Politics & Government

Attacks on experience, character upstage issues as Kentucky attorney general candidates debate

Candidates for state attorney general Andy Beshear, left, and Whitney Westerfield prepared to debate Monday on Kentucky Tonight on KET.
Candidates for state attorney general Andy Beshear, left, and Whitney Westerfield prepared to debate Monday on Kentucky Tonight on KET.

Kentucky's two candidates for attorney general agreed on many issues Monday on KET's Kentucky Tonight, including drugs and voting rights, while sharply criticizing each other's experience and character.

Republican Whitney Westerfield accused his Democratic opponent, Andy Beshear, of trying to buy the election by raising several million dollars through the political fundraising network of his father, Gov. Steve Beshear. Westerfield said he was hearing stories of road projects and other state favors being awarded in exchange for donations to Andy Beshear's campaign.

"I can't compete with that. So of course I don't have $2.7 million sitting in a bank account somewhere," said Westerfield, 34, a Hopkinsville lawyer and chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee. "I don't think this race should be bought. I don't think it should go to Andy because he's the son of the governor."

Beshear, 37, of Louisville, responded by saying he has superior experience as a nationally respected trial and appellate attorney at Stites & Harbison, one who handles complex cases involving governments and businesses. By comparison, he said, Westerfield worked as a "full-time debt collector" for payday lenders and others, and as a "part-time prosecutor" whose work performance was criticized by his boss, the Christian County commonwealth's attorney.

Beshear's campaign and a Democratic group are running television ads mocking Westerfield for this period, in 2007, when the commonwealth's attorney chided him for putting personal tasks such as pedicures ahead of his court assignments.

As for his large campaign treasury, Beshear said: "No contribution, no matter how big or how small, would ever influence a decision I made in that office."

When they weren't discussing each other, Beshear and Westerfield agreed on key points concerning the role of the attorney general, the state's top legal adviser and chief law enforcement officer.

Both said they would vigilantly defend Kentuckians' voting rights, even as the U.S. Supreme Court rolls back some protections for minorities in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Both supported restoring voting rights to felons convicted of nonviolent and nonsexual crimes, and they said Kentucky must work harder to bring ex-convicts back into society after they serve their time. Both opposed the legalization of marijuana, calling the drug dangerous, and they agreed Kentucky should do more to curb the use of heroin and other deadly, addictive drugs, beyond the anti-heroin bill the legislature passed last winter.

The men disagreed on the governor's response to Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.

Westerfield faulted the governor for not protecting Davis' religious liberties, as a 2013 state law required, he said. The elder Beshear could have amended the state's marriage license form to remove any reference to county clerks, as Davis wished, or he could have called the legislature into special session to have them do it, Westerfield said.

But Andy Beshear said his father was right to instruct county clerks to obey the Supreme Court decision. The governor does not have the power to issue an executive order that would alter the method of issuing marriage licenses written into law, he said, and with a regular legislative session scheduled to begin in January, there's no point in incurring the $60,000-a-day cost of a special session. Lawmakers can rewrite the state's marriage laws this winter if they choose, he said.

Asked how they would change the office of attorney general if elected, Westerfield said he would increase the resources dedicated to litigation, so he could bring more lawsuits against the federal government and the state itself if he thought they were encroaching on the rights of individuals or businesses, such as the coal industry. He also would bulk up the cyber-crimes unit to stop Internet predators and work more with the legislature on criminal-justice issues, something the departing attorney general, Jack Conway, has not done lately, Westerfield said.

Beshear said he would create a child abuse and exploitation division, to better protect children and crack down on adults who would prey on them. He also would devote more staff and energy to fighting drug abuse and protecting the elderly from scams.

Some of those issues tie together, Beshear said, describing a ride-along he took with the Franklin County sheriff on two drug busts that effectively left several small children without parents, children "watching the same cartoons my kids watch."

"This is the key reason I got into the race," Beshear said.