Sunday, May 16, 1999

Patton courting controversy


With re-election all but ensured, what's he up to?

BY PATRICK CROWLEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — We figured Gov. Paul Patton would be playing it safe these days.

        The Republicans haven't exactly brought out the A team in trying to unseat the popular Democrat, who appears to be on his way to a second term next year.

        And at no time over the past few months has that been more evident than last Tuesday, when the GOP's gubernatorial candidates — David L. Williams and Peppy “I'm peppy” Martin — squared off in a debate televised on statewide television.

        Because of a bout with throat cancer, Mr. Williams speaks with the aid of a mechanical voice device, which makes many of his comments inaudible or hard to understand. He has raised no money and hasn't really campaigned for the seat.

        Peppy was very peppy, describing herself as a “Kentucky gal” and showing at least some knowledge and positions on a few issues while bashing Mr. Patton at every opportunity.

Why stir the pot?
        But still, neither made much of an impact, and neither has the money, campaign, organization, experience, political background or anything else to run against an incumbent who is a smart politician, who has picked up support from a lot of Republicans and Reagan Democrats and who has money in the bank, a statewide political network and the benefit of the bully pulpit in Frankfort.

        So why, with so much going in his favor, would Mr. Patton roll out two controversial, emotional issues such as casino gambling and a tax hike?

        Over the past few weeks Mr. Patton has started a big buzz on the two issues. Both have been covered by every media outlet in the state.

        In both instances he has characterized his involvement as facilitator and not necessarily an advocate of either casinos or an increase of as much as a dime in the state's gas tax to pay for more road repairs.

        “I have tried to provoke the debate,” Mr. Patton said last week during an interview in his State Capitol office when asked why he decided to roll out his thoughts on casinos.

        “And I think I've done that,” he said with a laugh.

        Theories are piling up as to why Mr. Patton, with the November election all but wrapped up, would take the risk of jumping on not one but two volatile political issues.

        Some Republicans are privately speculating that Mr. Patton is trying to drum up some campaign contributions from the deep-pocketed gaming industry, which has a history of dumping dough in states where they are trying to establish a foothold.

        Mr. Patton has said neither he nor the Kentucky Democratic Party have sought or will accept campaign money from gaming companies while the debate goes on. Campaign finance reports for both the governor and the party show that that, at least so far, is true.

        But the Republicans, and frankly some Democrats, believe Mr. Patton is keeping the financial pipelines open for when Democrats will need money next year to hold on to their state Senate majority, and for Mr. Patton's future political plans.

        “He doesn't need the money this year,” speculated a local Republican elected official. “But he'll need money some day if he runs for anything else, like the U.S. Senate.”

Waking up the voters
        There's also the thought that Mr. Patton is trying to show leadership on a couple of tough issues. Like it or not, lots of money is flowing from Kentucky and into the state and local government coffers in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri — all neighboring states with riverboat gambling.

        That's a big revenue stream that few politicians can resist at least trying to tap.

        The notion of bumping up the state gas tax has been raised before by others in and around government, so that idea is hardly new. A little risky for a politician, but still not new and not so radical given that Mr. Patton will not face a formidable challenge in November.

        What we think Mr. Patton is up to has to do with making sure the election does not slip away, or at the least not embarrass, the Democratic Party this fall.

        Because while Mr. Williams and Ms. Martin hardly present a mean challenge, apathy does.

        Hardly anybody in Kentucky is excited when it comes to the 1999 governor's race. Most people probably don't even know there is a Republican gubernatorial primary in just about two weeks. And at least in Northern Kentucky, they don't know Peppy Martin from Pepper Martin, the third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals Gas House Gang of the 1930s.

        But that is actually a danger for the Democrats. Voters stay home thinking Mr. Patton has the thing won and he doesn't bury the Republican like he should. Or maybe — and stranger things have happened — the GOP decides to turn out and gives Mr. Williams or Peppy a four-year pass to the governor's mansion.

        So Mr. Patton needs to appear as if he is a firm leader with great vision and ideas, a pol willing to take on the tough issue for the sake of debate. Remember, he hasn't endorsed gambling or a gas tax increase. He's just talking about them.

        Talking about those issues keeps him on the front page, in the news and on people's minds. That way the voters may be a little more likely to know he is running for re-election and turn out in November.

        In that interview last week, Mr. Patton said he isn't that much of a gambler. Those who observe his political strategy may beg to differ.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. His column appears Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 578-5581, or (502) 875-7526 in Frankfort, or by e-mail at crowleys@cinci.infi.net.

Casino talk worries tracks
CROWLEY ARCHIVE