Politics & Government

Kentucky gubernatorial campaigns say religion isn't an issue

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, left, Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams, center, and independent gubernatorial candidate Gatewood Galbraith
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, left, Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams, center, and independent gubernatorial candidate Gatewood Galbraith

FRANKFORT — All three campaigns in this year's race for governor and lieutenant governor say none should try to make an issue of any opponent's religious affiliation.

They also say their campaign would denounce any person or group that tries to make religious affiliation an issue in the race.

Their stances come as former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson apparently is the first person of the Jewish faith in Kentucky to run for the office of lieutenant governor. He is running with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who is seeking re-election.

Lexington attorney Jonathan Miller apparently was the first Jew to run for governor of Kentucky, where more than 70 percent of the population is Protestant and less than 0.5 percent is Jewish. Miller dropped out of the 2007 Democratic primary election to endorse Beshear.

Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams said he does not think it appropriate to campaign against someone based on his or her religion, "and my campaign will not engage in that activity."

Williams, president of the state Senate since 2000 and a Burkesville attorney, said about the role of religion in the race: "It is up to each individual voter to decide what is important to them personally."

Williams, who is a member of the Burkesville United Methodist Church but regularly attends other Christian churches, is running on a ticket with Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, a Christian whose home church is Frankfort's Capitol City Christian Church.

Beshear, who attends Crestwood Christian Church in Lexington and is a Disciples of Christ Christian, said he opposes discrimination in any form, "and would oppose anyone or any group that tried to make an issue of any candidate's religion."

Abramson decided not to comment on the topic, saying Beshear's comments addressed the subject.

Lexington attorney Gatewood Galbraith, who is trying to get enough signatures to run this fall as an independent candidate for governor, said he does not expect religious affiliation of any of the candidates to be an issue in the race.

He is a Catholic. His running mate, Frankfort political consultant Dea Riley, is a non-denominational Christian. Neither has a home church, but their campaign said both candidates have attended a number of different churches.

Williams claims Beshear already has injected religion into the race by mentioning it in his political advertisements.

He said he is referring to Beshear's first TV ad for the November election in which Beshear identifies his father and grandfather as "preachers."

The Rev. Hershael York, senior pastor of Frankfort's Buck Run Baptist Church with a membership of about 900, said when he first saw the Beshear TV ad, "My response was God has no grandchildren.

"Maybe a better metaphor for Beshear is that his relatives were funeral directors."

York said he applauds the policy of the three campaigns to speak out against religious discrimination.

"On the personal level, I think most voters want to know everything about a candidate. They really want to see integrity. Pro-life is very important to me," he said. "If Jerry Abramson were conservative and pro-life, I would endorse him."

David Howard, associate pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington with about 3,000 members, said it's more important for him "to see how a candidate's faith is lived out than what he says his faith is. I mainly want to find integrity."

Rabbi Marc Aaron Kline said he's not sure what a candidate's religious faith has to do with his or her political capabilities.

"I think we're seeing too many candidates use religion as a marketing tool," he said.

Lexington attorney Larry Forgy, a Republican who lost the 1995 governor's race against Democrat Paul Patton, said the only reason Beshear picked Abramson to be his running mate was "to attract New York and Hollywood Jewish money" for the campaign.

"There's no other reason why to pick a big-city, liberal mayor to run for lieutenant governor in a rural, conservative state like this," Forgy said.

Rabbi Kline said Forgy's comments are "the most bigoted I've heard so far in this campaign."

Miller called Forgy's remarks "absurd and offensive. Jerry Abramson is one of the most qualified candidates ever for lieutenant governor. Forgy is playing on stereotypes that rich Jewish folks run the country."

Miller said his Jewish faith never came up in his bids for public office.

"I thought in 1998 when I ran for Congress that it might be an issue, but it wasn't."

Miller also said he's glad the campaigns say they won't make it an issue.

"It's good to get that out in the open right now before it becomes a big whisper campaign," he said.

The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John E. Kleber, says recorded instances of violence involving anti-Semitism in Kentucky are rare, but the state has shown an undercurrent of hostility and prejudice against Jews.

In the 1920s, some classified newspaper ads for jobs in the state said Jews and Catholics need not apply.

Louisville Jewish Hospital was founded in 1905 because Jewish physicians were not admitted to the staffs of other hospitals.

Miller said he could recall his parents being excluded from a Lexington country club because of their faith.

Voters do pay attention to candidates' religion, but campaigns are wise to say faith will not be an issue in a race, said University of Louisville political science professor Laurie Rhodebeck.

She said that is particularly true in light of last year's controversy when Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jack Conway ran a TV ad now referred to as "Aqua Buddha," which dealt with Republican Rand Paul's college days.

Paul, who won the race, criticized it for questioning his Christian faith.

Voters do pay attention to religious affiliation of candidates, but it hasn't been a big issue in Kentucky because most candidates have been Christian, said Joe Gershtenson, director of the Kentucky Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement at Eastern Kentucky University.

Gershtenson said he does not think Abramson's Jewish faith will be an issue in the race this year. "But if he were at the top of the ticket, that could be different."

Western Kentucky University political science professor Joe Lasley agreed.

"We've been seeing some news stories about the lieutenant governor candidates, especially Richie Farmer, but when the race takes full force, the attention will be on the candidates for governor," Lasley said.