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August 7, 2007

High-rollin’ at Fancy Farm: The Morality Police try to take on gambling — but they’ve got a bad hand

Fancy Farm Candidates: From left, Todd Hollenbach (treasurer), Crit Luallen (incumbent auditor), Dan Mongiardo and Steve Beshear (lieutenant governor and governor), Jack Conway (attorney general) and Bruce Hendrickson (secretary of state).FANCY FARM, Ky. – Overwhelmed by the angry boos and catcalls that repeatedly drowned out his supporters’ shrill chants for “Four More Years,” Gov. Ernie Fletcher did what he does best: He pardoned himself and abruptly left the stage, beating a hasty retreat from the heat — rhetorical and otherwise — that filled an open-air pavilion on the picnic grounds of the St. Jerome Catholic Church in this forlorn little community in Western Kentucky. Who knows? Maybe the Governor had something more important to do than sit there and listen to the charges leveled at him by one Democratic speaker after another. Maybe that’s why he bolted before the candidates for Secretary of State, Attorney General, State Auditor, State Treasurer and Agricultural Commissioner had their turns at the podium. Maybe that’s why he left an empty seat in the front row, glaring in its stark symbolism.He left right after state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, concluded his remarks by pointing at Fletcher and roaring above the incessant babbling of the masses, “It’s time to close the book on corruption and scandal, and, come November 6th, it’s time to close the book on Ernie Fletcher!”The response sounded like this:     Yaaaaaayyyhooooowhaaaahyazzayazza.To make any sense of Fancy Farm, it is essential to block out the agitators, hecklers and rabble-rousers brought in by both sides. Generally, they are college students in search of a party. Not a political party, silly, but an old-fashioned, down-home picnic where the fare consists mainly of barbecued pork and mutton sandwiches washed down with soft drinks or cold beers sneaked off one of the campers and luxurious motor homes parked nearby.The kids were not disappointed. On the Democrat side, a bunch of them were dressed in orange jail coveralls and striped prison suits so they could form “Ernie’s Chain Gang,” a not-so-subtle reference to Fletcher’s role in the state merit-hiring scandal that led a Franklin County grand jury to issue 15 open indictments against administration officials and 14 more closed ones. Fletcher pardoned them all except himself. On the Republican side, the kids wore Fletcher T-shirts that said “No Casinos” on the back. So far the campaign’s crucial issue has been Democrat Steve Beshear’s support for having casino gaming put to a statewide referendum. Fletcher opposes expanded gaming on moral grounds, but Beshear claims it is a business decision designed to staunch the flow of Kentucky dollars to riverboat casinos in rival states.“We already have casino gambling,” Beshear said. “It’s in Northern Kentucky, but it’s just across the river in Ohio. It’s in Louisville, but it’s just across the river in Indiana. And it’s here in Western Kentucky, but it’s just across the river in Illinois.” Fletcher is gambling his re-election on the belief that Beshear will be unable to sell that message to the small-town folks in rural Kentucky. The sort of people, in other words, who made up the vast majority of the estimated crowd of 10,000 at Fancy Farm. That being the case, Fletcher must have been shaken by what he saw and heard during his short stay on the stage last Saturday. Judging by the scorn they heaped on Fletcher and the other wooden figures who sat on the Republican side of the state, the people are tired of having their intelligence insulted. They are more enlightened than Fletcher and his consorts seem to believe. Their message, loud and clear, was this: Fear and ignorance don’t live here anymore.“I think Beshear will win down here because of the gambling,” a Mayfield resident said. “That casino over there in Illinois is raking in millions, and a lot of it’s coming from Kentucky. Why should we build their schools and pave their roads?”Exactly. The people get it. Or, at least, they’re coming around. During the next three months, the Democrats need to crisscross the commonwealth, allaying the imagined fears that the Fletcherites are trying to make real through a disingenuous misinformation campaign.As is the case with drinking and smoking, gambling has long existed in Kentucky under the aegis of a sweet double standard. The same two-faced politicians who deplore it on moral grounds love to spend the tax dollars it generates. Besides, gambling was a way of life in Kentucky, due to our world-famous horse industry, long before it was in Nevada or any other state.Not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns about allowing casino gaming at racetracks and other cities that want it. But Fletcher and his running mates make their case in such a heavy-handed, sophomoric, cartoonish way that it’s simply impossible to take them seriously.On Saturday, for example, Fletcher’s speech evolved into a theater of the absurd. When he assailed Beshear on the gambling issue, his purposely misleading remarks where illustrated by a young Republican dressed as “Easy Money Steve.” When Fletcher accused Beshear of being in favor of gun control, another young Republican materialized as a hunter armed with a huge slingshot.Naturally, a witch appeared when Fletcher again accused Attorney General Greg Stumbo of turning the merit-system investigation into a “political witch hunt.” Silliest of all was the budding neo-con dressed as Moses who appeared when Fletcher accosted Beshear for ordering the Ten Commandments removed from courthouse walls when he was state Attorney General. “What would Moses think?” said Fletcher. The answer, of course, was that Moses would understand that Beshear was obeying the U.S. Supreme Court, which had ruled such displays were unconstitutional.After leaving the podium, Fletcher insisted that his exit interview be conducted in front of an exhibit which the Republicans called “Beshearville,” a mythical Kentucky town where all the Mom ’n’ Pop stores either have slot machines or are boarded up, where every family has been ruined by divorce and/or bankruptcy caused by gambling, where a massage parlor is on every corner, and where Tony Soprano is everybody’s next-door neighbor.When it was Stan Lee’s turn at the podium, the mustachioed Republican candidate for Attorney General looked at opponent Jack Conway and roared, “If you bring casinos into Kentucky, you bring a crime wave with it — and that’s a fact, Jack!” When it was his turn, Conway said, “I find some of this stuff to be kind of amusing, but I must point out that we have serious issues in this state — and we need serious people to tackle them.”Sadly, the Republicans don’t get it. With U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell setting the tone, they trotted out the tired old stuff about Beshear being an elitist, about Mongiardo being a “cradle robber” (his fiancée is twenty-something years younger), about Stumbo fathering a child out of wedlock, about Conway not being as “manly” as Lee. But it didn’t fly. And if it doesn’t fly in Fancy Farm, it’s not likely to fly anywhere else on the campaign trail.Once Fletcher pardoned himself and left the proceedings prematurely, once he got away from the political hue and cry, he might have heard something interesting coming from the other open-air pavilion on the picnic grounds, only 50 yards or so from where he had just tried to whip up fears about casino gambling.Here’s what wafted through the heavy summertime air.“Will the two people with bingos come up front and claim their prizes … go ahead and clear your cards … we have a special prize coming up at 4:30, and that’s the oak curio … the first number is I-28 ... Under the O, it’s 64 …”Bingo! Gambling! Right here in Fancy Farm! Oh, my. The Bingo players looked happy and content, far different from the roiling crowd across the way. Who knows? Maybe if they got lucky enough that afternoon, they crossed the river into Illinois and hit the craps tables that night. Contact the writer at www.billyreedsays.com