LOUISVILLE — James Comer declared Friday morning that he doesn't "want the governor's race to be about gaming."
Within minutes, after Hal Heiner disputed that he and Comer have the same position on the issue, Comer appeared to change his tune.
Comer, the commissioner of agriculture, and Heiner, a former Louisville Metro councilman, were joined by retired Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott and Lexington Democrat Geoff Young at a gubernatorial forum sponsored by the Kentucky Press Association.
Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic favorite in the fall campaign, did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict and telling moderator Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, that he didn't want to debate the Republicans until they decide on a nominee in the May primary.
The Republican candidates largely agreed on the majority of policy issues: supporting the SOAR initiative, releasing a study on sexual harassment in the Legislative Research Commission, the vexing cost of Medicaid expansion and the need for transparent pension reform. For more than an hour, the only dissenting voice was Young's as he defended a single-payer health care system, accused U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of racism and encouraged Republicans to join Planned Parenthood.
The forum took a sharp turn in its closing minutes, however, after Comer said he didn't want expanded gambling to dominate this year's gubernatorial race as it has in the past. He said he and Heiner share the position that the legislature should allow Kentuckians to vote on the issue as a constitutional amendment.
Heiner challenged Comer, saying, "Casinos are not on my platform."
When he announced his candidacy in March 2014, Heiner said through his campaign manager that he had the same position on gambling as when he ran for Louisville mayor: that the people should decide. "I said if we have it in Kentucky, it should be by constitutional amendment and not legislative action," Heiner said Friday. "So if it comes, it would have to be by amendment."
Heiner also took issue with Comer's characterization that they share the same position by citing Comer's position as an honorary co-chairman of Kentucky Wins, a Louisville-based casino advocacy group, and by saying that Conway holds the same position. The chairmen and co-chairmen include a number of Democrats and Republicans.
Given time to respond to the remark, Comer said Heiner failed to mention "that he selected as a running mate the spouse of one of the biggest gambling lobbying firms in Frankfort."
Comer's reference to Scott Crosbie, the husband of Heiner running mate KC Crosbie and a Lexington lobbyist, drew a rebuke from Heiner.
"The attack on my running mate's spouse again shows the kind of hyperbole that we can't have as governor," Heiner said.
After the forum, Heiner said Comer's criticisms of Crosbie were "the direct opposite" of Comer's pledge to run a positive campaign, but Heiner declined to answer when asked whether he thought Scott Crosbie's work was relevant to the campaign.
Crosbie is one of the founding partners of HCM Governmental Relations, a lobbying firm that said on its website last year that it represented Tropicana and GTech Corp.
Heiner's campaign said Friday that Crosbie had sold his interest in the firm as of last Friday. A call to Crosbie on Friday at HCM was met by a receptionist who said, "This is Scott Crosbie's office" and a voice mail for Crosbie.
Heiner spokesman Doug Alexander said that was part of the transition.
As for Scott, the retired judge said he favored expanded gambling at Kentucky racetracks, citing the state's growing budget woes. The state could get a cut of revenues or fees.
Young also favored expanded gambling, saying he has "a kind of libertarian position on gambling."
Comer said after the forum that "there was nothing negative" about his criticism of Heiner's selection of a running mate, telling reporters that he was pointing out a discrepancy between the pick and Heiner's campaign theme of running against Frankfort.
"When commercials are run attacking Frankfort insiders and then you've chosen as your running mate the spouse of a lobbyist, I think that's a little hypocritical," Comer said.
Comer said he thinks a debate between the running mates — Comer is running with state Sen. Chris McDaniel — would provide some clarity on the matter.
He also said that he thinks it's a conflict of interest for a lobbyist or a lobbyist's spouse to run for office, and he would propose ethics reform as governor.
Comer stuck to his line that he would run a positive campaign "about ideas and achievement" that focuses on "populist" themes and attracts blue-collar voters.
"This campaign is not going to be about who went to a cockfighting rally or how much somebody paid rent on their bus," Comer said, referring to chapters from last year's U.S. Senate race. "I want this election to be about ideas and achievement."
Heiner appeared frustrated by Friday's sharp back-and-forth, telling reporters after the event that people he talks to around the state are focused on bigger issues, including jobs.
"I think this governor has spent seven years on (gambling) when he should've spent it on growing jobs in the state," Heiner said. "It's simply not on my platform."
Aside from the dust-up over gambling, the Republican candidates appeared largely in agreement on the other issues that Cross and the audience put before the candidates, including giving tax incentives to the Noah's Ark project and releasing the LRC report on sexual harassment in the legislature.
"Show it," Scott said. "I mean, you did the report. Quit gaming around."