Politics & Government

Turbulence at takeoff

Joseph Rey Au file photo

In Frankfort on November 5, 2003, then Governor-elect Ernie Fletcher savored his victory and the GOP's return to the Capitol.More photos

Part 2 | Management style needs savvy, some sayPart 1 | Signs of political inexperience evident in campaignWeb site pushes Rogers for governorDon't try Fletcher, his attorneys argueJudge meets with grand jurorsPart 3 | GOP critics see little hope for second term

FRANKFORT — In his most candid speeches, Gov. Ernie Fletcher has occasionally slipped down memory lane to reveal how he fell into politics on one cold January night in 1994.

At that time, Fletcher had pledged to Republican Party leaders that he would run for a Lexington state House seat if they couldn't find anyone else to do it. On the eve of the candidate filing deadline, Fletcher got the call.

"I rolled over in bed and I asked Glenna ... 'We made a commitment. Are you with me?' And she said 'Yes,'" Fletcher recalled before a crowd of Republicans last month.

"I really did not have a focus of getting into politics," added the doctor and former fighter pilot, engineer and lay minister.

Fletcher has often painted himself as a reluctant politician whose interest in public service and conservative beliefs have lifted him from the state House to Congress to the governor's office — the holy grail for Kentucky Republicans that had eluded the party for three decades.

But in the 31 months since breaking that drought, Fletcher has found himself plagued with public relations disasters, embroiled in a legal mess over improper state hirings and largely abandoned by many Republican Party leaders and strategists who worked hard to help him succeed.

Ironically, the same political navet that he touted to show he was a reform-minded outsider during his successful 2003 campaign may have become his biggest weakness once in office.

Former campaign and administration officials and Republicans — through dozens of interviews conducted across Kentucky and in Washington, D.C. — say Fletcher never embraced and often eschewed strategy and political considerations.

That has sometimes blinded him to potential pitfalls — most notably the seriousness of the investigation into state hiring practices that led to a grand jury indicting him in May on three related misdemeanor charges.

"Navet in politics is a sin," Jack Richardson IV, the Jefferson County Republican chairman said recently before calling on Fletcher to give up on seeking re-election. "To come into office and think it's not going to be rough and tumble and to be unprepared for that is wrong."

In retrospect, as early as the 2003 campaign there were signs that Fletcher might struggle with the political nuances and strategic thinking demanded by the job.

He was slow to realize the gravity of a legal challenge to his first running mate's eligibility. By the time he made it through the primary, his chief political operatives had left the campaign.

And Fletcher never quite established firm relationships with many long-time state party loyalists, who wanted so badly to be a part of a successful, historic GOP campaign for governor.

Faith-oriented

Those who have worked with Fletcher say two parts of his background have given him a singular focus, which often obscures his political peripheral vision: his training as a doctor and his spirituality.

"People don't understand how faith-oriented he is," said businessman Jim Host, Fletcher's former commerce secretary who still works with Fletcher on certain projects. "He has such deep-seated faith and so much belief that what he's doing is right that he doesn't have any worry about who attacks him or why they attack him."

Once a Baptist lay minister, Fletcher continues even today to assert that criticism of his job performance is mere static.

"One thing that people can legitimately criticize is that I picked the right thing to do for Kentucky, not the politically expedient thing," he said last weekend. "And I will continue to do that because I think it will move the state forward."

Fletcher tends to dissect problems clinically, said former Kenton County Judge Executive Dick Murgatroyd, who served as Fletcher's deputy chief of staff until last September.

"He's a straight-on, no-nonsense kind of guy," Murgatroyd said. "He's a typical doctor, I guess. He's so focused on really trying to get things done. Politics do get in the way sometimes."

That detached way of thinking also plays into his approach toward people, Host said.

"If you're used to dealing with sick people and you see 10 in one day, you don't get emotionally attached in there — because if you do you can't be a doctor," he said. "You must separate yourself."

Connecting and reading people, however, remains an essential skill in politics.

"I really like him as a human being. I just wish to the dickens he was better politically," Host said. "Maybe some people aren't destined to be that way."

Becoming a player

Until his inauguration as governor, Fletcher's political career did have an air of destiny.

Two years after winning that 1994 state legislative race, the House restructured its districts, which would have pitted Fletcher against his friend and fellow GOP Rep. Stan Cave, who now serves as his chief of staff.

So Fletcher ran for Congress, barely winning the GOP primary but falling to incumbent Democrat Scotty Baesler that fall.

It was his only losing political campaign to date.

In 1998, he assigned trusted aide Daniel Groves to head his congressional campaign.

Fletcher's win that fall and re-election victories in 2000 and 2002 distinguished him as someone to watch in Kentucky politics.

And from that point, Groves became a fixture in Fletcher's operation and one of a select few close advisers.

Tapped for governor

Winning a seat in Congress was one thing. Winning the governorship, a position that had eluded Republicans since 1967, was quite another.

Fletcher's campaign, with its consistent message and bumpy relationships with certain Republicans, foreshadowed problems to come.

Early in 2002, Kentucky's political universe began realigning in preparation for the '03 governor's race. That was when U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell brought Fletcher into his Senate hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol and, as McConnell later told the Courier-Journal, formally asked Fletcher to consider running. The request signalled not only the senator's support but also access to his statewide fund-raising and political operation.

"And Ernie was a very logical choice within our delegation to run," Republican Congressman Ron Lewis said recently, noting that Fletcher had the least seniority in the delegation to give up. "He'd served in our state legislature. He had done very well in his campaigns. It seemed like Ernie would make a good candidate."

Fletcher again turned to Groves to run his campaign. He also brought in Wes Irvin, a congressional communications director for both Fletcher and Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine. And he assembled a young staff of mostly campaign neophytes.

The Republican game-plan was to play upon the campaign strengths of McConnell and state Senate President David Williams to compensate for Fletcher's lack of statewide exposure and campaign experience.

Williams was the only senior official to publicly back Fletcher in the primary.

Still, statewide candidates in Kentucky must reach out to local elected officials and party leaders, who often run their own political networks. Those organizations with their grassroots energy and army of volunteers take on a heightened importance in a governor's race.

Making those connections for Fletcher largely fell to two operatives, Scott Jennings and Vincent Fields, as well as to Groves.

Fields, who has roots in Eastern and Southern Kentucky, laid the groundwork in that half of the state, while Jennings, who campaigned for McConnell in Western Kentucky, worked the other.

The running mate

The first big choice for Fletcher in the fall of 2002 was to select a running mate from a short list of elected officials.

But McConnell and others privately suggested tapping Hunter Bates, McConnell's former chief of staff who was largely unknown around Kentucky.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Fletcher leaked Bates' selection to the media, surprising even many of Fletcher's campaign staff.

That decision would lead to Fletcher's first major test as a statewide candidate. It also revealed the first signs of Fletcher's inability to grasp the gravity of certain political quandaries.

On a snowy February 2003 campaign stop in Owsley County, Bates received a call from the clerk in Whitley County — his home area — asking about his absentee voting.

Bates lived in Northern Virginia while working for McConnell in Washington. His residency had suddenly come into question.

One of Fletcher's Republican primary opponents, state Rep. Steve Nunn — son of the last Republican governor, Louie Nunn — asked the courts to determine whether Bates had been a Kentucky resident for the five previous years, as required by law.

But Fletcher, still a congressman, showed more concern about missing votes in Congress than the threat posed by the lawsuit. Some aides tried to convince him to stay in Kentucky to address the legal challenge rather than shuttling back and forth to Washington so much.

Fletcher didn't listen, underestimating the severity of the matter.

Then things got worse. An Oldham County judge ruled in March that Bates didn't meet the residency requirements. Bates dropped off the ticket a month before the primary.

Shortly thereafter, U.S. Attorney Steve Pence — another little-known Republican with McConnell ties — stepped forward to take Bates' place.

Trouble within

The turmoil took a toll on the morale of Fletcher's campaign staff. Fletcher brought in Wayne Smith, longtime pastor at Southland Christian Church, to give a pep-talk.

Sternly, Fletcher told his aides to buck up. "Don't ever lose sight of what we're trying to do," he told them.

Next, Fletcher reassessed his staff, asking Lexington homebuilder and top supporter Don Ball and Anderson County developer Dave Disponett to poll the aides about concerns.

Several expressed frustration with campaign manager Groves. Local party officials grumbled that they had limited access to Fletcher and that Groves ignored their advice. The ego-stroking needed to build a political base just wasn't happening.

Fletcher adamantly defended Groves, who was sticking to a disciplined campaign plan. Instead of replacing Groves, Fletcher ended up losing his field coordinators, his political eyes and ears.

Jennings and Fields, Fletcher's conduits to the important network of county chairmen, soon moved to the Republican Party, leaving Fletcher without his own political operation.

Throughout the summer, Fletcher plowed on, reiterating his desire to "clean up the mess in Frankfort." By October, he had soared to an eight-point lead in the polls.

Relations with party officials, however, remained somewhat strained. But a few longtime strategists such as Terry Carmack — Louisville Congresswoman Anne Northup's chief of staff — and McConnell gave advice through semi-regular conference calls.

On election night, supporters descended upon Lexington's Marriott Griffin Gate to celebrate Fletcher's 10-point victory over Democrat Ben Chandler. Republicans elbowed one another for access to Fletcher.

As the victory began to sink in, mixed emotions bubbled up for some who had spent the last year campaigning for Fletcher. They had successfully lifted up their candidate — but at what cost?

Coming up

Today

Fletcher's intuition is tested on the campaign trail

Monday

Fletcher struggles with the politics of governing

Tuesday

Republicans' unease puts re-election in doubt

Reach Ryan Alessi at (859) 231-1303 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1303, or ralessi@herald-leader.com.

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