By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FORT WRIGHT - Hoping to stem Republican successes, Kentucky Democrats are staging a series of meetings statewide to build the party's political and financial base for the 2003 gubernatorial election.
The slate of 10 meetings is "aimed at jump-starting our grassroots efforts in time for next year's crucial general election," according to an e-mail Democratic state Treasurer Jonathan Miller sent last week to leading Democrats across the state.
Spearheaded by Mr. Miller, the meetings are planned with the blessing of the party's two announced candidates for governor - Attorney General Ben Chandler and House Speaker Jody Richards.
The Democrats have a lot at stake in the 2003 election: They could win control of the mansion or they could lose it for the first time since 1967.
"It is essential that our gubernatorial nominee hit the ground running (after the May primary) with a fully mobilized party in support," Mr. Miller wrote to his fellow Democrats. "I have been asked by our filed gubernatorial candidates and other statewide leadership to help upgrade our political and financial standing."
The Northern Kentucky meeting will be Jan. 8 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Corporex Cos. Lookout Corporate Center, 1717 Dixie Highway in Fort Wright.
Meetings are also planned through January in Lexington, Paducah, Bowling Green, London, Prestonsburg, Catlettsburg, Owensboro and Louisville with a statewide Victory 2003 Summit Feb. 8 in Frankfort.
Mr. Miller, who is seeking reelection next year, said the party needs to focus on organization and raising money "to build a financial and political infrastructure for whoever our gubernatorial nominee is next June."
The gubernatorial primary is scheduled for May 28.
The Democrat elected in that vote will face a formidable foe in November, whichever Republican is chosen. The GOP field includes the son of a former governor and a sitting congressman.
"We need to make sure our nominee is prepared for the general election," Mr. Miller said Thursday. "As a party we need to talk about our message as well as the issues we should and will run on, the issues that are important to Democrats and important to voters."
Edgewood lawyer Ed Worland, a leading member of the Kenton County Democratic Party, said the meetings will help keep Democrats focused and together during the primary season.
"We need to accentuate the positives of the party, and this is a good way to do it," Mr. Worland said Thursday.
Given the GOP's success in recent years, Democrats need to revisit the issues and once-loyal constituencies of the party, suggested Diane Brumback, a Covington schoolteacher active in Democratic politics and education issues.
"The whole concept is wonderful and I'm glad the party is going to be talking about taking a grassroots approach," said Ms. Brumback. "But nothing is really going to change until we energize our base, and that includes women and minority voters. When that happens, that's when we'll be victorious."
Republicans have enjoyed a string of political successes in Kentucky, and particularly Northern Kentucky, over the past decade. Seven of the state's eight Congressional seats are held by Republicans, the GOP controls the state Senate, Republicans hold two of the three Northern Kentucky courthouses and party leaders believe they have their best chance in years to win the 2003 gubernatorial race.
Among those running in the GOP primary are Lexington Congressman Ernie Fletcher and state lawmaker Steve Nunn, the son of Louie Nunn, Kentucky's last Republican governor.
Republicans say the Democrats are finally realizing that building a grassroots political and financial base is crucial to winning elections in Kentucky.
"These meetings show that the Democrats are nervous about the past election results," said Park Hills lawyer Trey Grayson, a Republican running statewide next year for Secretary of State. "And they are probably also concerned about coming together after the primary. Historically, they've been able to do that but I don't know about next year. They could have a pretty contentious primary, and that may be a worry."
Marc Wilson, a GOP political consultant from Florence, said Republicans "wrote the book" on grassroots campaigning and organizing, and now the Democrats are copying the idea because they are "desperate" to hold on to the governor's mansion.
Mr. Wilson, who advised Republican Geoff Davis in his near-upset of Democrat U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas in this year's Fourth Congressional District race, pointed to a full-time campaign office the Kentucky Republican Party operated in Florence during the fall campaign season. He said that's an example of grassroots campaigning and organization is all about."
"The Democrats are behind the eight ball and they know it," Mr. Wilson said. "They have to do something, but the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the Republicans. It's too late for next year."
Mr. Miller did acknowledge that the Republicans "have done a real good job organizing their party."
"But we're also seeking some splits within the Republican Party over the governor's race," he said. "I think their primary is going to be more divisive than our primary."
One the motivating factors for the Democratic meetings is the absence of Gov. Paul Patton on the stump and fund-raising circuit.
Because of the fallout of the affair he has admitted with Western Kentucky businesswoman Tina Conner Mr. Patton has taken himself out of the political process, forgoing his own plans to run for U.S. Senate in 2004 and staying off the campaign trail on behalf of other Democrats.
His influence, ability to raise money and political talents will be missed, said Campbell County Democratic Party Chairman Terry Mann.
Mr. Mann said Mr. Patton as well as his daughter, Nicki Patton, the former chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, did a "substantial" job raising money and campaigning for candidates.
"I don't think those things lagged during the past six years or so," Mr. Mann said. "But they have in the past six months with Nicki Patton gone from the party and the governor's activity fallen by the wayside. So I understand why these meetings have been called. There is vacuum of leadership in the party through circumstances, and somebody needs to step up and fill that role of preparing the party for the '03 election."
Kenton County Republican Party Chairman Greg Shumate said the Democrats' political call to arms is a validation that Republicans have come up with the formula for winning elections in Kentucky.
"It's a compliment to the way Republicans have been running races and handling campaigns," Mr. Shumate said. "For years the Democrats had a superior attitude about their ability to win elections. But times have changed. The Republicans have been successful. And the Democrats have take notice with how we do things."
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