Politics & Government

Party rejects Fletcher pick for committee

FRANKFORT -- Even after a personal appearance by Gov. Ernie Fletcher at a Republican meeting yesterday, party leaders rejected his choice -- and one of his most public advocates -- for a spot on the GOP's governing board.

Fletcher and his senior aides began making calls Wednesday urging members of the Republican Party's 54-member executive committee to elect former gubernatorial candidate and outspoken Fletcher-backer Larry Forgy onto the committee.

In a secret ballot vote at the party's state headquarters yesterday, the panel's members instead picked Stephen Huffman, the 30-year-old chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, who has become estranged from Fletcher since dropping off their re-election ticket in May.

"You would think that the governor would be able to get elected who he wanted," said Republican state Rep. Lonnie Napier of Lancaster, who is mulling his own run for governor.

It was only the latest blow to Fletcher delivered by his own party and came at a crucial time for the governor, who remains under indictment on misdemeanor charges related to the state hiring investigation.

Yesterday's rejection even spurred talk from the Fletcher camp that the governor could continue his re-election bid without help from the Republican Party structure that propelled him into office in 2003 as the first GOP governor in three decades.

Both Forgy and the governor's chief of staff Stan Cave attributed the loss to other "forces" within the party that have turned against Fletcher.

"We've been battling Democrats. But it seems clear now that part of the problem is that we've been battling certain segments of the Republican Party," said Cave.

When asked who might be part of such factions, Cave replied, "You'll have to figure that out."

Forgy implied that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell -- who was not present -- had a hand in his loss yesterday. He told a reporter he wanted to "congratulate Senator McConnell on a victory." But he declined to elaborate.

Cave said he considered yesterday's vote not a snub of Fletcher but an example of how the GOP "hierarchy" appears to be abandoning the governor.

"Certainly you'd rather have it, but the governor has an organization of his own. He can move forward with that organization independent of the party," Cave said. "It doesn't mean he doesn't have the support of the party. It just means there's a hierarchy that may not share the same values."

When asked if Fletcher might consider leaving his party to seek re-election as an independent -- similar to the moves of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman last week and of Kentucky state Sen. Bob Leeper of Paducah last year -- Cave said it "hasn't been discussed."

Pence, the lieutenant governor, said ignoring or sparring with party activists and leaders might not be wise: "What was it that brought us to these heights that we enjoy now? In my view it wasn't a breakaway mentality," he said. "But everyone has to do what they think is the right thing to do."

Fletcher vs. McConnell?

The Kentucky Republican Party has rebuffed Fletcher before. Last fall, Fletcher publicly called for the resignation of party chairman Darrell Brock Jr., who was one of his former aides indicted in the hiring case.

But Fletcher didn't lay any groundwork with the members of the executive committee and his effort failed without even getting a vote.

This time, Cave and Robbie Rudolph, Fletcher's running mate in next year's governor's race, both said that on Wednesday they began to call Republicans on the committee to urge them to support Forgy for the open seat on the executive committee.

That panel is the party's governing body, which acts like a board of directors.

Huffman, meanwhile, had been campaigning for more than a week. He sent committee members an Aug. 2 letter saying he would work with them "to ensure that our conservative ideas continue to grow under the plan that the architect of our party, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, set into motion years ago."

In an interview, he said he wasn't aware of anyone making calls on his behalf.

Pence, Huffman's boss, said by phone that he was "gratified" by the election outcome.

"That's what the party needs to do," he said. "I think Stephen Huffman represents the future of the party."

Rudolph said the effort by the governor's staff for Forgy wasn't aimed at blocking Huffman, who served as the scheduler for Fletcher's 2003 gubernatorial campaign.

"Stephen Huffman is a great guy," Rudolph said. "I'm just a big fan of Larry Forgy."

Forgy, who narrowly lost the 1995 governor's race to Democrat Paul Patton, has been a fierce defender of Fletcher on talk radio and in newspaper columns.

"If my presence on the committee is any kind of difficulty, I'm more than happy not to be on there," Forgy said after the vote. "I'm going to support the governor on a public context and not a party context."

Fletcher didn't mention Forgy or the executive committee election in a speech he gave before the vote. But Cave said later that Fletcher "absolutely supported" Forgy -- a personal friend and one of Fletcher's first political supporters.

'We'll continue'

Fletcher, in a surprise appearance, arrived at the GOP headquarters in Frankfort shortly before the 11:30 a.m. meeting with several of his top aides in tow.

In a 23-minute speech, he told the committee how he has been interested in enacting policies, not engaging in politics during his term.

"And it has cost us politically and personally," he said. "I know we've had our difficulties. I know we've had our problems. But believe me, this administration is staying focused."

Fletcher conceded that he didn't understand the power of the governor's office when he was first elected after serving 21/2 terms in Congress.

"I make more decisions in a day than I did in a year in Congress," Fletcher told the group.

Fletcher said later that the two standing ovations he received -- one at the start of his speech and one when he concluded -- confirm the support he still has.

Some prominent Republicans, however, have openly questioned his re-election chances in recent weeks.

And on Friday a judge ruled that the prosecution of Fletcher on three misdemeanor charges related to the state hiring inquiry could not go on while he was serving as governor. But the indictments continue to stand, a fact that is expected to be exploited in next year's election campaigns against him.

Also attending the meeting yesterday were two Republicans who have expressed interest in running against Fletcher.

Napier, the state representative from Lancaster who's mulling a run, said Friday's court ruling was "not good for the governor."

And Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who also is openly considering running, said he wants to see a more unified Republican Party.

But one committee member, Mary Lou Wright of Hardin County, addressed Napier and Grayson during the meeting, saying that anyone who wants to test the waters for governor should "stay at home, run your bath water and put your finger in it."

Fletcher, meanwhile, left the meeting with another pledge to keep going.

"Let us get through '06," he said. "And we'll continue in '07 because we are doing the right things."

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