Sunday, January 16, 2000

They're dancing with the voters

N.Ky. lawmakers have social agenda

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — Curbing abortions. No “special rights” for gays. Keeping church camps pure. Those topics are among the “hot button” bills that Northern Kentucky lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have filed in the legislative session that got under way last week.

        Local legislators are known for carrying the ball in Frankfort for conservative social causes. The Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus is recognized in the Capitol as the group of lawmakers most likely to introduce and support bills that have religious or starkly conservative aims.

        “Must be something in the water up there in Northern Kentucky,” one member of the press quipped last week when the discussion turned to the church camp bill.

        The bill, filed by Rep. Tom Kerr, a conservative Democrat from Taylor Mill, would let churches get around civil rights laws by allowing them to refuse to rent facilities such as church camps to groups they differ with religiously.

        The bill sprang out of a request by Baptist churches in Boone County that felt forced to rent a church camp four years ago to a group that doesn't believe in God.

        The Baptists didn't turn the group down for fear of being sued, so now the churches are pushing the law Mr. Kerr is sponsoring. The bill sailed out of a House committee on a 10-3 vote and will probably pass the full House later this month.

        This demonstrates that while local lawmakers have earned their billing as Bible-thumpers, they are not alone in Frankfort.

        As the Republican Party has grown in Kentucky, so too has the number of socially conservative lawmakers.

        In this session, lawmakers from downstate have joined Northern Kentucky lawmakers in introducing bills seemingly inspired by groups like the Christian Coalition.

        One example is the bill that would allow school districts to post the Ten Commandments.

        That came from elsewhere in Ken tucky, not Northern Kentucky, though you can bet most of our lawmakers will be voting for it.

        One has to wonder why our local pols come off sounding and acting like so many Puritans when they hunker down in Frankfort for 60 days every two years.

        Part of it may have to do with the makeup and history of this region, which is conservative in more than just politics. You have Baptists who were here long before just about anybody else, when Northern Kentucky was mostly just farms and small towns.

        Then you have lots of Roman Catholic German and Irish who came to this country in the great European migrations.

        These days we're seeing lots of conservative suburban types — soccer moms — moving into the fast-growing suburbs that used to be farms. It's safe to say that despite party affiliation, all of those groups are conservative.

        Even Democrats are conservative in Northern Kentucky.

        Republicans, particularly around election time, always try to paint local Democrats as big East Coast liberals, like Ted Kennedy and Bill Bradley.

        In truth, Mr. Kerr and U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas are Democrats who vote and act like Republicans.

        It can be argued that the legisla tors in Frankfort are just representing their constituents when they introduce bills to reduce abortions and make sure gays don't have “special rights” over anyone else.

        Maybe, but it's probably more accurate to say they are playing to the crowd that votes as much as anything else.

        There also are politically active groups eager to exploit the philosophical beliefs of a community. The anti-abortion group Northern Kentucky Right to Life does this as well as any group around with its voter guides, protests and contributions to candidates.

        Right to Life also has a striking resemblance to the old political machines that once operated so effectively across the river. Either you're with them or you're against them.

        And if you're against them, look out. That isn't to say our lawmakers lack conviction. What it does say is that you have to dance with the one who brought you.

        As long as conservative voters keep going to the polls, Frankfort is going to keep getting conservative lawmakers from Northern Kentucky.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. He can be reached at 578-5581, or (502) 875-7526 in Frankfort, or by e-mail at