Democrats Mining Eastern Kentucky for Votes

Posted April 19, 2010 at 7:21pm

PIKEVILLE, Ky. — The ear, nose and throat surgeon and Louisville attorney didn’t stand out quite as much as one might think among the colorful crowd at Saturday’s 34th annual Hillbilly Days festival here, about 20 miles from the West Virginia border.

That’s because over the years the politicians have become as much a part of the festivities as the jalopy parade, mountain buck dancing and ever present Bluegrass music.

But Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway didn’t travel to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky this weekend for the fried food — which included Oreos, pickles and green tomatoes.

The two Senate candidates came to pay their respects to coal and the men and women who dig it out of the ground in the hopes of winning votes in a crucial Democratic region of the Bluegrass State just one month before the primary.

Mongiardo, a physician who hails from Hazard, Ky., about 70 miles away, is claiming hometown status in the area and he is the odds-on favorite to carry the heavily Democratic counties in this part of the state. But Conway is working hard to peel away support in Pike County and the other places in the area.

A tie or even a close loss in the region in the May 18 primary would be considered a victory for Conway and would likely mean the attorney general has emerged victorious in a race that public polls show to be a statistical tie.

‘Legalize Coal’

When it comes to national attention, the Democratic primary here is playing second fiddle to the GOP grudge match between Secretary of State Trey Grayson and ophthalmologist Rand Paul. But in the Democratic stronghold in and around Pike County, the Republican race seems to be a world away.

That’s because Eastern Kentucky is full of people like Pikeville resident Adam Sullivan, 38, who was on hand for the festival.

Sullivan runs a machine that cuts coal out of a mountain, while his 17-year-old son builds the supports that hold up mine shafts.

Few things are more important to the Sullivans than the health of the coal industry, but loyalty to the Democratic Party seems to be one of them.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Democrat, but every time there’s a Republican [president], coal booms,” Sullivan said.

Asked if he’d ever consider voting Republican, he shook his head.

“My dad would whip me if he heard me say that,” he said. “I’m a Democrat. … I would never vote Republican.”

But Sullivan continues to be anxious about President Barack Obama “warrin’ on coal” through Environmental Protection Agency policies and legislation like the cap-and-trade bill.

It is in that concern that Conway may find an avenue to make inroads here in Appalachia.

Herbie Deskins, a Pikeville lawyer who previously served 11 terms in the state House, said that Mongiardo will be hurt by his 2008 endorsement of Obama in the presidential primary.

Conway stayed neutral.

Then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton earned 12,916 votes in Pike County to Obama’s 936 two years ago. In the nearby Democratic counties of Floyd and Knott, Clinton earned a combined 16,424 votes to 1,038 for Obama.

“Both candidates have been hollerin’ that they are for coal. The question is will the Clinton Democrats forgive Mongiardo for endorsing Obama in the primary?” Deskins said. “Will the old line Democrats who lined up with Clinton accept Mongiardo over Conway because he’s from Eastern Kentucky?”

The crowd at Hillbilly Days offered mixed opinions on the matter.

“He’s from here, but I’m not sure he represents the culture,” Regena Jones, a Pikeville attorney, said of Mongiardo. “He’s a doctor. He’s not from a mine.”

But Julie Wilson, who has worked for the Coal Operators and Associates Inc. for 30 years, said she trusts Mongiardo when it comes to coal.

“He knows it’s our livelihoods,” said Wilson, who was selling T-shirts with slogans like “Legalize Coal” at the festival. “He comes to our rallies and he stands up publicly for coal.”

During the stump speech portion of the festival — in which each candidate was given exactly four minutes to speak before they would be played off the stage by a banjo, guitar and bass trio — Conway went after Mongiardo for forgetting his roots in coal country.

“Coal feels like it’s under attack,” Conway told the crowd. “And you need a United States Senator who will never forget where he comes from and will always, always look out for you.”

At a fundraiser later that evening, Mongiardo said he doesn’t regret endorsing Obama, who supported the lieutenant governor in his 2004 race against Sen. Jim Bunning (R). Mongiardo said that if he could do it over again he’d still endorse Obama.

“One thing that we are in Eastern Kentucky is that we’re loyal,” Mongiardo said. “I felt that he deserved a return favor. So when he asked for my support I did [endorse]. … When I get up to Washington, maybe I’ll have a favor to ask in return.”

But Mongiardo also tried to distance himself from Obama’s major policy initiatives as president.

“I don’t agree with him on everything,” Mongiardo added. “I don’t agree with him on cap-and-trade. I think we could have done a better job on health care.”

Crème Brûlée and French Pudding

As she sat on a hay bale watching the parade of jalopies and candidates roll by Saturday, retired fifth grade teacher Vicki Tackett declared herself an undecided voter in the Democratic primary. She said her vote would come down to the “honesty factor.”

Conway is targeting Mongiardo on just that issue with two statewide television ads accusing the lieutenant governor of taking advantage of the public trust with large travel expenses and abusing a state housing stipend.

Conway’s ad mentions “fancy hotels, steak dinners, crème brûlée” and other items from Mongiardo’s travel expense reports which, according to a Lexington Herald-Leader story this month, show more than $30,000 in expenses billed to the state.

“How can we trust Dan Mongiardo to protect taxpayer money in Washington if he abuses it in Kentucky?” the narrator says in the spot.

Those attacks have clearly gotten under Mongiardo’s skin as he spent a large portion of his speaking time at Hillbilly Days and at an appearance at a local Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner Saturday evening responding to the ad.

Mongiardo questioned how Conway could have the “audacity” to attack him and his wife for ordering “French pudding” when the attorney general’s own expense reports show him ordering “French fancy bottled water” and room service during his own out of state trips.

For a man who has “been living on his daddy’s allowance his entire life” such attacks are “hypocrisy of silver spoon proportions,” Mongiardo said.

The Herald-Leader put Conway’s travel expenses at less than $8,000.

Meanwhile, Mongiardo launched his own ad on Thursday hitting Conway for being just another lawyer looking to go to Washington, D.C.

“There are over 200 lawyers in Congress. Think we need another one?” Mongiardo asks in his ad.

Tackett said she doesn’t like all the negative campaigning but that it’s hard not to listen to the ads.

“You can’t get away from them.”

And there will certainly be more on the way.

According to first quarter Federal Election Commission reports, Conway had about $1.3 million in cash on hand as of April 1 to Mongiardo’s nearly $800,000.

Mongiardo’s spokesman said that as of this week Conway’s cash lead is actually quite a bit less.

The spokesman said the campaign spent about $100,000 on ads from April 1 to 15. The campaign’s internal research shows that the attorney general spent $300,000 on ads over the same period. Conway’s camp declined to verify those spending figures.

Regardless, Conway still enters the final four weeks of the campaign with a larger war chest to fund the all-important TV air war. He’ll also likely get a decent amount of free media in the coming weeks after a horse he owns won a long-shot race early this month and in so doing qualified for the Kentucky Derby on May 1.

The press from that event will likely help Conway continue to surge at the right time.

According to polls commissioned by the Louisville Courier-Journal, Mongiardo’s 18-point lead in early March had been narrowed to just 3 points in early April, within the 4-point margin of error.

Those polls show that Conway gained slightly on Mongiardo in Eastern Kentucky over the past month. But the biggest swing in support has come from women. Mongiardo was winning their support by nearly 20 points in early March. By early April, Conway held a slight lead.

One of the women who came around to support Conway at Hillbilly Days went by the name of “Little Dirty Annie.” With her overalls and mantra of “eat more possum,” Annie took pride in her Hillbilly roots.

“He seems like a good, honest guy,” Annie said of Conway after meeting the attorney general next to a bandstand where she was getting ready to dance to bluegrass music.

When a reporter pointed out that Conway is not a son of Eastern Kentucky like Mongiardo, Annie shrugged. “He’s good lookin’ and we’ll claim him,” she said.