Saturday, May 17, 2003

Lunsford quits race for Ky. governor

He throws support to Jody Richards

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Bruce Lunsford, a millionaire businessman who sank $8 million of his fortune into a bid for governor, abruptly dropped out of the Democratic primary Friday, four days before the election.

Lunsford, who threw his support to House Speaker Jody Richards, cited a set of campaign commercials unveiled Wednesday by his chief Democratic rival, state Attorney General Ben Chandler, that talked about abuse of patients in the nursing homes Lunsford's company operated.

"I just don't believe anyone should be subjected to that," Lunsford said. "And there are certain ways you can stop it.

"I don't know what could be bolder than to spend $8 million in 100 days and get out and support somebody else," he said.

Richards, who attended Lunsford's announcement, said he hoped Lunsford's sudden and dramatic endorsement would be a catalyst to draw Lunsford's supporters to himself.

One of four Democratic candidates seeking the nomination in Tuesday's primary, Lunsford endorsed legalizing casino gambling to generate revenue for health care and education and had said he would put his entrepreneurial skills to work creating 100,000 new jobs in four years.

An aggressive advertising campaign pulled him within sight of Chandler, the Democratic front-runner and the grandson of former Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler.

Chandler said Lunsford's move would help his campaign Tuesday.

"We believe that this campaign will go very, very well from here on out," Chandler said. "This is a momentum builder for us, and we feel good about it."

A poll by the Louisville Courier-Journal showed Chandler with 31 percent support from likely voters. Lunsford had 19 percent, Richards 14 percent and Otis Hensley 1 percent. Another 35 percent were undecided or favored other candidates.

Lunsford amassed his fortune as founder of Vencor Inc., a Louisville-based chain of nursing homes and long-term-care hospitals.

His business background, while allowing him to bankroll his campaign, had also been his greatest political weakness.

Vencor plunged into bankruptcy in 1999, and many investors lost their savings. Vencor emerged from bankruptcy in 2001 and was renamed Kindred Healthcare.

Lunsford blamed his company's decline on the government's cuts in medical reimbursement rates as part of the 1997 balanced-budget law.

Lunsford and Chandler had waged a nasty duel of attack ads, and Lunsford said he made his decision Friday morning after Chandler's latest salvo.

An ad that began airing Wednesday hammered Lunsford for the way a Vencor nursing home allegedly mistreated a patient. Another ad linked Lunsford with Vencor's financial decline.

Lunsford said his campaign was polling prospective voters every other night, and the tracking poll Thursday night showed that unfavorable impressions of him had shot upward, leading him to his decision Friday morning.

"I was involved in my life in a lot of complex industries and a lot of complex businesses," Lunsford said. "I find it difficult to believe in many ways that I would be accountable for every individual of a 60,000-employee organization when some of the candidates aren't even responsible for one of 220."

Lunsford's campaign had taken aim at one of Chandler's top staff lawyers for what they claimed was a potential ethical lapse while the assistant pursued an appointment to a judgeship.

Lunsford had claimed the Chandler assistant had enlisted support from Gov. Paul Patton's chief of staff, whom Chandler had under indictment on vote-fraud charges.

Lunsford had portrayed Chandler as a political insider who would be beholden to his financial backers, who include an eastern Kentucky road contractor under indictment on federal vote-fraud charges.

Lunsford said he had gained a growing respect for Richards as they crossed paths on the campaign trail, and the two had developed a friendship.

Later Friday, Lunsford sent the secretary of state's office a notice of withdrawal from the election. The agency immediately began sending notices to county clerks, office spokeswoman Lisa Cleveland said.

County clerks must post notices at each polling place Tuesday that votes for Lunsford will not be counted, Cleveland said.

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