Sunday, February 18, 2001

PSC hopeful may be stymied

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — The highest ranking Northern Kentucky member of Gov. Paul Patton's administration, utility regulator Martin Huelsmann of Fort Mitchell, may be facing heat from Senate Republicans.

        Mr. Huelsmann is chairman of the powerful Public Service Commission (PSC), which oversees the operation, rate structure and other facets of Kentucky's power, phone and other public utilities. Gov. Patton appointed him Aug. 1. He and the governor are Democrats.

        Like 37 other gubernatorial nominees, Mr. Huelsmann is awaiting confirmation by the General Assembly. Most appointees sail through with little or no conflict or debate.

        But Mr. Huelsmann, and his wife, Shirley, a former chairwoman of the Kenton County Democratic Party, have long been active in Democratic politics.

        Along with contributing more than $14,000 to Mr. Patton and the Kentucky Democratic Party over the last six years, the two have also openly supported Democratic candidates at the state, local and national levels for years.

        Though Mr. Huelsmann's overt political involvement has largely ceased since his appointment to the PSC, Democrats in Frankfort are privately fearing that Senate Republicans may retaliate against him anyway, especially for his past support of Mr. Patton.

        “It's a concern,” a Democratic lawmaker said last week. “We hope it doesn't happen, but there is a lot of partisan activity going on down here this session, and there could be casualties.”

        Mr. Huelsmann chose not to comment on the nomination process, a PSC spokeswoman said Friday.

        Mr. Patton said he is confident his appointees will be confirmed, though it was reported this week that 14 people Mr. Patton has appointed to state boards and commissions — including two Republicans — have contributed $47,000 in total to the Democratic Party and its candidates in recent years.

        “I expect they will do a thorough review of the people's qualifications and, unless they find them unqualified, I presume they will be confirmed,” Mr. Patton said.

        For their part, Senate Republicans are promising that politics won't enter the confirmation process.

        “We intend on letting everyone have a full hearing,” said Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.

        But Mr. Williams and some of his fellow Republicans, who control the Senate by a 20 to 18 majority, said background checks on the nominees are being conducted. Those checks include a review of political contributions, he said.

        Some Democrats said they fear opposition from Sen. Jack West wood, R-Erlanger. In both of his election campaigns — 1996 and 2000 — Mrs. Huelsmann was heavily involved in working against Mr. Westwood.

        But Mr. Westwood said Friday he has no intention of letting politics play a role in how he views, questions or votes on gubernatorial nominees.

        Mr. Huelsmann “is not his wife,” Mr. Westwood said Friday.

        “My race has nothing to do with the nomination process. All I'm going to look at is his qualifications and if he's qualified to do the job and has done a good job, I'll have no problem with him.”

        Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, said she is prepared to support Mr. Huelsmann.

        “Marty does a good job,” Mrs. Stine said. “Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I'll vote to confirm him.”

        An attorney known for wearing his signature bow ties, Mr. Huelsmann was a longtime assistant to Kenton County Attorney John Elfers, who left office after losing the 1993 Democratic primary to Garry Edmondson.

        Mr. Huelsmann also has worked as a professor at Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law in Highland Heights.

        Mr. Huelsmann joined the Patton administration in early 1996 as the No. 2 person in the Justice Cabinet, where he helped select the site in Newport for the regional juvenile detention center.

        He also oversaw the liquidation of Kentucky Central Life Insurance, a large downstate insurance company. Mr. Huelsmann has served on the executive branch ethics commission and on a statewide task force that reviewed implementation of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.

        But he also spent time on the political hot seat.

        Mr. Huelsmann drew criticism in 1995 while serving on the state ethics commission for actively campaigning for Mr. Patton. It was also reported that while attending the Democratic National Convention in August — where his wife was a delegate — Mr. Huelsmann attended events sponsored by the same utilities he is paid to regulate.

        But Mr. Huelsmann said at the time he never talked about business pending before the commission and that he later reimbursed the companies for the cost of meals.

        Some Democrats are concerned that the confirmation process, which just like a bill must move through the legislature's committee structure before heading to the full House and Senate, has not begun.

        The session will last about another month, and if a vote is not taken on a nominee, he loses the appointment.

        “If something is going to happen,” the Democratic lawmaker said, “it is going to have to happen soon, or these confirmations won't get done in time.”

        The Associated Press contributed.


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