Sunday, June 03, 2001

Jumping parties

Perception depends on persuasion

        Funny how perceptions can change depending on aisle position when an elected official switches parties.

        Last week Republicans were in an absolute goo over the defection of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who became an independent and gave Democrats a majority in the Senate.

        Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who loses his stature as Senate majority leader, told reporters that Mr. Jeffords staged a “coup of one.”

        “The decision of one man has — however else you describe it — trumped the will of the American people,” Mr. Lott ranted.

        U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican from Southgate, called Mr. Jeffords' move “a pretty drastic step.”

        Kentucky's other senator, Republican Mitch McConnell of Louisville, was apparently so ticked he had nothing to say. That's an usual posture for somebody who appears on Sunday morning television as often as a televangelist.

        But my goodness, how different the comments have been when Democrats have switched and joined the Republicans.

Heroes or villains

        In late 1999, the GOP took over the Kentucky state Senate when two Democrats — Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville and Bob Leeper of Paducah — became Republicans.

        Back then, party-switching was the greatest thing to happen since bottled beer, with those who jumped ship hailed as political heroes.

        Former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, in Northern Kentucky for a GOP event in early 2000, helped recruit Sens. Seum and Leeper.

        He saluted the pair for “their leadership and courage.”

        Mr. Bunning sure didn't say the moves by the senators were drastic.

        “I hope this means a better balance to state government than we've had, one that has to have compromise. And that's good for all the citizens,” he said.

        And Mr. McConnell was downright chatty then, calling it “an exciting time.”

        The Democrats are no different when it comes to short memories.

        Last week the Dems were just tickled when Mr. Jeffords announced his plans to quit the Republicans.

Switch causes snit

        South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, who will be the new majority leader in the Democratic-controlled Senate, called Mr. Jeffords “courageous” (there's that word again).

        But when the Democrats lost the Kentucky Senate because of party-switchers, heads should have rolled.

        Gov. Paul Patton, as well as his daughter, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairwoman Nicki Patton, called for Mr. Seum and Mr. Leeper to resign, which they refused to do.

        And a couple of years ago when two Boone County elected officials — Sheriff Mike Helmig and Commonwealth Attorney Willie Mathis — hooked up with the GOP, county Democratic Chairman Kristi Nelson let them have it.

        “Words like "disingenuous' and "opportunist' come to mind,” she fumed.

        Here's the point:

        One person's party-jumper is another's party-crasher.

        It's a real party when somebody breaks ranks and joins a new party. But those left behind see the defector as nothing more than a party pooper.

        And that goes for both parties.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for the Enquirer. Contact him by phone: 578-5581; e-mail:


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