Politics & Government

Political newcomers battle for open state House seat in south Lexington

Robert Benvenuti, left, and Reginald Thomas
Robert Benvenuti, left, and Reginald Thomas

Voters in the 88th Kentucky House district in southern Fayette County will send someone new to Frankfort in January.

State Rep. Bill Farmer, a popular Republican, is retiring after five terms because his rheumatoid arthritis complicates his commute to the state Capitol. The men vying to replace him — Republican Robert Benvenuti, 46, and Democrat Reginald Thomas, 59 — both are lawyers who say state government needs big changes. But they fundamentally disagree on what to change.

Benvenuti wants a smaller, cheaper government scaled back to essentials, though he hasn't identified which programs or services he would eliminate beyond saying "we can't be all things to all people." Thomas wants a bigger, stronger government that raises money from new taxes on services and businesses to fund better public schools and universities.

Benvenuti wants tort reform to limit damages won in lawsuits; Thomas calls such proposals "closing the courthouse doors to people who have been hurt." Ben venuti favors public vouchers so children can attend private schools; Thomas said vouchers would drain resources from public schools. Ben venuti says the state pension system is unsustainable and should follow a defined-contribution model, like 401(k) accounts, excepting police and firefighters; Thomas says that would penalize public workers who deserve secure retirements, but he leaves hanging the system's nearly $20 billion unfunded liability.

Both candidates agree the Nov. 6 election presents a clear choice for the 88th House District, which includes south Lexington neighborhoods along Man o' War Boulevard, from Tates Creek Road on the west to Winchester Road on the northeast, extending south along Richmond Road to the Madison County line.

The district holds slightly more Democratic voters (16,307) than Republicans (15,087), with 3,243 independents. Farmer, the retiring incumbent, said it's "a mostly white-collar district, where most people work and they don't want state government to bother them. When they have to interact with government, they want it to be fast, clean and efficient."

Farmer has endorsed Benvenuti, his fellow Republican, praising the newcomer for his past stint as inspector general of the Kentucky Health and Family Services Cabinet. Benvenuti has a record of advocating transparency, Farmer said. For instance, Benvenuti wrote a 2007 report on child protection urging more openness in juvenile court proceedings.

"He understands how government is supposed to work," Farmer said.

Democrats say the seat is a possible pickup for them, arguing that Farmer was a moderate Republican in an evenly divided district. The Kentucky House Democratic Caucus has given Thomas $20,000 in campaign funds; Gov. Steve Beshear has arranged for the Kentucky Democratic Party to give Thomas $10,000 more from his own leftover 2011 election money. As of Oct. 10, Thomas held a fund-raising lead of $78,528 to Benvenuti's $57,205.

"This race is a toss-up, but it's winnable," said state Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "Reggie Thomas is a hardworking candidate. He was out there knocking on doors in his neighborhoods when it was 104 degrees. I'll tell you, honestly, I wouldn't want him running against me."

Reginald Thomas

Thomas, born in Chicago, moved to Lexington at the age of 14 following the death of his father, a public school teacher. His mother was a Lexington native, he said in a recent interview, and she didn't want to raise two children by herself in "the crime-ridden south side of Chicago."

After graduating from Bryan Station High School in 1971, Thomas pursued his education in New England — an undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College, a law degree at Harvard University — and returned to Lexington to start his legal career. Today, he owns a solo law practice, and he's a professor of criminal justice and business law at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.

This is Thomas' first run for political office, but he has served for years on many public boards, including those of Commerce Lexington, Bluegrass Community and Technical College, Actors Guild of Lexington and the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice. He also has been appointed to civic committees working for the Fayette County Public Schools and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

"I have always had a commitment to Lexington and to making it the best place it can be," Thomas said.

He praises Beshear, the Democratic governor who has led Kentucky through rounds of state budget cuts during a weak economy. For the most part, he said, Beshear has protected funding for K-12 schools, which is appropriate since education is a top priority. However, the University of Kentucky and other state colleges are suffering as their state appropriations fall, forcing tuition increases and the loss of campus programs and jobs, he said.

"We are getting to a point where college is becoming unaffordable for Kentuckians," Thomas said. "That has a chilling effect on people who are trying to join the middle class.

"It's also slowing down the economic engine that UK is for Lexington," he said. "They've had layoffs, they're supposed to have more layoffs. That's going in the wrong direction. UK and other universities are a big source of job creation for America. We need to be supporting them."

Thomas said tax-reform plans under discussion by the legislature should lead to a sales tax on services and more revenue raised by business taxes, which could help pay for better education. He also supports casino gambling at horse racetracks, with the state's share to be split between assistance for the horse industry and causes including a "one-time bonus" to thank Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans for their military service.

Robert Benvenuti

Benvenuti, a New Jersey native, moved to Lexington in 1984 to attend UK. He never left. He attended UK law school and became a specialist in the Byzantine world of health care regulations, working at different times for Central Baptist Hospital, UK HealthCare and the law firm Stites & Harbison.

Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher hired him in 2004 as inspector general at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. That made Benvenuti — and his staff — responsible for licensing health care, long-term care and day-care facilities and investigating waste, fraud and abuse at the cabinet and its many vendors, clients and partners.

One of the biggest headaches on his watch was Oakwood, a state-run facility for mentally disabled adults in Somerset. Looking into reports of patient abuse and neglect by staff, Benvenuti recommended that Oakwood's license be revoked. He was overruled by his superiors, although Oakwood eventually was turned over to new managers.

At the end of 2006, Benvenuti and two cabinet colleagues, Jeffery Barnett and Wesley Butler, incorporated a law firm to specialize in health care. They resigned their state posts in early 2007. As a lawyer, Benvenuti continues to interact with the government, but from the other side of the table. In 2008, for example, he represented a Louisville ophthalmologist who agreed to pay $461,893 to settle Medicare billing fraud allegations.

Bernie Vonderheide, an advocate for nursing home reform, said Benvenuti "did a workmanlike job" as inspector general, but he's troubled whenever government regulators "step through the revolving door" to join the industries they were supposed to police.

"It's worrisome because we have to know where your interests lie," Vonderheide said.

In a recent interview, Benvenuti said he and his partners have turned down clients who would pose a conflict of interest based on their cabinet backgrounds.

On the campaign trail, Benvenuti stresses a need for more transparency and accountability in state government. He also — unlike Thomas — wants the state to spend less.

"We must address spending. We have a more than $430 million debt-service liability in this state," Benvenuti said Oct. 6 at a League of Women Voters forum. "Think of the police officers, the child protective service workers, and all the other important functions of government that could benefit from that $430 million that we spend every year just because we have too much debt."

Benvenuti staunchly opposes "Obamacare," the federal Affordable Care Act, and he wants Kentucky to resist it at the state level. The legislature should not agree to the law's expansion of Medicaid, which serves the poor and disabled, he said. Kentucky already struggles to pay for its share of the $6 billion Medicaid program that covers about one-fifth of the state's population, he said.

Instead of the state spending $700 to $800 a month per person for Medicaid, it could give a fraction of that to people as premium subsidies they could use to afford private insurance, he said.

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