Politics & Government

Fletcher picks veteran strategist

FRANKFORT - Gov. Ernie Fletcher has hired veteran Republican campaign strategist Marty Ryall of Atlanta to manage his re-election efforts, which would first include surviving a GOP primary contest.

Ryall most recently helped elect Georgia's first Republican secretary of state last year. And he served as the Arkansas GOP chairman for a year before resigning amid financial problems at the party, although most of those issues pre-dated his tenure.

Still, Fletcher, who has been searching for a top campaign operative for several months, billed the hire as a momentum-building move to attract someone who played an active role in several "history-making" Republican campaigns.

"Marty brings just the right blend of talent, experience and enthusiasm we were looking for to launch this effort," Fletcher said in a statement yesterday.

Fletcher is attempting to become the first Kentucky Republican to be re-elected governor.

In addition to managing the successful 2006 campaign of Karen Handel to be the first Republican secretary of state in Georgia, Ryall also helped the late Paul Coverdell of Georgia become the first Republican to win re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1998. Also on Ryall's victory list is managing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's initial race for lieutenant governor, marking the first GOP candidate elected statewide in Arkansas in 20 years. Huckabee is considering a run for president.

Ryall, in a telephone interview, said, "Gov. Fletcher has a great story to tell about his accomplishments and records. We will be talking about those."

Ryall downplayed the special Franklin County grand jury's investigation that found abuses in hiring practices in the Fletcher administration and indicted Fletcher on three misdemeanors that later were dismissed.

"I think voters will appreciate his stewardship of the commonwealth and be eager to continue that progress, especially in the areas of jobs and health care," Ryall said. He said Fletcher "will stay in the race regardless of who gets in."

The filing deadline to run for governor is Jan. 30. So far, Paducah businessman Billy Harper has filed to challenge Fletcher in the GOP primary. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Anne Northup also is considering a run.

Ryall resigned his $79,000-a-year post as chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party in October 2003 at the same time four of the party's five other staff members were laid off or fired.

The Federal Election Commission was looking into fund-raising violations from the 2000 election then, and the party was going broke, according to articles in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Ryall didn't come on board as executive director of the party until 2001 and became chairman the next year.

"He had some mess to clean up," Chris Carnahan, Ryall's predecessor as the Arkansas Republican Party's executive director, said yesterday. "The governor (Huckabee) and his people who worked on his committee were the ones who were most responsible, in my mind, for the financial issues."

Carnahan said Ryall has a "keen political mind, and anyone who he's running against better watch out."

But former Arkansas GOP steering committee member and state Sen. Peggy Jeffries said she wasn't impressed by Ryall.

"Our experience in Arkansas was not what we had hoped. Under his watch, our party, which had been moving forward, began to crumble," she said, citing a lack of willingness to provide the FEC with financial information.

Ryall maintains that the FEC never raised any issues about financial problems while he was at the party and only resigned because the party was in such dire financial straits.

"Honestly, I've been over it in my head 100 times thinking what could have been different, other than not trying to be so ambitious in gearing up with a larger staff," he said.

Ryall plans to move to Kentucky this weekend but wouldn't say what he'll be paid.