By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
INDEPENDENCE - Kentucky's move toward politicians who espouse a conservative agenda is on full display in Tuesday's special state Senate election in a newly drawn district covering the southern half of Kenton County.
Candidates Damon Thayer, a Republican, and Democrat Charles Wells, both of Georgetown in Scott County, have on most issues run right of center in a shortened campaign season that began just about a month ago.
Their stances are largely similar on some of the hot button issues in the district of about 70,000 registered voters that includes all of Grant, Owen and Scott counties and the portion of Kenton County that includes Taylor Mill, Independence and the unincorporated areas south to the county line.
On abortion, both say they are against it, though Mr. Thayer touts his endorsement from the anti-abortion group Kentucky Right to Life.
Both say they are for gun rights and boast about their membership and rating with the National Rifle Association.
Both are against raising taxes to balance the state budget, which is facing a $500 million deficit.
But the candidates do have their differences, including how they view one another.
Mr. Thayer, 35, grew up in Michigan and has lived in Northern Kentucky for a decade. He is vice president of The Breeders Cup and event marketing for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in Lexington, but previously worked for seven years as the director of marketing for Turfway Park in Florence. While at Turfway, he lived in Grant County and was heavily active in Northern Kentucky Republican politics. He is vice chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party.
He said the state's budget problems came under Democratic administration of Gov. Paul Patton and that it's time for voters to send more Republicans to Frankfort.
"There is a lot of waste of (state) government," Mr. Thayer said. "And we need to shine a light under every rock and in every dark corner down there in Frankfort and look for the wasteful spending that is going on. The cronyism, the political patronage, the wasteful spending - we all know it exists. Families and businesses have to tighten their belts during hard economic times ... and government needs to do the same thing."
Mr. Wells, 43, has worked with the American Federation of Teachers - a teachers' labor union - since 1985, serving as director since 1997, where his duties include tracking legislation and lobbying lawmakers on education-related issues.
"I've worked in Frankfort, I've represented teachers, I've worked to better education," Mr. Wells said. "I'm ready to go to Frankfort and represent the people of the 17th District ... to make sure that education does not get cut. We need to get this budget situation straightened out to make sure our children are guaranteed a sound educational system in the future."
Mr. Thayer says that because of Mr. Wells' job as a labor leader he will be more concerned with representing unions than his constituents. That's a charge Mr. Wells dismisses as little more than political rhetoric.
"Charles Wells is a liberal," Mr. Thayer said. "He is a labor organizer who is pulling a Clinton. He knows he can't win as a labor organizer in this district so he is moving to the right. But the voters of the 17th District are too smart for that. I am the true conservative in this race."
Mr. Thayer also said that Mr. Wells supports allowing collective bargaining for state employees, including teachers, when it comes to negotiating employment contracts.
According to the Kentucky Candidate Information Survey, a nonpartisan Lexington organization that publishes issue stances from candidates, Mr. Wells opposes "public employee strikes, but they should be allowed to discuss employment issues with their employer through representatives of their choice."
When lawmakers begin meeting in early February in Frankfort they may be asked to consider legalizing casino gambling in Kentucky. Casinos may even be proposed at thoroughbred racetracks as a way to help the horse racing industry compete against casino riverboats in Indiana and other states.
Mr. Wells said he is undecided but leaning toward a constitutional amendment that would allow the voters to decide the issue.
"I'm not opposed to casino gambling, but I want to make sure that before I vote for a bill like that I see a benefit to the district and to the state," Mr. Wells said.
"Damon has worked his entire adult life for the gambling industry. He is a gambling industry executive from Michigan."
Mr. Thayer said he is opposed to the expansion of gambling unless voters get their say through a constitutional amendment.
"The issue should be decided by the voters, not Frankfort politicians," he said.
Both candidates appear to have some built-in advantages.
Through both candidates live in Scott County, Mr. Wells has lived there 20 years longer than Mr. Thayer.
But Mr. Thayer, through his involvement in GOP politics and his work as Turfway, is better known in Northern Kentucky.
That was evident Friday, when he hosted a political rally at the Courthouse Restaurant in Independence that was attended by a number of GOP elected officials, including Senators Dick Roeding of Lakeside Park and Jack Westwood of Erlanger; Kenton County commissioners Adam Koenig and Barb Black; and Campbell County Judge-executive Steve Pendery.
Also endorsing him are Kentucky's U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, and Independence Mayor Chris Moriconiv and Independence Councilwoman Carol Franzen.
Kenton County Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Smith said Mr. Wells has the support of the county's Democratic Party officials, in part because "Damon Thayer will be nothing but a `yes man' for (Kentucky Senate President) David Williams."
Democrats often portray Mr. Williams, R-Burkesville, as a divisive and polarizing figure who fosters gridlock in Frankfort.
The election is being held Tuesday because the 17th District seat was formed when lawmakers redrew legislative districts last year.
The new Senate district, which roughly follows Interstate 75 south, links for the first time, voters in one of the three main Northern Kentucky counties (Kenton) with voters in the Bluegrass region of the state (Scott County). The winner will be sworn into office Feb. 4, when the General Assembly is convened for the 2004 legislative session.
Who can vote
Voters in these 25 southern Kenton County precincts are eligible to cast ballots in Tuesday's election for the 17th District State Senate seat. Voters seeking information, including the location of their voting precinct, can call the Kenton Clerk's office at (859) 491-4780 on Monday or (859) 356-9272 on Election Day Tuesday.
Following is the precinct name, its location and address.
Bracht, Ky. Pub, 15260 Dixie Highway, Bracht Station
Decoursey, Decoursey Baptist Church, 8276 Decoursey Pike, Fairview
Independence No. 1, Kenton County Courthouse, 5278 Madison Pike
Independence No. 2, St. Cecilia Church Undercroft, 5313 Madison Pike
Independence No. 3, Beechgrove School, 1029 Bristow Road
Independence No. 4, Kenton County Garage, 420 Independence Station Road
Independence No. 5, Independence Fire Station No. 3, 4052 Richardson Rd.
Independence No. 6, Independence Fire Station No. 2, 740 Cox Road
Independence No. 7, Kenton County Public Library, 6477 Taylor Mill Road
Independence No. 8, Florence Church of the Nazarene, 211 Richardson Road
Independence No. 9, Summit View Elementary School, 5002 Madison Pike
Independence No. 10, Independence Fire Station No. 1980 Delaware Crossing
Morningview, Methodist Church basement, Rith Road & Ky. 177
Nicholson No. 1, Nicholson Christian Church, 1970 Walton Nicholson Pike
Nicholson No. 2, Hickory Grove Baptist Church, 11989 Taylor Mill Road
Oakridge, Oakridge Baptist Church, 6056 Taylor Mill Road
Piner, Pinker Fiskburg Fire Department, 1851 Bracht Road
Richardson No. 1, St. Barbara Church, 4042 Turkeyfoot Road, Independence
Richardson No. 2, Erlanger Fire House, 4100 Narrows Road, Independence
Richardson No. 3, New Beginnings Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 3830 Narrows Road
Taylor Mill No. 1, Taylor Mill City Building, 5225 Taylor Mill Road
Taylor Mill No. 2, Scott High School, 5400 Old Taylor Mill Road.
Taylor Mill No. 3, Hilltop Church of Christ, 5300 Taylor Mill Road.
Visalia, Visalia Public School, 4041 Visalia Road.
Whites Tower, Kenton County Extension Service, 10990 Marshall Road.
Source: Kenton County Clerk's office
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