Beshear better choice for attorney general

Andy Beshear
Andy Beshear

The 2015 race for Kentucky Attorney General represents some of the worst trends in our electoral system today. Millions of dollars have poured into the campaign from people and organizations — some identified, many that aren't — who seem to have little interest in assuring that Kentucky's top attorney is a person of skill and integrity.

It's hard to sort out the legitimate issues in the wall of noise, from the campaigns as well as insidious outside groups, about irrelevancies such as "Andy Obama" and pedicures.

No matter how disturbing and distracting this all is, on Nov. 3 Kentuckians will choose either Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield or Democrat Andy Beshear to serve as attorney general.

Beshear is the better choice.

We have no love for political dynasties, but in the end, this race is not about Gov. Steve Beshear. No one should vote for, or against, the son because of his father. Our interviews and research persuaded us that Beshear is better suited to serve as Kentucky's top lawyer.

Both candidates are relative newcomers to politics. This is Beshear's first run for office and Westerfield's second. Both are young lawyers — Beshear, 37, was admitted to the bar in 2003; Westerfield, 34, in 2006.

Beshear practiced in Washington, D.C. but since 2005 has worked in the Louisville office of Stites & Harbison, one of the state's and region's largest law firms whose client roster includes prominent business interests.

Westerfield's legal career has all been in his home of Hopkinsville, where he's worked part-time as an assistant prosecutor and in a general private practice.

Westerfield legitimately touts his accomplishments in his almost three years in the Senate. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he's championed important legislation that's stalled in the Republican chamber in the past, including proposals to address the heroin epidemic, dating violence and juvenile-justice reform.

Westerfield also notes that although he's never practiced in federal court, he's the only candidate with prosecutorial experience. But we see Beshear's experience pursuing large, legally and logistically complex litigation as more uniquely valuable.

Attorneys general can both recover huge sums of money — such as the $23 million Bank of America agreed to pay the Kentucky Retirement Systems last year — and protect consumers in the future, such as the recent antitrust action brought against Marathon Petroleum, alleging it illegally controls wholesale gas prices, contributing to higher prices at the pump.

Beshear has defined his priorities as fighting child abuse and drug abuse, and protecting seniors from scams. While we'd like to see him taking on nursing homes as well as scammers, these priorities address serious concerns that affect Kentuckians daily.

Westerfield, both in his interview with the editorial board and on the campaign trail, has promised to pursue not predatory corporations or scammers but the federal government, singling out the Affordable Care Act.

Although the ACA has twice passed legal muster before the U.S. Supreme Court, Westerfield said at a fund-raiser in August, "there still could be some reason it's harmful to Kentuckians," according to the Bowling Green Daily News.

Westerfield's second priority in his campaign literature, is "defending Kentucky values," a stance supported by his appearance at rallies supporting Kim Davis, the federal court-defying Rowan County clerk.

Both these priorities raise serious concern about whether Westerfield would use his best legal judgment to advance the cause of Kentucky or to make headlines by tilting at favored bogeymen of the right wing.

There are legitimate questions about whether Beshear would give special treatment to former clients and associates, contributors to his campaign and the political causes of his father.

In particular we are concerned about Purdue Pharma, a Stites' client that the state has sued for $1 billion in damages, claiming lies about its prescription painkiller OxyContin led doctors to overprescribe the drug, causing a surge in addiction and medical costs.

Beshear told the editorial board he had not been involved in or privy to any non-public details about Stites' work on the case and would not have a conflict pursuing it as attorney general. But, if he is elected, the wiser course would be to either remove himself from the case or seek an outside opinion about his ethical standing.

Westerfield, although he's raised much less money than Beshear, has benefited from the $2.2 million in "dark money" spent on the race, as of Oct. 2, by the Republican Attorney Generals Association.

Representatives of businesses — including tobacco companies, payday lenders, health insurers and technology firms — that have given tens of thousands of dollars to RAGA meet with attorneys general at private conferences it hosts, offering abundant opportunity to influence their decisions.

Regardless of whether Beshear or Westerfield is elected, it will be vital to keep a close watch on who has the ear of the new attorney general, and the decisions he makes.

The unendorsed candidate may submit a 250-word response by noon Monday.