FRANKFORT - While endorsing Anne Northup in the Republican primary for governor, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence yesterday criticized incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher for engaging in the same political "misconduct" that they ran against as a team in 2003.
Pence, who dropped off of Fletcher's re-election ticket last summer, repeatedly likened Fletcher's actions to the "good ol' boy" culture the two railed against while campaigning to "clean up the mess" in Frankfort.
"In 2003, what would our party's candidate for governor have said about a governor that had been indicted -- taken the Fifth Amendment -- and issued blanket pardons to his staff?" Pence asked. "In 2003, what would our party's candidate for governor have said about an administration that endeavored to punish those who dared to disagree with them?"
The strong criticism of Fletcher served to buttress Northup's main argument in this campaign: that the administration's political and ethical problems have made Fletcher unelectable.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Fletcher's campaign immediately fired back, calling Pence Kentucky's "Brutus."
"It is no surprise that the 'Brutus' of Kentucky politics has joined her negative campaign," said Fletcher campaign manager Marty Ryall. "She should hope there are no rough waters ahead, because Steve Pence will be the first one to jump ship."
He described Northup's campaign as a "negative rampage" against Fletcher and accused her of having "no ideas or agenda other than to tear down our first Republican governor in 32 years."
Pence, though, was unimpressed with Fletcher's response.
"He ought to find another analogy because things didn't work out well for Caesar," Pence said later. "You resort to name calling when you can't shore up your argument. But the question remains, what would the governor have made of this in 2003?"
Although not surprised by Pence's endorsement of Northup, given the publicly chilly relationship between the governor and lieutenant governor in recent months, University of Louisville political science professor Laurie Rhodebeck said the move damages Fletcher further.
"Things aren't going well for the governor," Rhodebeck said.
In an interview, Pence said he didn't initially plan on getting involved in the race once he decided not to run for another office this year, but was spurred to action by Fletcher's abuse of power.
"I think the governor's conduct in the last two months -- the threats to people who wouldn't support him, the use of taxpayer money to coerce peoples' support and his failure really to address the issues -- I couldn't sit back and watch," he said.
Fletcher has deflected comments about his political failings and an indictment during the state-hiring investigation by sticking to his message about the administration's accomplishments.
At last weekend's Monroe County Lincoln Day Dinner, for instance, Fletcher talked about his administration's strides in reforming the Medicaid program, distributing computers to low-income students and doling out record amounts of road funds to counties.
Larry Forgy, a Lexington attorney who has defended the governor, said Pence's endorsement made him "feel sympathy" for Fletcher. "It's like being bit by your own dog," he said.
Pence acknowledged that the administration has done some things well, but he said that's not enough, considering the message of "changing the culture in Frankfort" that Fletcher promised in his 2003 run for governor.
Pence said he didn't regret running with Fletcher. But he disagreed with the broad pardons Fletcher issued to his administration in August 2005 in response to the hiring investigation, as well as some of the actions Fletcher and his aides have taken recently.
Soon after Northup entered the governor's race, Fletcher's chief of staff, Stan Cave, called state Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, and criticized Farmer for backing Northup. And in the last month, Fletcher's office of local development has handed out $14 million to six counties whose local officials have publicly supported the governor's re-election bid.
"If we would have found that conduct unacceptable in 2003 -- and believe me, I was there, we would have -- then it is not acceptable in 2007," Pence said.
Pence also said it isn't right for the governor not to disclose donors to his legal defense fund, aimed at helping Fletcher pay his legal bills relating to the hiring investigation. That would mean "individuals who may give you money on Monday could get an appointment on Wednesday or get a contract on Thursday" without anyone seeing the link, Pence said.
Meanwhile, the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Billy Harper, a Paducah businessman, said Harper will leave the political infighting to Northup and Fletcher.
"This doesn't affect our campaign," said Sam Edelen, a spokesman for Harper. "We're going to continue talking about issues important to Kentuckians, such as education and economic development, rather than endorsements from politicians."
Northup said Pence's backing and his testimonials were a huge development because "he has a clear vision of what happened and what should have happened."
She said Fletcher's decision to take the Fifth Amendment, rather than testify before the grand jury investigating his administration's personnel practices in August 2005, sent the wrong message to Kentuckians.
"I ask you to compare that to the current president, when there was the Scooter Libby trial, whose top people went down there and testified, testified, testified," she said. "Kentuckians have said in every way they can, that (taking the Fifth Amendment) is not acceptable."
Northup said she "can't imagine I would" take the Fifth Amendment at any point in her administration.
"But I will promise you this: I would never run for re-election," she said. "You disqualify yourself to ask the voters to trust you."
Pence said, overall, Northup brings something "new and fresh" to the state.
"The Republican party must have a candidate who can get beyond the scandals of this investigation," he said. "We need a candidate who will have nothing to hide."