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June 11, 2008

A house out of order - Kentucky Democrats keep fighting about Clinton/Obama, ignoring bigger issues at their own peril

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Sharon Woods of Floyd County sat outside the Lexington Convention Center on Saturday smoking a cigarette, a wrinkled Hillary Clinton sticker pasted to her shirt. She was waiting for the start of the Kentucky Democratic Party convention. Only a few hours earlier, Clinton announced what everyone knew a week ago or more: She lost. Party politics, however, are ritualistic. Only until the loser says the winner has won is the public allowed to move on. 

“I’m going to back the Democratic Party,” Woods said. Accepting Clinton’s defeat was hard, but Woods is prepared to support Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, in November. Others are having a harder time. 

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, 30 percent of Clinton supporters say they will either stay home or back presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. Saying she was the “tip of the iceberg” of a mass of anti-Obama sentiment among Clinton supporters, Louisville Metro Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, told WHAS-TV last week she wasn’t convinced that Obama has what it takes to be president, a comment that stirred enough controversy on the blogs PageOneKentucky.com and TheVilleVoice.com (sister sites that sometimes share content) to provoke an unusual attempt at clarification from Ward-Pugh. 

She told LEO in an interview afterward that her comments were taken out of context. “I’m not one of those 30 percent,” she said. 

For ardent feminists like Ward-Pugh, who wore “I’m for Hillary’s Husband” buttons during the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton is iconic. Even though Obama won Ward-Pugh’s district by 60 percent with all but two of the precincts in the May 20 Kentucky primary, Ward-Pugh wasn’t going to budge until Hillary relinquished. It wasn’t that she was against Obama, Ward-Pugh said; she was simply behind her candidate.

Finishing her cigarette, Woods said stubborn raw feelings should be expected near the end of such a hard-fought campaign. When you back a candidate, you’re 100 percent behind her, she noted. It’s hard to let go. 

Clinton thumped Obama by 35 points in Kentucky, and a lot of Democrats were still holding on to her candidacy last weekend, while their buoyant Obama counterparts celebrated. Walking that tightrope just hours after Clinton acknowledged Obama’s victory, party leaders may have inadvertently teased memories of Hillary with rallying cries of unity by opening a window for an Obama/Clinton ticket: The day before the convention, Gov. Steve Beshear endorsed Obama but added a suggestion: Put Clinton on the ticket. He said the pair would be “unbeatable.” 

martypearl.com: Gov. Steve Beshear, who insiders have long said would support Hillary Clinton, spoke at a Clinton rally in Louisville May 9. Beshear endorsed Obama last week.
martypearl.com: Gov. Steve Beshear, who insiders have long said would support Hillary Clinton, spoke at a Clinton rally in Louisville May 9. Beshear endorsed Obama last week.

The governor’s recommendation was not lost Saturday among Hillary supporters, many of whom cited the suggestion and complained that Obama gave the Bluegrass little attention outside of Louisville and Lexington. 

“If she’s his running mate, it’s going to bridge that gap,” Woods said, noting that if the Obama campaign wants to attract Appalachia voters, picking Hillary as the vice president would be a panacea. Before she lit another cigarette, a black SUV pulled up and dropped off Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, an avowed Obama supporter.  

“With Barack Obama, anybody he chooses is going to be a dream ticket,” Mongiardo told LEO. 


Much of the convention chatter was on the open wounds within the state party, some of which are the result of the bitter battle for the presidential nomination.

Colmon Elridge, president of the Fayette County Young Democrats, said that after one of the most contentious primaries in a generation, Kentucky Dems have a lot of work to do. 

“Outside of rallying behind Barack Obama, we’ve got a lot of healing and rallying to do here in Kentucky,” he said.

Part of that healing is having difficult conversations about a culturally heterogeneous party that most within it seem content to avoid. The donkey in the room during the convention was the race vote from the May 20 primary. Just about every Democrat mentioned the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech by U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the only high-profile Dem who is talking openly about the exit poll results that suggested one in five Kentuckians wouldn’t vote for an African American.

“In recent weeks, racial bigotry has reared its ugly head in our state,” Yarmuth said. “Whenever we encounter a Democrat who says he or she cannot vote for a black man, we must not walk away and let that blind hatred fester.”

Strong words from a freshman congressman when others denied the poll existed. The rift is palpable, and it is between city and rural constituencies, black and white voters, liberal and centrist leadership. 

For Sharon Woods and some others, those issues belong in the backseat now that the Democrats have a nominee. 

“By golly, get behind (Obama),” she said. “And push him on.” 


Contact the writer at 

pbailey@leoweekly.comew