By John David Dyche
In the documentary Bert Combs, Governor from the Mountains, the late Thomas D. Clark, Kentucky's most eminent historian, said that Combs dragged Kentucky into the Twentieth Century against its will. Sadly, that century was sixty years old before he did so. Even sadder, Kentucky is still stuck there well into the Twenty-First Century.
Combs was progressive, especially by Kentucky standards. When he became Governor in 1959 there was a compelling case for his agenda. He passed a sales tax and used the proceeds to improve education, parks, roads, and several other things to better Kentuckians' quality of life.
His Democratic successor, Edward T. Breathitt, continued on the Combs trajectory. But by 1971, when Wendell Ford beat his old boss Combs in the latter's comeback bid, the party's tax and spend program had become pedestrian and predictable. With precious few exceptions the political approaches of Kentucky's governors for the last forty years have been a series of unimaginative variations on this tired theme.
John Y. Brown, Jr., Martha Layne Collins, Wallace Wilkinson, and Paul Patton each did some good things, particularly when they broke free from old formulas. Ernie Fletcher, the only Republican governor since the relatively progressive 1967-71 Louie Nunn interlude, had bold reform ambitions upon taking office in 2003, but self-inflicted wounds and partisan persecution prevented him from realizing them.
Democrats have dominated the governorship and held the state House of Representatives since the Combs era. They still enjoy a half-million voter registration advantage over Republicans. Their edge it is steadily disappearing, however, likely because the people can perceive that Democrats are stuck in the past instead of moving forward.
Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community issues and columnist for The Courier-Journal, recently tweeted of the current Democratic Governor, "[Steve] Beshear channels [Harry] Truman and [Alben] Barkley by expanding Medicaid in Kentucky." Cross is correct, but Beshear's channeling of Democrats past takes his party back beyond even Combs to the 1940's.
Beshear came into Kentucky politics in 1974. As Governor forty years later, Status Quo Steve still has no policy agenda, much less an ambitious one. He is popular primarily for having cut the size of government against his will, and has been blessed with unpopular Republicans as his electoral rivals.
In an unusual political role reversal, Kentucky Democrats have become the conservative, even reactionary, party working to keep things as they have been for so long. Republicans have become the progressives by championing a raft of reforms that are working well in other states.
Is there any hope on the horizon for Democratic leadership able and willing to belatedly bring Kentucky into the current century? There are a couple of prospects among those most often mentioned as candidates for Governor in 2015.
State auditor Adam Edelen, 38, is among the new breed of Democrats who bring business attitudes and techniques to government. Edelen has made all the right moves since giving the best election night speech of 2011. He is using the auditor's office to bring real change to bloated bureaucracies and unaccountable agencies.
His predecessor as auditor, Crit Luallen, 60, has a distinguished record of public service, but has been part of the Democratic machine since her debut in Ford's administration at about the same time as Beshear arrived in Frankfort. Luallen has the talent to transform her party's policies if she has the courage.
Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson, 66, had success in his early terms as Louisville Mayor, but his last one was a disaster. His work leading Beshear's timid tax reform task force suggests he will not be doing anything too bold.
Attorney General Jack Conway, 43, lacks the authenticity, ideas, and passion of a dynamic leader. Conway is a Luallen protégé, and if they run against each other it would make for one of the bitterest Democratic primaries since Ford blocked Combs from returning to the Governor's Mansion.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, 61, is engaging in his quadrennial ritual of hinting that he might run for Governor. If he does, Democratic policies could regress beyond even Truman and Barkley.
The New York Times obituary for Combs noted that he had been elected mainly on a promise to raise the "moral and political tone of government" in Kentucky. Now state Democrats desperately need a new visionary to do it again.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.