Monday, February 19, 2001

McConnell challenged in '02 race

Democrat Weinberg has roots in Ky. politics

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — An eastern Kentucky Democrat will jump into the political ring today to challenge Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is widely viewed as the most powerful and successful Republican in Kentucky.

        Even Democrats admit that the U.S. Senate candidacy of Lois Combs Weinberg, of Hindman in Knott County, is a long shot at best.

        Mrs. Weinberg is the daughter of former Gov. Bert T. Combs. A Harvard graduate, the 57-year-old mother of three has spent most of her professional life in education.

        She plans to announce her candidacy at an 11:30 a.m. news conference in the State Capitol Rotunda. She declined to be available for comment late last week.

        Asked about the challenge, Mr. McConnell would not acknowledge her as an opponent because Mrs. Weinberg had not yet formally entered the race.

        “It's too early,” Mr. McConnell said from Washington.

        “I don't know who my opponent will be. But I do intend to run next year.”

        Democrats lost that Senate seat in 1984 when Mr. McConnell, then judge-executive of Jefferson County, upset Democratic incumbent Walter “Dee” Huddleston of Elizabethtown.

        Since then, Democrats in Kentucky have come to fear the three-term incumbent during campaign season, whether Mr. McConnell is running his own race or helping other Republicans win, as he did in the 1998 Senate race of Southgate Republican Jim Bunning.

        Mr. McConnell is a prodigious fund-raiser, organizer and campaign strategist whose face is familiar to many Kentucky voters. For those reasons and more, Republicans are already predicting a huge victory in 2002.

        “Mitch McConnell is going to rack up a winning margin in Kentucky that will be embarrassing to the Democrats,” said Damon Thayer, vice chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party.

        “Having said that, I know that he will take this race seriously and run as if it were his first time on the ballot.”

        Mr. McConnell already has raised more than $1 million and has a staff member, Scott Douglas, working full time to raise more.

        But Mr. McConnell's reputation as a fund-raiser, as well as his well-known opposition to campaign finance reform, could turn out to be his Achilles heel, according to a local Democratic leader.

        Fort Thomas resident Terry Mann, a member of the Campbell County Democratic Executive Committee, predicted that Mr. McConnell could suffer politically if he continues to oppose campaign finance reforms sponsored by a member of his own party — Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

        “McConnell is the lead dog against that issue, and if it turns nasty in Washington this year when it comes time to debate and vote on that bill, it could hurt him,” Mr. Mann said.

        “People think there is too much money in politics, and if a Democrat can successfully make that point, McConnell could face some rough political seas over the issue.”

        Mrs. Weinberg has worked as a teacher and is a member of the Council on Postsecondary Education. She is also a former University of Kentucky trustee and a past member of the Governor's Commission on Children and Families.

        In the 1970s she helped found the Hindman Settlement School's Dyslexia Program, and in 1986 was named one of the top 10 volunteers by the Kentucky Department of Education.


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