University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications
Neither of the two major party candidates made a large impact with the first televised head-to-head debate in the governor’s race, four weeks before the Nov. 3 election.
Republican Matt Bevin and Democrat Jack Conway both threw plenty of punches, but neither landed with the force they had probably hoped. They broke little new ground on the issues during Tuesday night’s debate at Centre College in Danville.
In a race that has struggled to gain attention or interest from voters, both candidates took to the stage to press repeat on their record players of political statements.
One of the few times the debate elicited a response from the audience came when Bevin said he wants to make it easier and more attractive for businesses in Kentucky to open. “We will, indeed, un-constipate Frankfort,” Bevin said. “You can take that to the bank.”
That line won applause, but so did Conway’s reply.
“I prefer to say I’m going to streamline it, rather than un-constipate it,” said Conway, who also said Kentucky is number two in the nation in small business creation per capita.
Bevin said changes need to be made to make Kentucky more competitive and he would push “right to work” legislation, which would outlaw labor contracts that require workers to pay union dues. Both Tennessee and Indiana have these laws, and Bevin argued that they put Kentucky at a competitive disadvantage for attracting business.
“For those of you that are struggling to find gainful employment, how is that per capita ratio thing working for you?” asked Bevin, who also said Kentucky currently has 71,000 fewer jobs than at the beginning of Conway’s term as attorney general.
Bevin opened by touting his business career, saying he was the only one on stage who had “been the executive of anything.” He added that of the two candidates, he was the only one who ever ran a business, created a job or made payroll.
Conway cast himself as a fiscal conservative, saying he cut his office’s budget by 40 percent and was the only Democratic attorney general in the country who sued the Environmental Protection Agency over regulations on coal.
The candidates reiterated their positions on under-funding of state pensions, perhaps the most critical long-term issue facing Kentucky lawmakers.
“We have to make changes or nobody will get what’s been promised to them,” said Bevin, who advocated moving pension recipients to a defined contribution plan, similar to a 401(k) style savings plan. This creates a problem with the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System because teachers are not eligible to receive social security, and risk outliving their 401(k).
Conway said the state legislature has made the proper fixes in previous years and the systems can be solvent if the minimum payment, known as ARC, was made by the legislature — something that has not consistently happened for over a decade.
The soundbites got serious when the candidates were asked about the recent shooting at an Oregon community college that left nine people dead. The question introduced the topic of gun control, which often follows in the wake of mass shootings.
“We have to take a good, hard look at mental illness,” said Conway, who said that he does not favor stricter gun regulations or allowing teachers to be armed in schools.
Bevin said he is also against stricter gun regulations, and said he favored allowing armed teachers in school. He noted that he, his wife, his running mate Jenean Hampton and her husband are proud gun owners.
When Bevin and Conway were directly questioned each other, Conway continued to focus on Bevin’s refusal to release his tax returns, an unofficial tradition for Kentucky candidates for governor. Bevin said he will not release his tax returns, and noted once again that he is not legally required to do so.
Bevin took the opportunity to question Conway for taking money from political groups with anti-coal agendas, to which Conway replied he has accepted money from people he later put in jail.
In their closing statements, the candidates told voters to ask themselves who they trust to run their state.
“I don’t feel the need to lie about Jack Conway,” said Bevin, referring to the millions of dollars in attack advertising against him. He emphasized his business career as a qualification for the governor’s office.
Conway said his experience as attorney general qualified him for the job. “I understand Kentucky,” said Conway, of Louisville. “I have a plan for Kentucky, and I’ve delivered for Kentucky.”
The most recent Bluegrass Poll, released on Sept. 30, showed Conway with a small edge at 42 percent of potential votes compared to Bevin’s 37 percent. Seven percent said they would vote for independent candidate Drew Curtis and 15 percent are undecided.
Curtis did not meet the organizers' criteria for inclusion in the debate, but was in the debate hall and answered reporters' questions after the hour-long debate. Today the founder of social-networking news site fark.com published an essay questioning the need for political parties.
The debate was sponsored by Centre, AARP and WAVE-TV, Louisville, and was also broadcast on stations in Lexington and Northern Kentucky, and by out-of state stations serving northeastern Kentucky and the Paducah and Owensboro regions.