August 29, 2006

Bluegrass Report: The varnished, well-hidden truth

Whatever you think about last week’s deal between Attorney General Greg Stumbo and Gov. Ernie Fletcher — the AG dismissed criminal charges in exchange for the governor’s expression of wrongdoing— it doesn’t look as if we’ll ever get the one thing Fletcher promised last year: the unvarnished truth.

We got blanket pardons, the Fifth Amendment, stonewalled evidence, blaming the media, excuses, court packing and efforts to intimidate the grand jury. But truth, even a varnished version, was never offered, and none seems in the offing. In fact, there are clear signs Fletcher will do everything he can to prevent the release of a final grand jury report in the coming month or so, the last opportunity for any real “truth” to be offered for public consumption.

Maybe Fletcher, whose job approval ratings fell to a rock-bottom 24 percent this month amid a concerted effort by his own Republican Party to force him to step aside, believed that if he simply won this war of attrition at any cost, he would be poised to regain the public’s confidence and have a shot at re-election next year. Even if it meant never allowing the truth to be told.
But early signs don’t look promising.

Instead of hailing the deal as confirmation that the case was merely the result of trumped-up political charges by a partisan Democratic attorney general, the Republican Party has stuck to its talking points, maintaining that Fletcher’s unforgivable political malpractice went much further than the investigation itself. Jack Richardson, Jefferson County Republican Party chairman, scoffed at Fletcher’s spin that he is “exonerated of all allegations.” No credible Republican leader has sprung to Fletcher’s defense.

Even Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, who had avoided direct criticism of Fletcher since jumping off the re-election bandwagon in June, took his first overt shots at the “political scars” that Fletcher has left on his own party. And Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the first top-tier candidate to make noise about challenging Fletcher in next year’s Republican primary, said he is undeterred.

While Fletcher tries to convince a no-longer-gullible public that his standing was simply a result of a political witch-hunt, such fanciful arguments are not rooted in fact.

Although it’s a distant memory now, it’s worth recalling that the first of 19 regular public opinion polls by Survey USA was released more than a week before a state employee whistleblower approached Stumbo in May 2005 with evidence of widespread violations of state merit laws. The poll showed Fletcher’s job approval rating at 36 percent, making him the eighth-most unpopular governor in the nation — all before the investigation even started.
Fletcher eventually fell to 24 percent, and only in the recent post-dismissal poll was he able to creep up to a still-awful 29 percent, with only 1 in 5 “Independents” approving of his job performance.

Meanwhile, Republican Party leadership has all but dried up fundraising sources for Fletcher’s re-election, beyond the low-lying fruit of people who do business with the state and agree to a handout to keep their contracts. And to prevent any possibility of traction, a Fletcher-backed candidate was even denied election to the state Republican Party’s executive committee, an amazing rebuke to the man who remains the titular head of that very party, if in name only.

Ultimately, Fletcher’s deal with Stumbo to drop criminal charges doesn’t appear to have fundamentally changed the dynamics of next year’s gubernatorial race. Republicans clearly desire a candidate besides the man who became the first Republican governor in 32 years, while Democrats remain hopeful that U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler — whom Fletcher defeated in 2003 — decides to try again in 2007, with early polls showing him as the clear favorite in such a bid.

Although Republicans still have an uphill battle in ousting an incumbent governor in a primary, the self-styled former lay minister will find a reticent public that is still waiting for the truth Fletcher pledged would be forthcoming.

Unfortunately for the governor, and for Republicans, next year’s race is likely to center on the mess in Frankfort, the very thing Fletcher promised to clean up but only further sullied in short order.
The election will also be about truth, specifically whether a candidate is truthful about promises he makes to get elected and the pledges he takes once in office.

Fletcher promised Kentucky the unvarnished truth. So why does it feel like we’ve been shellacked?

Mark Nickolas is publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org