Politics & Government

Race for governor is stuck in neutral

FRANKFORT - Never before has a race for governor in Kentucky taken so long to get started.

Top contenders for the Democrats continue to meet and openly ponder running. But so far, only Otis Hensley of Harlan County, who ran a limited campaign in 2003, has turned in paperwork and the required $500 fee to the secretary of state's office to run next year.

Even the incumbent, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, has been slow to get into campaign mode. He has raised more than $1 million and hired two outside consultants, but he hasn't hired a campaign manager or even filed his official papers for his re-election bid.

The official deadline to get in the fray is only 64 days away. And the primary election for both parties is just 25 weeks from Tuesday.

So it seems the approach prospective candidates have taken to this race -- particularly on the Democrats' side -- is the equivalent of a NASCAR team waiting until the flag is about to drop to check the tires and pick a driver.

It's as if Kentucky's signature political event is being put off, like taking out the trash or eating Brussels sprouts.

"If I were going to run for governor, I would have announced by now," said State Sen. Ray Jones, a Pikeville Democrat.

"Because I think whoever gets out first is going to have to be considered the front-runner -- if Congressman Chandler doesn't run," he said. Chandler's on-again, off-again flirtation with the race has helped keep the Democratic field in a state of suspended animation.

In the past, candidates began laying the groundwork months or even years before their party's primary. Businessman Wallace Wilkinson, for instance, travelled the state for two years before winning the Democratic nomination and governorship in 1987. He used that prep time to set up a network of supporters and stoke frustration among Western Kentucky voters, who felt they had been ignored by the powers in Frankfort.

This time, the field remains so uncertain and wide open that 37-year-old Louisville lawyer Jack Conway and 39-year-old state Treasurer Jonathan Miller -- who were being mentioned as possible running mates for a gubernatorial candidate a couple months ago -- are now talking about taking the leap themselves because, well, why not?

Chandler, who lost to Fletcher by 10 percentage points in 2003 as the Democrats' nominee, is at the center of this waiting game.

Long considered the party's front-runner if he made the race, Chandler was thought to be out after the Democrats took control of the U.S. House on Nov. 7. But in a surprise development last week, Chandler acknowledged that he was still seriously mulling the governor's race.

"I, for one, would like to see Congressman Chandler announce his position," said Jones, the state senator. "But on the other hand, I understand that it's a tremendous, tremendous decision to make."

Former Gov. Brereton Jones, another big-name Democrat thought to be a favorite for the party's nomination, had said for months that Democrats needed to get into the governor's race "immediately" after the 2006 election.

Nearly three weeks after that passed, Jones, who was governor from 1991 to 1995, said he's somewhat concerned about losing valuable time. Still, he said, it's important to give Chandler first crack at the race.

"I think certainly we should do it sooner rather than later," Jones said in an interview. "But these are difficult decisions to make. Congressman Chandler is trying to do what's right."

Jones said Democrats could be helped if Republican businessman Billy Harper of Paducah forces Fletcher to spend seven figures of campaign cash in a GOP primary fight.

"If we're united as a Democratic Party, we can fall in line," Jones said.

It's likely that there will be competition for the Democratic nomination.

Former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry continues to insist that he's on the verge of formally declaring he's in.

"I think there's a pretty clear picture. Steve Henry is going to run. And Steve Henry will beat Ernie Fletcher," Henry said last week.

Henry, however, said he hasn't formally asked anyone to be his running mate yet. Several Democrats only recently "became eligible because they were involved in some fairly competitive races" this fall, he noted.

State Sen. Ed Worley of Richmond won re-election and is reportedly on Henry's short list, along with Sens. Joey Pendleton of Hopkinsville and Dorsey Ridley of Owensboro.

Henry said he's surprised and perplexed by what he considers to be indecision on the part of other Democrats thinking about running.

"Either you want to be governor and have a vision or you don't," he said. "One potential candidate mentioned to me four different offices he could run for. That's not what we need."