Under the Radar: Democrat Says McConnell Arranged Her Firing

Posted September 15, 2008 at 6:33pm

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) can thank Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for the Democratic challenger the Congressman is facing in Western Kentucky’s 1st district this fall.

[IMGCAP(1)]You see, if McConnell had never blown off Democrat Heather Ryan and her 12-year-old daughter on a cold January evening while on a visit to Paducah earlier this year — and if, as Ryan claims, the most powerful Republican in the Senate hadn’t subsequently worked behind the scenes to get the outspoken Democrat fired from her job at a local movie theater — then Ryan wouldn’t have gone ahead with her long-shot bid to oust Whitfield.

Why Whitfield? Well, to put it in “Star Wars” terms (as the Democrat, a card-carrying enthusiast of the popular science fiction series is apt to do) Whitfield is the Darth Vader to McConnell’s Emperor Palpatine, and Ryan is leading a modern day rebellion against the “dark side” of politics, where elected officials are in the back pockets of special interest groups.

And though she may be jobless, collecting unemployment and unable to get her calls returned by her own party’s national campaign committee, Ryan said she is determined to pull off the biggest upset in Kentucky’s political history this fall.

She certainly hasn’t picked an easy target in Whitfield.

Since coming to Congress in the Republican sweep of 1994 (with the backing of McConnell), Whitfield has turned a once-conservative Democratic stronghold into a safe Republican seat in the eyes of campaign officials on both sides of the aisle. He has won with 60 percent or more of the vote in the past three cycles, and at the end of June, the Congressman reported more than $1 million in cash on hand.

Ryan estimated last week that she had about $11,000 on hand, a total that Whitfield surpassed in a single day of fundraising in May, according to his latest Federal Election Commission report. Ryan has little name recognition in the district. (She moved to Western Kentucky in 2005 to manage the failed 1st district primary campaign of Democrat Eric Streit, who took just 15 percent of the vote in his loss to former Rep. Tom Barlow. And while she’s gotten some help from local Democratic groups, Ryan isn’t on any sort of watch list of the national Democratic Party.

“If you’re a long shot, they don’t even know your name,” Ryan said of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But what Ryan does have is a heck of a story from that night in January, about two weeks before the state’s filing deadline.

McConnell had come to Paducah for an event at the River Heritage Museum, which leases space to the Paducah Film Society’s Maiden Alley Cinema, where Ryan had worked as executive director.

Ryan, an outspoken Democratic activist and a Navy veteran, had attended a rally earlier in the day to protest McConnell’s visit and, after finding out about the Senator’s appearance at the museum, took her 12-year-old daughter to the museum to try to catch McConnell and “ask him a question about the war in Iraq.”

Accounts differ as to how forceful Ryan was in trying to confront McConnell that evening. Julie Harris, the executive director of the nonprofit River Heritage Museum, described Ryan’s actions that day as “more like stalking.” Ryan said she simply waited outside the museum and then followed the Senator’s SUV to an entrance near the Maiden Alley Cinema when it appeared McConnell’s security personnel were trying to slip him out a back entrance of the museum.

What is clear is a video that Ryan took that night of McConnell leaving the event. In the video, Ryan repeatedly asks McConnell for a minute of his time and yells, “What are you hiding, Senator?” when his security team moves to keep her from getting closer to McConnell. Then, Ryan’s daughter, Heaven, whose father is still on active duty in the military, screams out, “Do you want my father to die?”

After McConnell’s SUV pulled away, Ryan said she and her daughter laughed off the confrontation.

“But by the time the next morning rolled around it was a huge scandal” around Paducah, Ryan said.

A week later, Ryan was jobless. She claimed that McConnell made a few well-placed phone calls and pressured the Paducah Film Society’s Board of Directors to fire her.

After her charges were picked up by a local television station, McConnell’s office released a statement saying that “neither Senator McConnell, nor his office, had any involvement with the decision made by the Paducah Film Society Board of Directors” to terminate Ryan.

Last week, McConnell’s office declined to comment further on Ryan’s accusations and would only express its enthusiastic support for Whitfield.

Jay Siska, the president of the film society’s board, also declined to comment on Ryan’s firing last week.

Harris said the River Heritage Museum never received any pressure from McConnell’s office after Ryan’s run-in with the Senator. She speculated that Ryan “was using her own personal agenda in her place of employment and I think that is what got her dismissed.”

Ryan said she has considered suing the Paducah Film Society to prove that she was dismissed illegally. She claims she has evidence, including a recording she made while wearing a wire to an emergency meeting with the film society’s board. But in the end, she decided that the prospect of suing the film society, not to mention a sitting U.S. Senator, would cost too much.

“It’s a very difficult case to prove, and it would take a lot of money to secure an attorney,” she said.

Now, Ryan figures challenging and bringing down Whitfield is an even better way to stand up to McConnell.

The Senator and Whitfield “are best of buds. So if you challenge Whitfield, you are challenging McConnell,” Ryan said.

Though he probably could, the seven-term Congressman is not shrugging off Ryan’s challenge this fall.

“Congressman Whitfield is certainly mindful that he faces an opponent this year, and he is committed to campaigning throughout the district and earning every vote,” said his spokeswoman, Kristin Walker. “He is confident that his record of service will continue to resonate with the people of the 1st Congressional district.”

While Ryan readily admits that she has a steep uphill battle on her hands, she says her campaign is gaining momentum every day.

“I’m an average person, and we need an average person in Congress,” Ryan said. And if she loses, “at least we would have gone out guns a-blazing. Nobody will ever say we were boring.”