Politics & Government

Special House election could be preview for next year's races across state

Kentucky House's 56th District candidate Republican Lyen Crews
Kentucky House's 56th District candidate Republican Lyen Crews

FRANKFORT — The top Democrat and Republican in the state House of Representatives stop short of calling the outcome of the June 25 special election in Central Kentucky a precursor to next year's elections.

They don't want to look too worried for next year if their man should lose the 56th House District race that has turned nasty.

But House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, acknowledged that the special election would be a boost to whichever party wins it.

Republicans next year hope to gain control of the 100-member House for the first time since 1920. Democrats shudder to think that the House could go GOP along with the state Senate. Democrats now have a majority of 54 to 45 in the House, with the one vacant seat to be filled June 25.

The fight for control of the House is giving the race a lot of attention by leaders in both parties.

Candidates in the special election are Democrat James L. Kay II, Republican Lyen Crews and independent John-Mark Hack. All three are from Woodford County, all of which is in the district, along with parts of Fayette and Franklin counties.

It tilts Democratic in registration — 18,141 Democrats to 10,403 Republicans and 2,261 listed as "other."

Kay is facing scrutiny from his opponents for his youth — he's 30; speeding tickets — 11 in the last 11 years; and whether he has misrepresented his status as an attorney.

Crews is having to deal with questions about his performance as financial officer in two major Woodford County financial disasters — the cash-strapped former Woodford Memorial Hospital and Midway College's costly failure to build a pharmacy school in Paintsville.

Hack is being attacked by both sides.

Best known for his roles as a chief agricultural aide in the administration of Gov. Paul Patton and a vocal opponent to expanded gambling for "Say No to Casinos," Hack thinks he has a good chance of winning the race, though he lags far behind in campaign funds.

The latest campaign finance reports from the candidates are due Monday.

Ones filed last month showed Kay with an early fundraising advantage at $91,745. Crews reported $49,210 and Hack $6,002. Crews has been helped in recent weeks by more than $140,000 being spent by an independent political action committee, Republican State Leadership Committee, from Washington, D.C.

The GOP group has been running a TV ad calling Kay and Hack "liberals."

On the issues, all three candidates speak often about jobs, tax reform, education and the economy.

It's the controversies that are fueling this race.

Kay does not deny that he has gotten 11 speeding tickets since 2002. "This race is not about my speeding tickets," he said.

Republicans hope to make it an issue, especially a ticket Kay got in May 2010 in Scott County for driving 94 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone.

Some mailers and a website have popped up that show a mug shot of Kay with the word "arrest" and date. It does not specify the reason for the arrest.

Republicans also are contending that Kay misrepresented himself as an attorney when he was arrested because his release form, after he posted $100 bond, listed his occupation as "lawyer."

They note that Kay had graduated from the University of Kentucky law school in 2009 but did not pass the state bar exam until July 2011.

Kay said he was not successful in passing the entire exam on two earlier occasions.

Kay maintains that he has never misrepresented himself as an attorney. He said when he was arrested in May 2010 he had simply told the officer he had graduated from law school.

Republicans have tried to exploit Kay's youth with a mailer that shows him dressed in a yellow jockey's outfit. "This jockey's a joke," it says.

Kay said it was a costume for a Halloween party.

Concerning his age, Kay noted that Gov. Steve Beshear was 29 when he joined the state House. Speaker Stumbo said he was 28. The state Constitution requires that a state representative be at least 24 at the time of the election.

Meanwhile, Democrats are raising questions about Crews' work at Woodford Memorial Hospital and at Midway College from March 2000 to earlier this year when he took a job with eCampus in Lexington.

At Woodford Memorial from 1994 to 1997, Crews, the chief financial officer, was responsible for the hospital's assets. Its budget was $9 million to $11 million.

Before he arrived at the hospital, Crews said, it did not have enough revenue and doctors to stay in operation and was not billing and collecting for services it provided.

"It was bleeding money," he said.

Crews said he tried to get control of the expenses.

In 1999, the hospital's chief executive officer, Nancy Littrell, who had hired Crews, was dismissed. In 2002, she was acquitted of one count of felony theft involving accusations that she grossly overstated her mileage expenses.

In 2003, Littrell averted a trial on another theft charge by agreeing to pay $3,400 toward indigent health care and performing 200 hours of community service.

Crews said he went to Littrell about her expenses but she told him they were legitimate. He also said he went to the hospital board with concerns about Littrell's expenses, and it formed a committee to investigate.

"The board probably did what it did from a public policy stand but not a fiduciary stand," he said.

Crews was never accused of doing anything improper.

Crews said he decided to leave Woodford Memorial and went to work for Georgetown Community Hospital as its chief financial officer.

Crews said he is not surprised his political opponents are trying to connect him with Woodford Memorial's financial problems.

"But I can't think of anything I could have done with the powers I had to make the hospital work any better than it did in my time there," he said. "Maybe my powers of persuasion with the board as a whistleblower weren't great enough."

Littrell could not be reached for comment. Several members of the old hospital board declined to comment.

Crews joined Midway College in March 2000 as vice president for business and financial affairs. During his tenure there, the college failed to bring a pharmacy school to Eastern Kentucky.

A couple had pledged $13 million to the project, but all the money did not materialize as the college ran into various difficulties in getting accredited.

The project died after the college had spent $1 million to $2 million on it.

Crews said the project failed "not from a financial perspective. It failed from an operational perspective. Those that know education know that accreditation is the ultimate license to do business. It doesn't matter how good your finances are if your academic side is not up to it."

William "Butch" Drake, who was president of Midway at the time, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment about Crews' involvement in the project.

Over the weekend, Kay's campaign started a TV ad critical of Crews.

It shows Crews' photo with a graphic that reads, "2 + 2 = 5," and says, "We just can't afford Lyen Crews' record of failure" and he "doesn't add up."

While the ad tries to link Crews with the financial problems, it does not implicate Crews in wrongdoing at Woodford Memorial and Midway College.

Both political parties are attacking Hack.

In mailers last week, Republicans distributed one that said, "James Kay and John-Mark Hack, Two Peas in a Pod."

A Democratic mailer said, "Lyen Crews and John-Mark Hack, Two Right-Wing Peas in a Pod."

"How absurd," said Hack, who has called on both parties to focus more on issues.


Lyen Crews

Date of Birth: Dec. 17, 1961

Residence: Versailles

Occupation: Financial adviser for eCampus in Lexington

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in accounting with honors, University of Kentucky

Elective Office: Lost bid for state House in 2010.

Family: Married

Website: www.lyencrews.com

John-Mark Hack

Date of Birth: Aug. 12, 1966

Residence: Woodford County

Occupation: Partner in Marksbury Farm Market and executive of Local Food Association, a trade group.

Education: Bachelor's degree in political science from Transylvania University and master's from UK in cultural anthropology and a minor in agricultural economics.

Elective Office: First bid for public office.

Family: Married

Website: www.jmhack.org

James L. Kay II

Date of Birth: Nov. 11, 1982

Residence: Versailles

Occupation: Attorney, worked on House Speaker's staff earlier this year.

Education: Law degree from University of Kentucky.

Elective Office: First bid for public office.

Family: Single

Website: www.votejameskay.com