Bevin took a swipe at Beshear’s father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, for not doing enough to address the problems of the state.

“The previous Beshear that you mentioned left this state and me as governor saddled with $6 billion in deferred maintenance on bridges alone,” Bevin said. “This is not acceptable. We can’t keep kicking cans down on the road. We have to make hard decisions. It’s easy to sit up here and make promises but they have to be paid for. At the end of the day, everything has to be paid for.”

Going after Steve Beshear is a strategy Bevin has used on the campaign trail before. The elder Beshear left office as a popular two-term governor, but Bevin has been critical of the previous administration and hired an outside law firm to investigate alleged corruption in Steve Beshear’s administration.

The strategy neatly fits into Bevin’s argument that he’s doing the hard work of cleaning up Kentucky after years of control by Democratic politicians. The governor has made the metaphor literal, hiring a company to clean the exterior of the capitol and putting money into the budget to spruce up state parks.

Beshear pushed back on that narrative Wednesday, defending his father in the process.

“There are going to be a lot of excuses, we can blame the past, we can talk about shoveling out a barn ...” Beshear said. “I’m going to be one that never makes excuses and gets the job done.”

Never one to back down from a fight, Bevin criticized Beshear over his ties to a settlement the state made with Purdue Pharmaceuticals. The settlement was made by former Attorney General Jack Conway shortly before Beshear took office, when Beshear was a partner at Stites & Harbison, the law firm that represented Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Republicans have said the state did not get enough money from the settlement and have questioned the close relationship Stites & Harbison has with several Democratic politicians.

“With respect to you standing up and fighting for people of Kentucky, it was you and your law firm that defended Purdue Pharma and settled for $24 million with the previous attorney general a lawsuit that Oklahoma just got $270 million from the same company,” Bevin said. “And you swept it out the door for $24 million because your law firm was on the hook as the defender of Purdue Pharma.”

Beshear called the allegations “conspiracy theories” before talking about how he has been aggressive in suing other pharmaceutical companies that manufactured opioids.

“You talk about fighting these opioid manufacturers, how many dollars has Kentucky seen from any of that?” Bevin said.

“You will,” Beshear said.

“The reality is, you blow a lot of smoke,” Bevin said. “You make a lot of promises. You file a lot of lawsuits. You fight this state and you fight this administration for political reasons.”

Daniel Desrochers has been the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.