Politics & Government

Palumbo and Westrom facing stiff opposition in Lexington state House races

Ruth Ann Palumbo, left, and Richard Marrs
Ruth Ann Palumbo, left, and Richard Marrs

FRANKFORT — Two longtime state Democratic lawmakers from Lexington are trying to survive a late push by Republican challengers hoping to unseat them in Tuesday's election.

Republicans appeared to gain traction in recent weeks with advertisements branding Democratic Reps. Susan Westrom and Ruth Ann Palumbo as tax-and-spend liberals. In response, Democrats have launched ads labeling Republicans Chris Logan and Richard Marrs as extreme right-wing conservatives.

Logan, a minister, is challenging Westrom, who was first elected in 1999 in south-central Lexington's 79th House District. Marrs, owner of an advertising agency, is challenging Palumbo, who was first elected in 1991 in northeast Lexington's 76th House District.

Republicans hope to capture the two seats as they attempt to topple the Democratic majority in the House. The GOP must pick up 10 seats this election cycle to gain control of the lower chamber for the first time since 1921.

The House Democratic caucus paid for a TV ad this week that was pulled from most of Lexington's broadcast stations after Republican lawyers claimed some of the statements in the ad were false.

Among other things, the ad claimed that Logan and Marrs do not support the horse industry and want to take money from the state's public school system. Democrats have since changed the ad, which no longer says the Republicans do not support the horse industry.

Steve Robertson, chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party, called the Democrats' ad an act of desperation. The fact that the ads were pulled and altered shows that the Democratic Caucus is running scared, he said.

"They are trying to throw anything against the wall to see if it sticks because they are desperate to retain power," Robertson said.

House Democrats said they stand behind the advertisement, pointing to surveys that Marrs and Logan have completed for various conservative groups that show they support charter schools, are against the expansion of casino gambling and believe abortion should be illegal in cases of rape and incest.

However, Marrs said in an interview this week that he would support a constitutional amendment allowing voters to decide whether the state's racetracks could have casino-style gambling. Logan said he does not support the expansion of gambling at horse tracks, but rejected the claim that such a stance means he doesn't support the equine industry.

Westrom and Palumbo have been vocal supporters of allowing casino-style gambling at the state's race tracks.

Marrs and Logan said they favor charter schools, although Logan said such non-traditional schools can be funded without taking money away from public schools. Westrom and Palumbo said they fear charter schools would take much-needed money away from cash-strapped public schools.

On abortion, Marrs and Logan confirmed that they oppose abortions, including in cases of rape or incest. They have been endorsed by Kentucky Right to Life. Westrom and Palumbo said they hold anti-abortion views but do not believe their beliefs should be imposed on others. They have voted against recent bills that would impose more restrictions on abortions.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Damron said Logan and Marrs have made extreme statements to conservative groups in order to get their support.

"If you take a position, you need to be held accountable for the position you took," Damron said. "You can't have it both ways."

Some of the attacks against Westrom and Palumbo have come from outside groups such as the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Super PAC based in Washington D.C., and the Kentucky Republican Party.

Charges that Westrom and Palumbo have supported tax increases and taxing pensions stem from their support of bills sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville. Wayne has filed bills for nearly a decade that would lower taxes for the poor, increase taxes on the wealthy and impose a tax on pensions.

Westrom and Palumbo have never voted for the bills, but said they have agreed to co-sponsor them because they want to show support for tax reform, a complicated issue that has been stymied for more than a decade in Frankfort. Both said they don't support all of the provisions in Wayne's bills, including a tax on pensions.

Robertson dismissed those claims, saying a lawmaker who co-sponsors a bill clearly supports its provisions.

"They signed their name to it," he said.

Palumbo also has been criticized for voting to increase taxes on cigarettes and some liquor in 2009. Palumbo said the change helped improve Kentucky's health and lowered the cost of medical care.

"I would vote to increase the cigarette tax again," she said.

Marrs and the Republican State Leadership Committee also have featured a house that Palumbo owns in their advertising. Palumbo was cited by the city in 2010 for failing to make necessary improvements to the house.

Some of Palumbo's neighbors had complained about the condition of the house in the upscale neighborhood and questioned why city code officials had not fined her after the house went without repairs for two years.

Palumbo said this week that renovations to the home are now complete and that it took so long to finish because of complications due to asbestos and lead paint.

Although Palumbo defeated Marrs in 2010 by about 20 percentage points, the negative tone to this year's race suggests a much closer contest.

Still, Palumbo said she has not done any negative campaigning against Marrs.

"I can't pretend to be one person in church and then walk out the door and be someone else," she said.

Meanwhile, a prominent Lexington Republican has filed a complaint with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance against Westrom, alleging that she did not properly disclose who paid for certain advertisements, including a billboard touting her on New Circle Road.

Carol Rogers, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Fayette County, said in the complaint that Westrom is required to disclose that her re-election committee paid for the ad.

Westrom said she has not seen the complaint. She said the billboard is the same advertisement she has used in previous elections.