By John David Dyche
It caught some Kentucky Republicans by surprise when former Louisville councilman and mayoral candidate Hal Heiner showed up at the Fancy Farm picnic in August saying that he was considering a race for governor. Now it would be surprising if Heiner does not run in 2015.
Multiple GOP sources now say Heiner is indeed going to make a gubernatorial bid. They also say that he will have help, perhaps behind the scenes, from U. S. Representative and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers of Somerset.
Rogers has represented the heavily Republican Fifth District since 1981. He is the founder of Operation UNITE, "a regional anti-drug initiative that empowers citizens groups and community leaders in the 29 counties" into which Rogers has funneled $49 million in federal funds since 2003.
The word is that Rogers will support Heiner over the party's other top gubernatorial prospect, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, because of the latter's work to legalize the growing of industrial hemp. Rogers, as well as some law enforcement, opposed Comer's efforts.
Backing from his fellow Hal would be a big boost for Heiner. Combining votes from Rogers' southeastern Kentucky GOP stronghold with those from Heiner's home base in Jefferson County would make a strong electoral foundation for a gubernatorial primary.
A spokesman for Rogers advises that "the Chairman" is emphatic that he has neither implicitly nor explicitly endorsed anyone in the gubernatorial race and has never actually met Heiner. Those fluent in political-speak might file that response under the heading "non-denial denial" or "plausible deniability."
Heiner, a businessman of ample means, already has the financial resources to buy statewide name recognition and mount a first-class campaign. He could bolster his chances even more by choosing a running mate with complementary geographical and financial assets.
Comer would likely be Heiner's first choice for the second spot. But there are plenty of other possibilities if Comer, as expected, seeks the gubernatorial nomination in his own right.
A recent post by James Young on the website BluegrassConservative.com listed the names of 2011 attorney general candidate Todd P'Pool of Madisonville, state senator and Rogers ally Chris Girdler of Somerset, and former state representative and congressional candidate Alecia Webb-Edgington of Fort Wright. Ryan Alessi of CN2 also included the names of Stanford banker/businessman Jess Correll and former state Adjutant General Donald Storm Elizabethtown via London and State Representative Sara Beth Gregory of Monticello among the possibilities.
Heiner is frustrated with Frankfort for not aggressively taking on the myriad tough issues confronting the commonwealth. Rather than playing a mere advocate's role, as he has with charter schools, Heiner wants to lead the state to do big things.
"We all know that our state has big problems, which our leaders in Frankfort continue to ignore," Heiner says. "As a businessman and engineer, finding solutions to difficult problems is intriguing. But as a parent, finding those solutions is essential, which is why I am giving serious consideration to entering the race."
Louisville businessman and former Jefferson County GOP Chairman Bill Stone says, "To have Hal Heiner as governor would be the blessing this state desperately needs."
It is fair to describe Heiner as a social conservative. But when he ran for mayor of Louisville in 2010 he said he favored letting the people vote on expanded gambling and implementing it in a way that would help Churchill Downs if it passed.
However, Heiner would not say how he would vote if the issue was on the ballot. One suspects he would personally oppose expanded gambling.
Comer voted against expanded gaming as a legislator. He is now on record as supporting a pro-casino constitutional amendment that would help the horse industry.
At the end of the day it is hard to assign an edge to either Comer or Heiner from this issue. Support from gambling and horse interests on one hand, and from social conservatives on the other, would roughly offset, and there would clearly be some cross-over.
Kentucky has been neither keen on nor kind to gubernatorial candidates from Louisville. But if Democrats nominate a Louisvillian of their own, like Attorney General Jack Conway, being from the state's biggest city would hardly be a liability for Heiner.
Comer has considerable advantages, obvious political talent, and valuable relationships. He will need them all, and then some, if he faces Heiner in a Republican gubernatorial primary.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is email@example.com.