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June 13, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: Ben & Jerry in 2007?

The hits keep coming for Gov. Ernie Fletcher. On the heels of the recent announcement that Lt. Gov. Steve Pence won’t seek re-election next year as his running mate, the news got worse for Fletcher.First, he was informed that all money raised for re-election under the Fletcher-Pence banner will have to be disgorged, by either refunding or donating the funds, and that he won’t be permitted to raise more campaign money until he files formal papers with new running mate Robbie Rudolph.Fletcher also had to deal with his formal criminal arraignment on three political corruption charges.Instead of appearing in person, Fletcher remained in Florida on his extended vacation and was allowed to send his team of criminal defense lawyers to plead “not guilty” on his behalf. The trial date was set on Nov. 8, the day after the general elections.But most problematic for Fletcher and his fellow Republicans was the talk last week that Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson (D) might join Rep. Ben Chandler (D), Fletcher’s 2003 gubernatorial opponent, as his running mate. That would be a Democratic dream team ticket — Chandler-Abramson — for the 2007 race.Such a duo would redefine the notion of “power ticket.” It would be tantamount to Rick Pitino hiring Tubby Smith as his assistant coach. But such talk is genuine, even if the two players are playing coy.Asked in an interview with WHAS-TV’s Mark Hebert whether he would select Abramson if he ran for governor next year, Chandler responded, “You could certainly speculate to that effect,” and promised “we have agreed to talk again about what the future holds.”Not only would a Chandler-Abramson ticket bring together arguably the most popular political figures in each of the state’s two largest cities, the ticket would also provide a synergistic effect by marrying Chandler’s strong support of organized labor with Abramson’s credibility in the business community.Some might wonder why Abramson would consider being anyone’s No. 2.The truth is, the upside for Abramson is much higher than for Chandler. Abramson has been a powerful mayor whose imprimatur on the city is unmistakable. But outside the city limits, and particularly beyond the media market, Abramson is not well known. He’s toyed with running statewide in the past but backed off each time, maybe wondering whether — as Hebert wrote on his blog — a “well-dressed Jewish guy from Louisville who supported the Fairness Ordinance” could win statewide on his own the first time out.Beyond any hesitancy to run statewide, Abramson also remains in the shadow of Chandler, 14 years his junior, when assessing a bid for the Senate or governorship. Joining forces would provide the path of least resistance for the mayor and greatly diminish the uncertainty of stepping outside the comfortable confines of Jefferson County. And not only would the team be the prohibitive favorite to win the election, but Abramson would get to ride Chandler’s coattails outside of Louisville, where he’s already won three statewide contests. This is especially pertinent in an environment thick with voter remorse over electing Fletcher instead of Chandler in 2003.Aside from simply winning the governorship, a Chandler-Abramson administration would fast-track the needed house-cleaning at Kentucky Democratic Party headquarters and revitalize a party that’s failed to fully retool itself in the wake of former Gov. Paul Patton’s political implosion. A resurgent Democratic Party would set the stage for a 2010 Senate pick-up by either Chandler or Abramson, while the other continues running the show in Frankfort.In the meantime, Chandler will have to decide whether he wants to make another run for governor. The outcome of the November elections will weigh heavily in his decision-making, but Chandler confessed to me that such a ticket holds a great deal of appeal.Until then, the real possibility of a Chandler-Abramson pairing effectively freezes the field for both parties. Not only does it deter credible Democrats from jumping into the race while Chandler is mulling a run, it’s hard to imagine a credible Republican candidate willing to commit early to a campaign that would require not only knocking off an incumbent governor in a primary but possibly facing a Democratic monster ticket in the fall.But for Democrats, the media frenzy swirling around a single meeting between Chandler and Abramson should be joyful. While Republicans scramble to keep full-blown civil war from breaking out, Democrats are assessing the possibility that its two giants might join forces and swing the pendulum back in their direction.My, how quickly things can change.Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org, which recently won the Koufax Award for Best State or Local Blog in the country. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org