Double whammy - An anti-gay flier may’ve cost Ken Herndon a seat on the council. Along the way, the council president was bull
Among the primary campaigns in May, the race for the Metro Council’s 6th District seat, between Democratic incumbent George Unseld and challenger Ken Herndon, was the closest. Unseld won by a razor-thin margin, beating Herndon by 112 votes.
The Saturday before the election, voters opened their mailboxes to find a nasty mailer that likely changed more than a few minds. The mailer — a glossy, double-sided and obviously high-priced flier — featured a photo of Herndon’s face planted atop the body of a man embracing two other men kissing at a gay-pride parade. Next to the picture in bold letters was, among other homophobic jabs, this: “(Herndon) wants us to elect him because he designed new garbage cans?! I guess when you live a life of trash you become pretty familiar with garbage cans.”
“I frankly think it cost me the race,” said Herndon, who is openly gay. “It’s not just insulting to me or the 6th district; it’s a disgrace to the community.”
According to a line on the mailer, a group called “Citizens for Family and Moral Values” paid for it; however, no such political group is registered with the state.
“I’ve been in politics since I was a teenager, and never at any level have I seen anything like that,” Jeff Noble, Herndon’s campaign manager, said. The mailer also referred to Noble as a drunk driver and pedophile, both of which are untrue, he said. He added that council incumbents and candidates running for office ought to be particularly worried. “It could happen to them too,” he said.
Though no smoking gun directly links his opponent to the fliers, Herndon believes supporters of Unseld made and distributed them. In particular, Herndon said he suspects Unseld’s campaign manager, former councilwoman and political operator Denise Bentley, played some role, mostly because of what he called a history of using controversial campaign ads.
“We had nothing to do with it,” Bentley said Monday in a phone interview. She told LEO that Unseld was appalled by the mailer, which he — along with the rest of his district, which includes Old Louisville, California and South Central neighborhoods — received at his home. In a press conference a day before the election, Unseld denounced it and denied any connection.
Bentley has been a consultant on several area campaigns that used negative ads. In 2006, she was an unofficial advisor to the campaign of Sharon Dummitt, a white woman who was running against current 3rd District Councilwoman Mary Woolridge. During that campaign, an ad surfaced showing a pair of African-American hands clutching cash — an insinuation that Woolridge, who is black, shouldn’t be trusted with district dollars.
Dale Dummitt, Sharon’s husband and a former candidate for Shively City Council, told LEO Tuesday that although Bentley was not paid by the campaign, that flier was her idea.
“Denise Bentley was never a paid consultant of any type, but it was obvious she had a major interest in seeing Mary Woolridge unseated,” he said. “As far as the controversial postcard, that was her idea. We’ve run several campaigns in this area, and I had reservations about it being controversial. But the one with the hands that had the dollar signs on the fingernails — that was completely her idea. I didn’t even want to put it out.”
There is no direct proof to support the claim that Bentley was involved in the Herndon flier, and she bristled at the accusation. “The conversation shouldn’t be about me,” she said. “It should be about the mailer.”
Parallel to the mailer, LEO has learned, Herndon also faced consistent pressure to drop out of the race from Metro Council President Jim King, D-10. Herndon told LEO that since last July, King, who according to election finance records gave $2,000 — half as a councilman and half as head of King Southern Bank — to Unseld’s re-election campaign, suggested to Herndon repeatedly that he abandon his campaign. Noble said that a month before the election, at an event for his daughter, Katie King, who was running for District Court judge, an animated King cornered him, demanding that Herndon drop out.
A subsequent open records request by LEO found that three weeks before the election, King sent a letter to Herndon’s employer, Dan Kelleher, president of the Louisville Downtown Management District, where Herndon is employed, saying he’d “received several inquiries regarding the propriety of an active employee … participating in a primary election as an opponent of an incumbent Metro Councilman.”
King admitted in the letter that the County Attorney’s office had already informed him there was no prohibition for “an employee of a Metro agency such as the LDMD from seeking the office of a sitting council member,” but viewed it “as a matter for your Board.” King’s letter began by reminding Kelleher that his agency’s budget requires Metro Council approval.
“(King) hasn’t made that type of inquiry before,” Kelleher said.
Kelleher said he wasn’t intimidated by the letter, but after he sent a response to LDMD Board members requesting input about personnel-related rules, he received what he characterized as a cryptic message from Bruce Traughber, Metro’s director of economic development, who sits on the LDMD Board of Directors as proxy for Mayor Jerry Abramson. Traughber’s message was succinct: “Metro policy prohibits a city employee from running for a council seat.”
When asked why he responded by stating a policy that did not apply to Herndon’s employment, Traughber told LEO he was simply responding to Kelleher’s request and not recommending a new policy be adopted.
“I was asked for my opinion,” he said.
When LEO persisted with this line of questioning during a phone interview last week, Traughber became agitated and hung up.
LEO gave King five days to respond before press deadline; despite numerous and repeated inquiries by the newspaper, he did not.
Two current council assistants, Graham Honaker and Ellen Reitmeyer, were also on the ballot in May. Reached by phone, Honaker told LEO that no council member got involved in his race except Kevin Kramer, R-11, who is his boss and is required to approve Honaker’s candidacy.
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