Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler chose the middle of a national convention with a theme of unity to publicly bury any hard feelings with U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford stemming from their 2003 gubernatorial primary.
Chandler, the 6th District congressman from Versailles, endorsed and then embraced his former rival, Lunsford, at a Kentucky delegation breakfast Tuesday at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
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In a phone interview from Denver, Chandler said he and Lunsford had privately put to rest the lingering hard feelings from an intensely personal and often negative campaign five years ago for the Democratic nomination for governor. The only thing left to do was to pick a time to do so publicly, Chandler said.
That came in front of nearly 100 Democratic activists from Kentucky, many of whom backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primary while Chandler had endorsed Sen. Barack Obama.
"I did start out by saying that, as everybody knows, I supported Obama much to the chagrin of many people in the room. I said it was a very hard-fought election and then I segued into the fact that in 2003 I had one of my own. In fact it was a really difficult race in which there were a lot of hard feelings on both sides," Chandler said.
He then offered his support for Lunsford's bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the four-term senator who now serves as GOP leader in that chamber.
Lunsford said Chandler's remarks were a surprise to him.
"It made my trip out here. This is a big deal," said Lunsford in a brief telephone interview from Denver. "Obviously it was humbling and very unexpected."
He said one Chandler supporter, whom Lunsford declined to name, approached him later and agreed to volunteer on his behalf now that Chandler has given Lunsford his blessing.
Lunsford, a millionaire businessman, spent several million dollars of his own money taking aim at Chandler in 2003.
After Chandler struck back with a devastating political ad highlighting a case of abuse at one of the nursing homes Lunsford's company operated, Lunsford abruptly dropped out of the '03 primary. He later supported Republican Ernie Fletcher over Chandler — a move that many Democrats have only recently begun to forgive Lunsford for.
Once Chandler finished speaking Tuesday morning, Lunsford, who was scheduled to address the group minutes later, got up and embraced Chandler, said Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who was in the room. It prompted a standing ovation, Mongiardo said.
"I thought that was a very poignant moment because that's an example of how if Democrats come together, especially in Kentucky, where we have 1.7 Democrats for every Republican, then Democrats can't lose elections," Mongiardo said.
McConnell's campaign, meanwhile, issued a statement, saying the senator has "enjoyed working with Congressman Chandler on key issues and looks forward to continuing that bipartisan relationship."
The statement cited several issues the two collaborated on, such as obtaining funding for Kentucky State University and working to dispose of chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot.
Chandler said he does applaud McConnell for his work on those issues but he also wants to support candidates in his party.