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June 6, 2006

Bluegrass Report: Lil’ Orphan Ernie

It’s hard to believe things keep getting worse for Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Not so much that the Fletcher administration continues to make the wrong political decisions (we’ve grown accustomed to that), but you’d simply think the law of averages, if nothing else, would eventually provide the governor a win or two. Not so much.Last week provided us yet another shocker: Lt. Gov. Steve Pence announced he won’t seek re-election next year as Fletcher’s running mate.Pence declared his intentions in a nine-minute press conference, where he offered no explanation for leaving the ticket and refused to rule out plans to challenge Fletcher himself in 2007. But Pence did not resign (despite being asked by Fletcher to do so), ensuring that he would become yet another lieutenant governor estranged from his administration while continuing to pick up his taxpayer-funded six-figure salary.Quickly, Fletcher named Finance Cabinet Secretary Robbie Rudolph as his running mate, his third in three years (Hunter Bates, his original choice, withdrew from the ticket after a court ruled he didn’t meet residency requirements). It was the second time Rudolph was named running mate; he was the lieutenant governor candidate who ran with former Jefferson County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson during her failed bid for governor when she lost to Fletcher in the 2003 primary.For Pence, the decision to drop off the ticket came after nine months of an obvious rift following Fletcher’s decision to issue a blanket pardon to anyone in his administration who might have been involved in the hiring scandal. Since then, Pence was rarely seen in public and almost never alongside Fletcher. He remained silent about the investigation, neither supporting nor criticizing his running mate.As Fletcher watched his approval ratings steadily fall into the low 30s, thanks to his uncanny ability to seemingly make the wrong decision at every juncture of Attorney General Greg Stumbo’s investigation, Pence began taking heat for statements he made during their 2003 campaign.Back then, the former corruption-fighting U.S. Attorney of BOPTROT fame blasted the decision by then-Gov. Paul Patton to pardon some of his political aides before trial.“Things like that are not going to happen in a Fletcher-Pence administration,” Pence sneered.They did, and Pence could never answer the charges of hypocrisy, other than remaining quiet and hoping the investigation would eventually come to an end. Instead, a grand jury indicted Fletcher, and Pence was left with few options but to publicly divorce the man who asked him to join the ticket, eventually becoming the first Republican administration in 32 years.But Pence’s puzzling decision to leave the ticket but keep his office has angered both sides. Democrats are reminded of Pence’s lectures during the 2003 campaign when he declared, “What we have seen in this state is a lieutenant governor and a governor who have been at odds with one another, and I think the state is tired of that.”On the flipside, many Republicans are furious with what they perceive as a transparent attempt by Pence to remain in office, hoping Fletcher’s political woes eventually require resignation and thereby allow Pence to ascend to governor by default.The Republican federal delegation, led by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, have not commented on Pence’s decision, although there were numerous reports of a meeting in Washington to figure out how to force Fletcher into declaring he won’t seek re-election next year. They can’t be pleased by Fletcher’s uncharacteristically swift decision to name a new running mate, and Pence’s maneuver now looks imbecilic and nothing more than personal opportunism.As this political hurricane defies logic and conventional wisdom, and continues to grow in intensity, it’s impossible to predict what will happen next. Fletcher is scheduled to be arraigned on criminal charges this Friday, and his political future looks as bleak as bleak gets. Aside from tanking in the polls, Fletcher’s fundraising prospects have all but dried up; he’s become radioactive to Republican candidates who are facing their own election struggles; and now he must contend with a lieutenant governor who might prove to be more problematic to his future than the Democratic attorney general.The mess in Frankfort keeps on growing, and Fletcher is a man stranded on an island with no one willing to rescue him.  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