Sparks flew several times on Kentucky Educational Television's Kentucky Tonight on Monday as the three Republican candidates for governor debated how far state government should reach on certain issues, such as drug abuse and education.
The three are competing for the chance to run against incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear in November.
Kentucky Senate President David Williams, generally considered the frontrunner in the May 17 GOP primary, praised his opponents for offering themselves for public service. Williams pledged to support whoever wins the nomination.
However, Williams also jabbed at Louisville businessman Phil Moffett, leading the two men to argue and talk over each other during parts of the live program.
Asked about prescription drug abuse in Kentucky, Moffett, who calls himself the Tea Party movement candidate, said there isn't much the governor can do other than improve schools so people eventually are too smart to get addicted.
"Prescription drug abuse is going to be a hard thing to stop from a governmental perspective," Moffett said.
Williams replied, "I am a little suspect of the Libertarian tone you strike about the inevitability of drug addiction." Citing the usefulness of government programs, such as the prescription-tracking electronic database known as KASPER, Williams said, "I don't believe we should give up on any Kentuckian, Mr. Moffett."
Then Williams added, "The next thing you'll do is hang around with people getting arrested for selling synthetic marijuana."
That was a reference to a February raid by Lexington police of a Winchester Road store, The Botany Bay. The raid resulted in a half-dozen arrests on drug charges. The store's owners — Moffett campaign supporters who were in Washington, D.C., with him at the time of the raid — were charged with misdemeanor counts of trafficking in synthetic marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Moffett would not budge.
"The government needs to give people the greatest opportunity to succeed. But some people will fail, and the government can't do anything about that," Moffett said.
On public schools, Williams accused Moffett of labeling "every teacher and every school district" a failure, although many Kentucky schools are good, he said. Williams said Moffett favors an "unrealistic" plan to allow for easier student expulsion and open enrollment across school districts, so a Jefferson County student, if dissatisfied, could transfer to neighboring Oldham County.
"You're all hat and no cattle," Williams told Moffett. "You've never done anything to get involved with public life."
"You're kidding," Moffett shot back. He added: "You've never done anything like School Choice," a private school scholarship program for poor children that Moffett helped establish in 1998.
The third candidate, Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw, exclaimed, "Whooo!" Staying out of the fracas, she said, "I'm about negotiation, not confrontation."
When the candidates were asked to define their unique advantages, Holsclaw said she has a record of working with both political parties while managing a public office in Louisville; Moffett said he's a successful private businessman, not a "career politician"; and Williams cited his quarter-century in the legislature, including a decade running the Senate while battling Democratic governors and House speakers.
"I don't believe the governor's office is the place for on-the-job training," Williams said. "I believe the governor needs to be ready to go from the first day."
Moffett used Williams' lengthy tenure in Frankfort to criticize him, blaming him for the state's growing debt load during his Senate presidency. Williams said he has tried to revamp the state's troubled pension system and its outdated tax code, but he's been unable to get his ideas through the House.
On the question of legalizing casino gambling to help the state's horse industry, Holsclaw said she supports it and wants to see it put to voters on the ballot. Moffett and Williams do not.
Moffett said he's wary of the government getting involved in the gambling business because it simply would waste the money. He would not support a constitutional amendment for expanded gambling until his tax reform plan — replacing individual and corporate income taxes with an expanded sales tax — was approved, Moffett said.
Williams, who has opposed expanded gambling bills in the legislature, said that many Kentucky industries are ailing, not just the horse industry, and that he would not favor handing a lucrative monopoly on casinos to the state's racetracks.