Thursday, November 11, 1999

State Senate seat is a hot one


Westwood faces turned tables

BY PATRICK CROWLEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ERLANGER — The next time you see Republican state Sen. Jack Westwood, take a look at his back. That's where the Democrats have painted a big target.

        Mr. Westwood is a marked man, politically speaking. He is up for election next year and is in for the fight of his short political life.

        Three years ago, he was the political story in Northern Kentucky — political neophyte, retired teacher, unassuming and quiet, inexperienced, a slight, friendly man who didn't seem cut out for the rough-and-tumble of Kentucky politics.

        He was taking on Sen. Joe Meyer, one of the toughest pols around, a gruff, experienced, street-smart Democrat.

        Then the electoral stars began to line up for Mr. Westwood.

        While Mr. Meyer had one of the most successful tenures of any lawmaker in Frankfort, he also had a long list of enemies during his 16 years in office, and he was ripe for upset.

        The 1996 election season was a big Republican year in Northern Kentucky, with lots of GOP candidates winning elections, another factor in Mr. Westwood's favor.

        Most of all, Mr. Westwood benefited from a top-notch campaign that was well-funded with money from physicians angry at Mr. Meyer for his votes on health care reform.

        The result in that November election three years ago, when Mr. Westwood ended up beating Mr. Meyer with 54 percent of the vote, was one of the greatest upsets in local political history.

        Now it is Mr. Westwood's turn to be the hunted, the incumbent badgered by opponents about bad votes and poor performance in Frankfort, the pol playing defense because of an onslaught by a tough offense.

        Democrats say they can beat Mr. Westwood a year from now with a relatively unknown Inde pendence Democrat named Jaimie Henson, who served two years on her City Council before losing badly in a mayoral race.

        At Ms. Henson's political coming-out-party last week — her campaign announcement — lots of Democratic party leaders and elected officials showed up, from county office holders to executive committee types to city council members from Covington, Erlanger and Independence.

        The idea was to show a united front, that Democrats from the north end of the 23rd Senate District to the southern end are in Ms. Henson's corner.

        Republicans are sounding confident, saying Kenton County — where Mr. Westwood's Senate District is located — is pure GOP territory these days. They haven't shown much fear over Ms. Henson's candidacy.

        “She couldn't even get elected mayor of Independence,” said a dismissive Damon Thayer, the Kentucky GOP vice chairman who is helping advise the Westwood campaign.

        But Mr. Westwood hasn't been taking anything for granted.

        He announced his campaign months ago, went door-to-door this summer and already has about $35,000 in the bank.

        With the new GOP Senate majority in Frankfort, Mr. Westwood can expect prime committee assignments or even a chairmanship.

        Mr. Westwood has also assembled a seasoned campaign team featuring the likes of Mr. Thayer; media consultant Marc Wilson; fund-raiser Dick Hammersmith; and Fort Wright councilman Dave Hatter, the owner of a Cincinnati computer firm who is creating a Web site for the candidate and will provide other computer-related services.

        The campaign can also count on help from the state and county parties. Kenton County GOP Chairman Greg Shumate, in particular, was masterful in leading the party's get-out-the-vote efforts in last year's county elections and is expected to do the same next fall.

        But the Dems are lining up an equally impressive campaign squad, led by Nathan Smith, with help from executive committee member Dave Kramer, party Chairwoman Shirley Huelsmann, Vince Gabbert of the state Democratic Party and veterans of U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas' victory in the 1998 4th District congressional race. Businessman Biz Cain and community and political activist Alice Sparks will help raise money.

        Both sides should be awash in money and, with control of the Senate up for grabs next year, the camps will be clawing at each other like a couple of alley cats.

        As in any race, each candidate has his or her own set of negatives to confront.

        For Ms. Henson, it will be trying to build name recognition and credibility while trying to win as a Democrat is what is fast becoming a Republican county.

        For Mr. Westwood, he has to try to overcome his reputation as a meek leader in Frankfort while looking for that same passion and fire that was so evident in his first campaign. Incumbents running for re-election can't often replicate the magic of that first big win.

        Looking for a good political race to watch as we head into next year? This could be a good one. This could be a war.

        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.