Sunday, May 21, 2000

Dems circle the wagons

Party's old guard tries to undermine younger candidate

column sig
        ALEXANDRIA — The youngest Democratic Party officeholder in Campbell County is Bill Verst. He's 44. He doesn't look it, but that's how old he is.

        The other night, when the party's leaders gathered for a dinner at the Syndicate restaurant, it seemed like the only people in the room of 200 or so who were under 30 were the Deaton boys from Southgate.

        The point, and we'll try to be as kind as possible, is that it might be time for the party to start looking for some new blood. That's not to slam the age, wisdom and experience of the party. It is those attributes that have made Campbell County the last Democratic bastion in Northern Kentucky.

        But only Dick Clark never gets old. Sooner or later, the Dems will need to bring along some younger members. The Republicans certainly are.

        Go to most GOP fund-raisers or a party event in Northern Kentucky and the place is often packed — yes, packed — with Gen X'ers and 30-somethings.

        So what happens when a young Democrat like Ken Johnson, a 34-year-old candidate for Campbell County circuit clerk on Tuesday's primary ballot, comes along?

        He gets practically run over by machine-style politics.

        Mr. Johnson's crime, in the view of many Democratic leaders, is that he had the audacity to take on incumbent Circuit Clerk Tom Calme, a loyal Democrat who has given the party years of service.

        Mr. Johnson could have handled getting involved in party politics a little better. He could have started showing up at party meetings sooner, although he did work on the campaigns of Democrats such as Justin Verst, Mickey Foellger and Dan Guidugli.

        He could have picked a lower office to run for to get acclimated to the party. He could have done a lot of things differently.

        But he didn't deserve the treatment he received.

        The Democratic Men's Club, a group that should stay out of primary races, gave Mr. Calme a $500 donation. Only after showing up at a couple of meetings and arguing for fairness was Mr. Johnson given a similar donation.

        Democrats leaked information that Mr. Johnson had never voted, which proved to be untrue.

        Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass, a close friendof Mr. Calme's, tried to use a broad interpretation of campaign finance laws to make Mr. Johnson's twin brother Keith, a lawyer with an office directly across York Street from the county courthouse, remove a Johnson campaign sign because it was close to a polling place for absentee voters.

        There's more, but I think you get the picture.

        Some Democrats have privately told me Mr. Johnson was naive not to expect a hard time for taking on an entrenched Democrat such as Mr. Calme.

        The Johnson boys don't mind a good fight. They thrive on competition, going back to their days as star athletes at Campbell County High School.

        They just want a fair fight. But it doesn't look like they've received one.

        Nobody expects the Dems to lie down and dis Mr. Calme just because some fresh faces show up to run for office.

        But this isn't the way to attract and keep a young candidate who appears to have some decent political attributes.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. He can be reached at (859) 578-5581, or by e-mail at