Monday, September 02, 2002

'Pivotal year' in Northern Ky. elections

Contested races heating up across the region

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        From the halls of Congress to city halls and county courthouses across Northern Kentucky, the 2002 election could provide a seismic shift in the region's balance of power.

        Depending on the outcomes of contested races, new faces, agendas and direction could arrive in several of Northern Kentucky's top elected offices. Among those facing opposition are Northern Kentucky's U.S. House member, judge-executives in the region's two largest counties, mayors in fast-growing communities and the four incumbent city commissioners in the area's largest city.

        “It's a pivotal year,” said Covington Schools Superintendent Jack Moreland, often active in Democratic campaigns. “The status quo in a number of places is being challenged. Looking across the board you have to think some of the people in office now might not be there after the election.”

        With the arrival of Labor Day weekend - the traditional kickoff of the political season - candidates and the voters they woo are just beginning to focus on the campaigns, personalities and issues shaping the Nov. 5 election.

        “It's going to be an interesting fall,” said veteran Northern Kentucky campaign watcher Bill Aylor, the Kenton County Clerk and a Democrat who is running unopposed this year. “The (Kenton County) judge-executive race should be interesting. You've got a crowded city commission race in Covington. It should be pretty exciting.”

        Though it's a little early for such predictions, Mr. Aylor expects voter turnout of less than 50 percent of registered voters on Election Day.

        “We'll probably be at around 45 percent, which is normal for this kind of election, where there is not a presidential race but some interesting local races,” he said. “If you had more of an exciting race at the top of the ticket, I think we would see a better turnout.”

        There is a U.S. Senate race on the ballot this year. Eastern Kentucky Democrat Lois Combs Weinberg, the daughter of former Gov. Bert T. Combs, is challenging three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Louisville. But the race has generated little buzz, locally or nationally, Mr. Aylor said.

        Mr. McConnell has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of Northern Kentucky's two-decade long swing toward electing Republicans to office. The senator often says that he enjoys some of his strongest support in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties. In his last campaign, a 1996 win over Democrat Steve Beshear, Mr. McConnell carried about 60 percent of the Northern Kentucky vote.

        In the mid-1960s Northern Kentucky was solid Democrat. But as this area has grown in population and affluence, more Republicans have moved in to take many of the white collar jobs created at places such as Fidelity Investments, Toyota and Ashland.

        Today, Boone County is the largest GOP-controlled county in the state, with 26,314 Republicans compared with 21,891 Democrats, according to the secretary of state's office. The GOP also has gained in the other counties, though Democrats still lead in voter registrations in Kenton County (43,448 to 38,422) and Campbell County (26,158 to 22,770).

        GOP candidates get a further boost from Northern Kentucky Democrats, who are typically more conservative than Democrats in other parts of the country and often vote for Republicans.

        In the most far-reaching race this fall - the Fourth Congressional District campaign - two-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Democrat, wrings a lot of political juice from his frequent support for the Republican agenda pushed by President Bush.Mr. Lucas faces a credible challenge from Boone County Republican Geoff Davis, a business consultant who has never held nor run for office.

        Though the president has not appeared in the district to campaign for Mr. Davis, several leading national Republicans have, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.

        Just last Friday U.S. Rep. J.W. Watts of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said the Lucas/Davis race is on the GOP's national radar.

        “This is a race we are watching back in Washington,” Mr. Watts said after attending a fund-raiser for Mr. Davis at the Fort Mitchell Country Club. “It's one we can win ... because we know we need Republicans in the Congress to pass the Republican Party's agenda.”

        Ben Davis, Mr. Lucas' campaign manager, said Mr. Lucas votes with the president on most issues, “including tax cuts, free trade issues, a prescription drug benefit for seniors and other issues important to the voters in the Fourth District.”

        Four years ago, Republicans won the judge-executive seats in all three Northern Kentucky counties for the first time. This year Democrats are trying to take incumbents out in the two largest counties.

        Democrat Shawn Carroll is challenging Judge-executive Gary Moore in Boone County and Democrat Patrick Hughes is taking on incumbent Dick Murgatroyd in Kenton County. Campbell County Judge-executive Steve Pendery, a Fort Thomas Republican, is unopposed.

        The Kenton County Democratic Party, in particular, is making a strong run at beating incumbents.

        Democrats Sue Sampson, Mike Baker and Stephen Wright are also trying to take two Kenton County Fiscal Court seats from incumbent Republicans Dan Humpert, Barb Black and Adam Koenig. Also in Kenton County, Republican Jailer Terry Carl is challenged by Democrat George Russell while Democrat Kate Molly is running against Republican incumbent county attorney Garry Edmondson.

        Turfway Park president Bob Elliston, who has advised Republican candidates in past elections, said this year's elections would be a “validation” of the choices voters made in 1998.

        “The voters made historic choices four years ago in electing Republicans across Northern Kentucky,” Mr. Elliston said. “I think in November we're going to see a validation of that trend with Republicans being returned to office.”

        Lawyer Mark Guilfoyle, a Kenton County Democratic Party strategist, sarcastically agreed with Mr. Elliston.

        “I agree this election will be about performance, and boy do we have a lot to talk about,” Mr. Guilfoyle said.

        Democrats are trying to show that Kenton County's Republican administration has been inept by raising three taxes, supporting an increase in sewer rates and being unable to settle on a location to build a county jail.

        New faces could also come to the Covington City Commission, where eight candidates - including incumbents Jerry Bamberger, Craig Bohman, Alex Edmondson and J.T. Spence - are vying for four seats. The challengers are former commissioners Jerry Stricker and Bernie Moorman - who served as mayor in the 1970s - teacher Diane Brumback and Howard Hodge, the city's former housing director.

        The possibility of a shakeup was evident in the May primary, when both Mr. Moorman and Mr. Stricker finished ahead of Mr. Edmondson, the only incumbent to place out of the top four slots in the primary.

        “This is an important election because of the momentum the city has seen with development ... on the Ohio River and other places,” said Kristi Nader, executive director of the Covington Business Council, the city's leading business organization.

        “One of the key issues will be making the city a friendlier place for developers to pursue their goals and the city's goals,” Ms. Nader said. “This should be a very active campaign, one that will really shape the city.”

        Other key Northern Kentucky elections include:

        Mayoral races. Mayors will be chosen in more than a dozen cities, including the fast-growing communities of Florence and Independence. In Florence, Boone County's biggest city and one where growth is always an issue, incumbent Diane Ewing Whalen is challenged by E.R. “Rick” White. And in Independence, the booming southern Kenton County city, Chris Moriconi is running against council member Issac “Ike” Gabbard, who previously served as mayor.

        Incumbent mayors also face competition in Highland Heights, Dayton, Walton, Crescent Springs, Elsmere, Erlanger, Fort Mitchell, Lakeside Park, Ludlow and Villa Hills.

        Boone County. Democrats are trying to hold on to two of their remaining courthouse seats: County commissioner, where Democratic incumbent Dr. Tim Hamilton is running against Terri Moore; and County Clerk, where Republican Jay Hall is taking on incumbent Marilyn Rouse.

        Also, Democrat Ray Harris challenges Republican Jailer Ed Prindle. And in an open seat race Democrat Howard Tankersley is running against Republican James Schrand, who won a three-way primary in May.

        Newport. Two former city commissioners - Tom Ferrara and Laura Roberts - are among those challenging incumbents Jerry “Rex” Peluso, Jan Knepshield and Beth Fennell. Other candidates are city police Lt. Col. Robbie Hall, among the top finishers in the May primary, and Raymond Butts.

        Campbell County. There will be at least one new face on the county fiscal court. Democrat Ken Rechtin, a Newport City Commissioner, is up against Woodlawn Republican Terry Rasche in the race for the only open seat on the county commission.

        In the other fiscal court race, Democratic incumbent Bill Verst is challenged by former judge-executive Lloyd Rogers, a Republican.

        Other contested races are: Coroner, Republican incumbent Mark Schweitzer against Democrat Ben Neltner; Jailer, incumbent Greg Buckler, a Democrat, against Republican Jim Sawyer; Property Value Administrator, Democratic incumbent Mariann Guidugli Dunn against Republican Daniel Braun; and Sheriff John Dunn, a Democrat, against Republican Steve Taylor.

        Statehouse. There is only one contested statehouse race in Northern Kentucky this fall - Republican Rep. Paul Marcotte of Union against Democrat Michael Moore, also of Union.


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