Friday, January 1, 2016

Kentuckian of the Year: Matt Bevin

Jordan Smith had a great 2015, and he's apparently off to a great start in 2016, but he is not the Kentuckian of the Year.  Instead, that award goes to Kentucky's new Governor, only the third Republican to be elected to that position wince World War II.

To put Matt Bevin's career in perspective, let's look at Kentucky's governors since 1992, when a change to the Constitution allowed a sitting governor to run for re-election:

1.  Paul E. Patton (Democrat).  Born in Fallsburg, Ky.  Attended Louisa High School.  Obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kentucky, made a lot of money in coal.  Served as County Judge/Executive of Pike County, then Lieutenant Governor, then Governor from 1995 to 2003.

2.  Ernie Fletcher (Republican).  Born in Mount Sterling, Ky.  Attended Lexington Lafayette High School.  Obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kentucky, where he was part of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.  Obtained a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Kentucky.  Served in the Kentucky House of Representatives, then the U.S. House of Representatives, then was Governor from 2003 to 2007.

3.  Steve Beshear (Democrat).  Born near Dawson Springs, Ky.  Attended Dawson Springs High School.  Obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University, where he was part of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.  Obtained a law degree from the University of Kentucky.  Served as Kentucky Attorney General, then Lieutenant Governor, then lost the 1987 Governor's race.  Later ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996, losing to Mitch McConnell.  Then was Governor from 2007 to 2015.

Now that is pretty much how Kentucky normally works.  Political power is mostly in the hands of hard-working small-town kids who attend U.K. and pay their dues in the Commonwealth.  You wait your turn, you take your time, and you don't go too fast.  The result is a remarkably stable political system -- one of the most stable in the whole country.

But every so often, Kentuckians get restless and go for something different.  In 1979, John Y. Brown, Jr., who had never held political office, swept into the Governor's Mansion with a plan to run State Government like a business.  In 1987, Wallace Wilkinson did the same.  But even these guys aren't too far removed from the usual pattern.  Brown's father was a long-time member of the State Legislature, and Brown attended Lexington Lafayette and U.K., where he got a bachelor's degree and a law degree.  Wilkinson was born on a farm in Casey County, attended Liberty High School, and attended -- you guessed it -- the University of Kentucky.

Now consider the biography of Matthew Bevin:

Born in Denver, Colorado.  Grew up in Shelburne, N.H.  Attended Gould Academy, a private high school in Maine.  Obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in East Asian Studies from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.  Spent four years in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of Captain.  Had a successful business career, moving to Kentucky in 1999 to work with National Asset Management. Has nine children, including four children adopted from Ethiopia.  Attends Southeast Christian Church in Louisville.  Launched his political career in 2013, at the age of 46, when he announced plans to run against Mitch McConnell in the 2014 G.O.P. Primary on the grounds that McConnell wasn't conservative enough.  Lost to McConnell by 60.2 percent to 35.4 percent.

Not exactly the usual profile for a Kentucky governor.  But these are not normal times in Kentucky, as we noted a few years ago when Rand Paul won a seat in the U.S. Senate.  There is always a sort of roiling strain of populism in Kentucky, as the career of the Stumbo family demonstrates.  Since 2008, however, only McConnell and Beshear have been immune to the strain of radicalism that is running through the Commonwealth.

And so Bevin survived one of the strangest governor's elections in Kentucky history.  First, he won the G.O.P. primary by less than 100 votes:

Matt Bevin:  70,479 (32.9 percent)
James Comer, Agriculture Commissioner:  70,396 (32.9 percent)
Hal Heiner, former candidate for Mayor of Louisville:  57,948 (27.1 percent)
Will T. Scott, former Associate Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court:  15,364 (7.2 percent)

Then he was paired up against Jack Conway, the sitting Attorney General.  The match-up between two Louisvillians meant that Kentucky would have its first governor from Louisville since Augustus Wilson, who served from 1907 to 1911.  Given Beshear's popularity, and the divisions within the G.O.P., Conway was heavily favored -- and in fact he led in almost every poll.  The last Bluegrass Poll (conducted by SurveyUSA for the Courier-Journal, WHAS-TV, the Lexington Herald-Leader, and WKYT-TV) showed Conway leading Bevin 45 to 40.

But the Bluegrass Poll -- and all the polls -- were badly wrong.  On election day, Bevin won big, beating Conway by almost 85,000 votes, a margin of 8.7 percentage points:

Bevin:  511,711 (52.5 percent)
Conway:  426,944 (43.8 percent)
Drew Curtis (Independent):  35,629 (3.7 percent)

Certainly this vote shows Kentuckians remain in a fractious mood -- Bevin is by far the most conservative governor in living memory, and represents a major break from how Kentucky has been governed for decades.  Does this represent something new, or were Kentuckians simply frustrated with a Democratic Party that hasn't been able to put forward compelling new leadership to replace Beshear's generation?  And will Kentuckians really be happy if Bevin tries to govern from a political posture that has never been tried in Frankfort?  These are huge questions, and the answers will have major ramifications for Kentucky's future.  But for now, Bevin has shown that he understands something about what Kentuckians want -- and are willing to try -- that had been overlooked by almost everyone who usually holds power in the Commonwealth.  And for that, we name him the 2015 Kentuckian of the Year.

Here is a list of all Kentuckians of the Year since the HP began:

2010:  Rand Paul (Bowling Green)
2011:  John Calipari (Lexington)
2012:  Darius Miller (Maysville)
2013:  Jennifer Lawrence (Louisville)
2014:  Mitch McConnell (Louisville)
2015:  Matt Bevin (Louisville)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent report and fine choice.

    I went to a thing a couple of weeks ago in Madisonville and met a nice guy who is about my age. He struck me as a very bright and kind person and a good citizen, and he and I just disagreed on everything we talked about politics-wise. That didn't surprise me; that happens to me more often than not where I live. But what did surprise me was how I got home and got on his Facebook page to send him a friend request, and we had one mutual friend. We share a town of about 20,000 people, and we are in very similar stages of life, and we share only one friend. Not only are we not talking with each other, we're not even talking with the same people. We're living in very proximity to each other in every way, but we're not understanding the world in the same way at all. No wonder everything feels so chaotic and contrasty right now.

    I can't imagine voting for someone who would run on turning back the last eight years, but, of course, even the Democratic candidate for governor didn't run on the promise of effectively extending Gov. Beshear's term. Some of my Democrat friends did a lot of decrying the poor voter turnout for the gubernatorial election, and it was bad. But there were something like 100,000 more Kentuckians who voted this time than voted the last time we elected a governor, and the Democrat actually got 40,000 or so fewer votes this fall than Gov. Beshear did four years ago. What a landslide Gov. Bevin would've amassed had voter turnout been any stronger!

    I don't understand the rush toward Gov. Bevin exactly, but his triumph was certainly was the giant story of the year in Kentucky.