Politics & Government

David Williams fighting 'bully' label in run for governor

Senate President David Williams
Senate President David Williams LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

State Sen. Julian Carroll was at a junk yard recently to buy a part for his farm truck when the man behind the counter had a question about one of Kentucky's highest-profile Republicans.

"Is David Williams as arrogant as he appears to be?"

"I said, 'Absolutely,'" said Carroll, a Frankfort Democrat and former governor who has locked horns with Williams, president of the state Senate since 2000.

There are those who argue Williams doesn't deserve the "Bully from Burkesville" label opponents have hung on him, but others say it's an apt description, at least some of the time.

It's an image he's trying to counter as he seeks the GOP nomination for governor with Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, a University of Kentucky basketball legend, as his running mate.

Williams faces Louisville businessman Phil Moffett and Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw in the May 17 primary.

Williams, 57, has raised far more money than his opponents, and polls have shown him leading the race. Anticipating a primary win, Williams directs most of his criticism at Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear on the campaign trail.

The picture that emerges of Williams in interviews with friends and foes — many of whom won't discuss him publicly — is of a very smart, politically adept leader, well-versed on issues and the workings of government, which has helped him stay atop the Senate for more than a decade.

He has a quick wit and can be affable and charming. He also can be blunt, autocratic and vindictive, people from both parties say.

After years of battles in Frankfort, many Kentuckians have a negative perception of Williams — something he hoped Farmer's celebrity would help counteract, observers said.

Williams argues unfair media coverage has contributed to his negative image.

Now, he has to sell himself to voters, not only through advertising but by meeting voters one on one, talking with local media and working through people who can vouch for him, Williams said.

"To be elected, people have to like you," he said after a campaign stop at a Georgetown restaurant last week. "People do not question my qualifications. They do not question my resolve. The issue is, will they like me enough?"

Road to power

Williams helped build his road to power.

His father had been an educator and coach before serving seven terms as county clerk in Cumberland County, introducing Williams to politics at an early age.

Williams, an attorney who had prospered during an oil boom in south-central Kentucky in the late 1970s and early 1980s, won a term in the state House in 1984 and then a state Senate seat two years later.

Republicans were badly outnumbered at the time, but gained ground through the 1990s.

By the summer of 1999, Democrats were down to a slim 20-18 edge, and there was lingering ill will from a coup two years before, when five of them joined with 17 Republicans to install Sen. Larry Saunders, D-Louisville, as president.

That summer, two Democrats, Dan Seum of Louisville and Bob Leeper of Paducah, switched their registration to Republican, saying they felt more in line with the party's conservative philosophy.

Williams helped persuade them to switch, giving the GOP a majority in the state Senate for the first time ever.

"I certainly give David all the credit that that happened," said state Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, who was in leadership at the time. "He is the smartest politician outside of Wendell Ford that I've ever been around."

Williams won the Senate's top job after the switch.

He has worked to hold GOP control of the chamber with him at the top, recruiting and campaigning on behalf of candidates, enforcing unity among Senate Republicans, and engaging in very public battles at times with other lawmakers and governors as he blocked or pushed legislation.

Republicans have extended their majority under his leadership.

"He has forever changed the debate in Frankfort," said Ellen Williams, former chair of the state Republican Party.

Thin skinned?

Some argue that Williams has been imperious, even vindictive, at times as Senate president, brooking no dissent and belittling or punishing those who disagreed with him.

In 2000, after then-Gov. Paul Patton said Williams had reneged on a pledge to support a gas-tax increase, Williams said Patton had been "mouthy drunk" during a meeting.

In 2002, Williams dumped three veteran Democrats from the Education Committee, saying they had been uncooperative, and threatened to censure another for comments he made in a speech.

This year, after Moffett and state Rep. Mike Harmon, R-Danville, announced their ticket for governor and lieutenant governor, Williams at first wouldn't shake his hand at an event and then told him he'd made a big mistake, Harmon said.

"I didn't take it that he was joking. He was very serious," Harmon said.

Later, at a UK basketball game, Williams told him if Moffett and Harmon won the primary, he'd make sure they lost in November, Harmon said.

Kathy Stein, a Lexington Democrat who served more than a decade in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2008, said Williams confronted her in the Capitol cafeteria several years ago about comments she made in a speech he didn't like.

Later, lobbyists told her the word was that any House bill with her name on it would have no chance in the Senate, Stein said.

Robert Pruden, a Bath County man who has lobbied in Frankfort on firearms issues, said he heard the same thing after Stein sponsored bills in 2002 and 2003 to clarify the wording on signs that ban concealed weapons on school grounds.

When he talked with a Republican senator about the measure, "He said, 'You made a mistake. Any bill that comes over here from Kathy Stein is dead,' " Pruden said.

Stein said Williams operates through intimidation.

"For someone who has been in politics as long as he has, he is remarkably thin-skinned," she said.

Others, however, said Williams had not penalized them after disagreements.

Richmond businessman Ed Worley, Democratic leader in the state Senate from 2002 to 2010, said he was always able to find common ground with Williams on legislative agendas, and that their disagreements never became personal.

Worley said Democratic senators were not slighted in budget allocations. Republicans may have gotten more for their districts, but the reverse was true under previous Democratic leaders, he said.

"You have to concede that whether you like the management style or you don't like the management style, that is a very, very long tenure that required support from somebody to stay there," Worley said of Williams.

Scott Brinkman, a former Republican House member from Louisville, said the bully label is unfair to Williams.

Brinkman said when he advocated for an insurance benefit for children with autism in 2010, Williams told him the Senate normally didn't support insurance mandates, but that he would back the measure because it would help families.

"That shows a side of David that is oftentimes not portrayed in the media," Brinkman said.

Williams said he doesn't retaliate against people for not agreeing with him, and that the disputes among lawmakers have been overblown.

"You read about when we don't have accord, but you don't read about the times we do have accord," he said.

Fiscal conservative?

Some observers think Williams' rhetoric of late hasn't matched his longer record.

Many viewed Williams as a moderate when he took over leadership of the chamber — a pragmatist who had worked well with majority Democrats and bucked his own party to vote for the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act, which came with a tax increase of more than $1 billion.

This year, Williams and Senate Republicans pushed proposals that could appeal to more conservative parts of the Republican base, including a tough law on arresting illegal immigrants; protection for posting the Ten Commandments; and a pushback against federal health care mandates and tougher environmental rules.

Williams also has touted his fiscal conservatism in the campaign, saying he stopped $1 billion in additional state debt and more than $300 million in additional taxes in 2010 alone.

It's true that he has fought many tax increases, but he has not been a doctrinaire no-new-taxes Republican.

He has gone along with tax increases at times, notably in 2009 with higher levies on cigarettes and alcohol as the state faced a gaping hole in the budget.

He also has supported spending and bonded debt for roads and other projects, including infrastructure in his district, such as a state-park lodge at Dale Hollow Lake and a $28-million expo center in Corbin that is named for him.

In the 2010 state budget, the Senate added more than $100 million to the state's debt for road projects than the Democratic-led House had proposed.

"The things he's saying and the things he's done are not the same thing," Carroll said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Floyd County, said he sees Williams as a moderate from a part of the state that understands government has a role in helping people overcome poor roads, lack of infrastructure and other problems.

As Senate president, however, Williams has to reflect the views of other Republican members, Stumbo said.

And he noted many politicians have moved to the right as the Tea Party has driven the debate over government spending the last couple of years.

"He's not the only guy in town who's echoing this message," Stumbo said.

Larry Forgy, a Republican warhorse who has differed with Williams in the past but supports him now, said Williams has moved with the political landscape.

"Political reality has moved to the right, and he's simply moved with it," Forgy said.

Williams said he voted for KERA because funding for schools was inequitable, and because he had seen in his own family the power of education to lift people financially.

He also said he believes in funding for projects such as roads, waterlines and schools that improve the quality of life and the potential for economic development.

However, he said he has been consistently pro-business and politically conservative on social and financial issues, working against tax increases and pushing to cut personal and corporate taxes.

Perceptions of him have changed, not his philosophy, Williams said.

"I feel like that if you look at the entire body of my work, especially since I've been the president of the Senate, that I have cut millions and millions and even billions of dollars worth of taxes," he said.

Williams said he plans to push for more tax cuts as governor to help create jobs.

Ideally, the tax structure would be revised from top to bottom. It would be good if corporate and personal income taxes could be eliminated in a move toward sales and consumption taxes, he said.

The state must also tackle a massive unfunded liability in the state-employee pension and other issues that hurt its economic competitiveness, he said.

'We need a governor'

On the campaign trail, Williams repeatedly accuses Beshear of allowing the state to drift during hard times without offering solutions, other than expanding gambling at racetracks and raising the school dropout age from 16 to 18.

Williams said Beshear has submitted budget proposals that were not responsible and refused to meet the cost-cutting goals lawmakers approved.

"I hadn't rather be governor than president of the Senate, but we need a governor," he said.

Critics contend it is Williams who has steadfastly blocked proposals that would benefit Kentucky's economy. Specifically, his stand against expanded gambling has infuriated many within the state's declining horse industry.

Williams' work in the Senate, they contend, is focused on staying in power instead of improving the state.

Williams and others disagree, noting that he has pushed measures such as reform of the penal code to cut prison costs, an overhaul of how Kentucky tests and educates students and improvements in adult education and literacy.

The knowledge, experience and political clout he's gained while pushing such measures in the Senate make him uniquely qualified to lead the state, he said.

"When this is all over, I don't want to look back on my life and say that I didn't offer people a choice, a different route to take," he said. "Because the route that they're on right now is not working."

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