Sunday, July 02, 2000

Managers for Lucas, Bell offer a study in contrasts

Different styles clash in campaign

        EDGEWOOD — The kind of people who work in a political campaign says a lot about a candidate. And the state of a campaign team — the organization, the focus, the appearance of professionalism or chaos — often provides a road map to where a candidate is heading.

        Take Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore. He changes campaign teams the way most people change underwear. And it shows. He's trailing Republican George W. Bush in every poll on the planet.

        It's a little early to start handicapping this year's 4th Congressional District race between Democratic incumbent Ken Lucas and Republican Don Bell based solely on whom they have chosen to run their campaigns.

        But it's interesting to view the contrasting styles of the two campaign managers — Travis Sowders, a soft-spoken Democrat from Barbourville, Ky., and Republican Eric Deters, an outspoken Independence attorney.

        Mr. Deters is loud, animated, aggressive, demonstrative, bombastic, confident, cocky and brash.

        Mr. Sowders is not.

        That is not a judgment on either man, simply an observation. But one that could easily be validated after spending a couple of seconds with either of them.

        During a Wednesday afternoon lunch, Mr. Deters often talked with his mouth full of food. Not because he has bad table manners but because he has so much to say that the beef stroganoff was getting in the way of the words.

        A few hours later at Covington fund-raiser for Democratic state Senate candidate Jaimie Henson — an event held at the stunning riverfront condo of Democratic backer Jerry Stricker — Mr. Sowders stood quietly in a corner or against the mall, occasionally mingling and chatting but mostly allowing others to grab the spotlight.

        Just about everybody in Northern Kentucky politics knows or knows of Mr. Deters, a onetime wunderkind of Kenton County politics who flamed out in the late 1980s, burned more bridges than Sherman on his way to the sea and then returned last year to kick off his own campaign for county attorney while jumping on Mr. Bell's bandwagon a few weeks ago.

        Most people don't know Mr. Sowders, so here's the skinny:

        Raised in the heavily Republican environs of Knox County near where Kentucky, Tennes see and Virginia meet in a mountainous convergence of natural beauty.

        Though his grandfather and uncle were heavily involved in GOP politics — the uncle was circuit court clerk for 30 years — Mr. Sowders is all Democrat.

        “My parents are working people,” said Mr. Sowders, 25, raised by a truck driver and a medical secretary. “To me, the Democrats are all about looking out for working people.”

        He graduated No. 2 in his class at Knox Central High School, went off to Princeton University, where he received a degree in public policy, and landed on Capitol Hill working for a West Virginia congressman.

        After Mr. Lucas was elected, he sent the new Kentucky congressman a resume, was hired as a deputy press secretary and all-around computer guy and is now running his first campaign.

        John Lapp, Mr. Lucas' chief of staff, called Mr. Sowders “A workhorse with a natural instinct for politics.”

        “It's daunting, but I love it,” Mr. Sowders said. “Northern Kentucky is a great place, and it's great to be back in Kentucky.”

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