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July 10, 2007

Flexing their muscle

Last week in Frankfort, Democrats unveiled a new strategy for negotiating Republican-dominated state government: Guts“The special session simply provides welfare for politicians, and it is very unfair to Kentucky taxpayers. Included are talking points and a set of quotes from a diverse group of political and policy experts to help you communicate this important bi-partisan message. As always, we encourage you to distribute this document to your e-mail lists as well as to other outlets in your community.”—Rapid Response Alert issued by the Kentucky Democratic Party on Tuesday, July 3He spoke in sharp jabs of obloquy, quick like an auctioneer, before the podium microphone last Thursday, boasting a clarion call for defiance that is grossly out of character for this political body. I kept waiting for the caveat to come from House Speaker Jody Richards, a decent man’s decent man with questionable energy these days, after he stumbled through a bid for governor a few months ago.Sitting in the House gallery Thursday, among activist groups, staffers and general hangers-on to the politically charged special session called last Monday by Gov. Fletcher — who is parading welfare for a coal company as an “emergency” — I somberly prepared myself for the abdication of message and moral that usually follows such brash, fiery language in places like this. Despite rumors in the hours before that the House would — under Richards’ leadership — walk out on what many have called an act of hack politics from a flailing governor trying to get re-elected, I refused to cave to my desire for such a bold act from the Dems. After all, • this is the party that nudged Jonathan Miller, the lone true progressive of a seven-man primary, out of the governor’s race as a matter of political expediency. The young (well, 39) Miller wants to end the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining, believes in universal healthcare and has a plan — and a track record — for providing Kentuckians affordable higher education. All that, evidently, isn’t right for Kentucky (or electable) just yet; • this is the party whose state apparatus was disintegrating into splintered clusters under Jerry Lundergan, who as chairman appeared to be not only a bonehead misogynist but an inadequate custodian of party coffers, a mini-scandal that hobbled state Dems in 2006; • this is the party whose House leader, Richards, has endorsed teaching intelligent design in Kentucky classrooms. He has also taken money from Peabody Energy, a mountaintop-removing coal company currently building a coal-fired power plant in Central City, a western Kentucky town near Richards’ native Bowling Green. Peabody, of course, is the company Fletcher claims needs a tax incentive to build either a coal-gasification or a coal-to-liquids plant in Kentucky — the governor has said both while trying to defend the special session’s essentialness. Fletcher claims it’s an “emergency,” the Constitutional qualifier for calling a special session. He ignores the fact that it would take an act of the U.S. Congress, which appears to have no prospects of acting on alt-fuel appropriations, to actually build such a thing. (By the way, Peabody already has a $400,000 grant from the state to study whether such technology is viable. Why give $315 million in tax incentives over 25 years before the technology is proven?) That is some rancorous shit, to be sure. But at the very least, things appear different now on the surface. Confident and brash during his rousing floor speech on Thursday, Richards called Fletcher’s special session a “charade” and said the attempt at justification was “the most ridiculous of ironies,” considering that many items on the governor’s agenda were either ignored or vetoed by him during the regular session, including an alternative energy bill and several major appropriations for state universities.Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-83, tried to flip the Dems’ constitutional argument on its head, saying adjourning without the consent of the Senate or governor would violate the framers’ intent. He was quickly rebuked by Rep. Harry Moberly, D-81, who said he disagreed with Hoover’s “constitutional analysis.” The whole jubilant thing lasted about an hour. “The people spoke here,” Rep. Jim Wayne, D-35, told me in the hallway after the House adjourned, having taken no action. In 18 years in state government, Wayne said he’s never seen anything like it. After talking with Fletcher Monday, Richards reiterated that the House would not reconvene unless (my heart sank briefly, but wait for it) he, Williams and Fletcher fly to St. Louis for a personal confirmation from Peabody’s honcho that the company would build a plant here if offered the bag of corporate welfare (taxpayer) money Fletcher and many Republicans would like to hand it. Fletcher said that is out of the question — a hostage should never buck his captor, not unless he wants a beat-down, and Big Coal has some meaty biceps.On Monday afternoon, Fletcher announced he would adjourn the special session until July 30. It was the governor who backed down here, not any Democrat. The lesson for Democrats couldn’t be any clearer. The real story here is behind the scenes: the bold, young and muscular Democratic leadership of Miller and Louisville lawyer and co-chair Jennifer Moore. The artist, it seems, is Miller. A la Howard Dean, the youth candidate who understands the raw power of the Interwebs swiftly became chairman of the party and hosed the crap off the interior walls, uniting it — as a force, no less — behind kicking Fletcher’s $300,000-a-week special session to the curb. By dinnertime the day after Fletcher called the session, Miller had a directive out to the media and party members with six strong talking points outlining ways to argue against the session. It called the session “welfare for politicians” and “a desperate attempt to infuse taxpayer dollars to resuscitate dying campaign.” It quoted Republicans and Democrats saying the session is far from an emergency. There was no equivocating, no John Kerry verbosity or straight-backed bore. Like the rest of the Democratic response, it was a quick, relentless stab at the heart.  Miller said he’s “building an infrastructure” modeled, at least in part, on two things: Web-based campaigning like Dean’s, and Republicans’ super-effective 72-hour plans of last minute, on-the-ground vote getting. But he’s had help. Tim Longmeyer, chairman of the party’s Louisville wing, said that after the primary, all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates came together at party headquarters, dropped their guards and gripes, and decided to move forward.“I’ve never seen it quite so unified across the board,” Longmeyer, who’s worked with the state party since the 1970s, said in an interview Tuesday. He said Democrats — even the oldest adversaries — have realized “it is so important that we get our act together, both in the Commonwealth and the nation.” Kathy Jo Stubblefield, director of the Democratic Woman’s Club of Kentucky who lives in Calloway County, said she’s “satisfied” with Miller’s leadership thus far, but it’s too soon to assess his impact. “I think the unity in the party has grown since the governor’s election in 2003, and it continues to grow,” she said. She added that House Democrats have been unified for the last few years on most major issues. In an interview Friday, Miller downplayed his own role, preferring to focus on the governor’s race and special session. “It took a great deal of courage and political bravery to do the right thing,” he said of the House Democrats. He called the Dems “a new party.” Take note, Democrats thirsty for some backbone and willpower. This “new party” is pouring resolve like a fountain right now. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com