Sunday, October 08, 2000

Lucas walks a tightrope between sides

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — With the future bent of Congress very much undecided, Rep. Ken Lucas knows his words might give comfort to the other side. He doesn't care.

        Mr. Lucas, a Richwood Democrat in his first term, won't endorse Vice President Al Gore for president. He even says he doesn't think it makes much difference which party rules Congress.

        “In my own situation, I vote my conscience and I try to vote the conscience of my district and represent my people well,” he said. “I think we need to do the right thing. That's the important thing. I think there is far too much partisanship here, on both sides of the aisle. It's very disappointing to me.”

        In a tricky balancing act, Mr. Lucas has tried to please conservative, Northern Kentucky voters by blurring party identity.

[photo] Rep. Ken Lucas in his office in the Longworth building on Capitol Hill.
(Enquirer photo)
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        He votes with Republicans on taxes, abortion, gun control and tobacco. He votes with Democrats on health care and education.

        As one of the Blue Dogs, a collection of conservative mostly southern Democrats, Mr. Lucas has elevated debt reduction and prudent federal spending to priorities, even as other Democrats push to use a budget surplus to invest in domestic improvements.

        Don Bell, a retired Secret Service agent challenging Mr. Lucas, believes Mr. Lucas is exaggerating his conservatism.

        “It is totally a charade, and I resent it, because he is my congressman,” said Mr. Bell, of Buckner, Ky. “No one has ever held his feet to the fire.”

        Mr. Bell said Mr. Lucas has not been a vocal enough advocate against abortion or gun control, and has not adequately defended tobacco farmers.

        “When you're dealing with these issues, you have to make noise,” he said. “You have to do something more than just say you're for it or against it.”

        On other issues, Mr. Bell said he would downsize the U.S. Department of Education to an agency, allow people to invest some of their Social Security money in the stock market, and try to unravel the decision to grant permanent normal trade relations with China.

        The biggest difference between them? “I'm a Republican and he's a Democrat,” Mr. Bell said. “He will do anything to be elected, just like Al Gore.”

    Name: Ken Lucas
    Age: 67
    Born: Aug. 22, 1933, in Kenton County.
    Education: Bachelor's degree from the University of Kentucky, 1955; master's of business administration, Xavier University, 1970.
    Religion: Disciples of Christ.
    Family: Married to Mary Kappas, five children.
    Home: Richwood.
    Career experience: Air Force, 1955-57, Air National Guard, 1957-67; financial planner, Sagemark Consulting, 1967-98; Florence City Council, 1967-74; Boone County Commissioner, 1974-82; Boone County Judge-executive, 1992-98; U.S. House, 1998-present.
    Committees: Agriculture; Budget.
    Interest group ratings: Not available, first term.
    Totals through June 30
    Lucas: $761,142
    Bell: $24,240
    Source: Federal Election Commission

        Mr. Lucas talked with the Enquirer about his ideas.

        Enquirer: The nation's econ omy has surged to record levels, but parts of Kentucky have not shared in the prosperity. Why have these areas been left behind? And what specific things have you tried to do to change things?

        Mr. Lucas: I think education is the tool of empowerment. I'm a first-generation college graduate, so education is very important to me.

        We want to reduce class size. We want to improve infrastructure in our schools. Also, economic development, we were very fortunate in Northern Kentucky to set up, about 12 years ago, the Tri-County Economic Development Corporation.

        We really became very successful in getting new businesses to come to our area. I tried to take the expertise that I've garnered there to the less fortunate parts of my district, which would be in the east, northeast part of the district, where there is underemployment and unemployment, and I've worked with those people in the east.

        In fact, we got a $1 million grant for a technology business center ... where they can bring companies in, let them have temporary headquarters, get them wired for the new, information-age economy.

        Enquirer: The federal government is now in the unique situation of having a budget surplus. There seems to be a consensus around preserving Social Security and Medicare. But what should the next president and Congress do with the rest of the money? Pursue tax cuts? Invest in government programs? Retire the national debt?

        Mr. Lucas: I'm a member of the Blue Dog Democrats, about 30 folks, fiscal conservatives, principally from the southern part of the country, but from all over the country.

        I think what we need to do is fix the roof while the sun is shining. While we've got these surpluses we need to pay down the debt. Our formula at the Blue Dogs is 50 percent for debt reduction and 25 percent for selected tax cuts and 25 percent for other investments in Social Security, Medicare and things like that. ...

        To project out 10 years what this economy is going to be doing, that's a pipe dream. The one thing I can tell you for sure is that whatever is projected, it will be wrong. It could be higher or lower, but it will not be right, and to project out 10 years of surpluses, I don't think is responsible.

        Enquirer: Texas Gov. George W. Bush and other Republicans want people to be able to invest a portion of their Social Security money in the stock market. Do you favor this approach?

        Mr. Lucas: No. I've been in the financial planning business for 32 years prior to coming to Congress, so I think I know and understand the stock market pretty well.

        Social Security is a promise between the generations and I think a lot of what is not realized is that a third of the money in Social Security does not go for retirement.

        It goes for a pre-retirement death benefit, pre-retirement disability. In theory, a worker can be under this program for three months, and prematurely die, and his family would get a huge benefit over many, many years. The same if you become disabled.

        It's more than a retirement plan, and I don't think the American people, in general, realize that. We need to have that basic platform. It needs to be guaranteed. It needs to be there for all these reasons.

        What I am in favor of is setting it up so the American people can save more money. We're at a zero savings rate. We need to be able to let people put $5,000 a year in IRAs instead of $2,000. If you put a pencil to that, if younger folks would put that kind of money away over a period of 20, 25, 30 years, they could invest that as they see fit.

        Enquirer: Everyone seems to agree that some form of prescription drug coverage should be added to Medicare, but how do you think it should be structured?

        Mr. Lucas: I'm very upset at what passed here. I think it's a sham, and I voted against it. The polls show that the American people want a prescription drug benefit, and I think the other side of the aisle realized that and they put forth a bill that doesn't have much substance in it at all.

        What I am for is a voluntary, comprehensive drug benefit, with no deductible, through Medicare, at a very reasonable cost. This is what the American people need.

        When Medicare was established 35 years ago, obviously prescription drugs weren't that much of a cost. But now, with all the life-saving drugs, you know, “wonder drugs,” that's become such a big part of the cost and improved the quality of life. We need to deal with that.

        I can tell you, out in the district, I've seen some horrific cases of people that are doing without food, or they're taking half of the prescription drug that they should take so they can have food. That is something we really need to fix in this day of prosperity.

        Enquirer: There was a lot of momentum for gun control after the Columbine school shootings in Colorado last year and the Million Mom March this year. But Congress has apparently put off legislation requiring mandatory trigger locks and background checks at all gun shows. Do you think these ideas are reasonable?

        Mr. Lucas: I'm very disappointed in what we have not done up here. We have not done a lot of things. We've named a lot of post offices, which I think is OK. I think Congress has shirked its responsibility in dealing with a lot of issues that are very important to the American people.

        I think education issues, health care issues. As a freshman, I'm very proud of the fact that two freshmen and I came up with the lock box to set aside the Social Security and Medicare money and separate it from the rest of the budget. Although it didn't pass, we got it to the floor. The idea stuck, and it did become law, our particular bill did not become law, but it sort of set the tone for the dialogue.

        Enquirer: Should Al Gore be the next president?

        Mr. Lucas: He's been probably in training longer than anybody in a long time in preparation for the job. I think that he could be a good president. I didn't endorse him, have not endorsed him, because there have been some major differences in what I believe and what he believes. That probably got more coverage than what it needed to get.

        We have differences. I'm pro-life. He's pro-choice. He's been pretty tough on our tobacco farmers. And we differ on gun control.

        But, in the main, I think the Democrats have it right on issues of health care, prescription drugs, education, those kinds of things. I'm very comfortable being a Democrat.


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