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Can Kentucky's Fancy Farm Picnic Be Tamed?

In 2009, Attorney General Jack Conway lashed out at hecklers and cursed on stage at the annual Fancy Farm picnic in Western Kentucky.“And you can holler all you want at me and I can hear you,” bellowed Conway, who was running against Dan Mongiardo in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary at the time. “But just like Wendell (Ford) used to say, go ahead and chew on my hide. It only grows back tougher. And I’ve been around awhile and you’re looking at one tough son of a b—.” Cursing is now banned at the event, but Fancy Farm is still a place where the onlookers heckle candidates and politicians must shout over them to deliver their speeches. This weekend, as they have for the last 80 years, politicians of all stripes will flock to a tiny town in Western Kentucky to kick-off the fall campaign season. Amid the bean dinner, some partisan breakfasts, is a main event that promises lots of bluster. And this year, the picnic has the potential to be rowdier than ever, as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes both take the stage. Typically the picnic draws just around 10,000 people. The McConnell-Grimes Senate contest is expected to swell attendance to about 20,000 visitors. Can Fancy Farm Tone Down the Rhetoric? Because of the attention on the tight race, Fancy Farm organizers are imploring the audience to tone down the heckling. “It’s basically just turned into a scream fest of who can out shout the other one. And as organizers, I’ll just be frank, we’re tired of it,” said Mark Wilson, Fancy Farm’s political chairman. “We don’t want our tradition of a premier political venue to be dampened in any way by all this organized shouting that’s going on,” Wilson said. The organizers even turned to the campaigns and the state parties for help. “We’ve noticed the last few years there’s been organized and choreographed what I would define as scream fest from the opposition party,”  Wilson said. Democratic and Republican party leaders have said they’ll try to keep a cap on things. Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham will emcee, and there will be extra state police officers on the grounds this year. Jonathan Miller, a former state treasurer who spoke at Fancy Farm many times, applauds organizers for trying to get ahead of the mob, but he isn’t sure those measures will work. “I absolutely loved Fancy Farm, and I absolutely hated Fancy Farm,” he said. “The speaking part I despised. It got to the point, particularly in the more crowded years when the political stakes were higher where I could not hear myself talk.” In 2010, Senator Rand Paul incorrectly described it as a “wild picnic” where politicians had to dodge beer being thrown on them. No alcohol is served at the event. Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson was criticized two years ago for saying Fancy Farm is outdated. Former Senator Jim Bunning once said he would never attend Fancy Farm again, complaining of alleged physical abuse he and his wife were exposed to. Those who defend Fancy Farm’s tradition argue it is an event that is supposed to be somewhat obnoxious for the speakers. Political columnist Al Cross said he supports organizer’s efforts to tone it down this year, but he believes there is value in Fancy Farm’s rowdy format. “I think that the essential value of Fancy Farm is that it cannot be scripted,” he said. In most campaigns candidates are rarely put in situations that are not manicured to their liking, and many believe this unique pressure helps the public make a decision. “You have to practice some discipline and maintain control of yourself,” said Cross. “Not much mettle gets tested in a true physical way in American politics today. Here this is a command performance, you got to show up in the heat and the stuffiness and the noise and perform.” Miller disagrees that the state’s political leaders need to go through such a hazing process to qualify for office, however. “I don’t think we need in a governor or senator someone who is able to shout down people yelling at them,” he said. “We need someone who is thoughtful and can come up with decisions after appropriate consultations. “Sometimes you need to act quickly, but the talent of responding to people and trying to shout over them I don’t think is helpful at all to the political dialogue.” All are wondering if emphasizing more civility at an event known for anything but will tame or infuriate the crowd. That could depend on the speakers as much as the audience. St. Jerome parishioners who organize the event are appreciative of guests coming from across the country, said Wilson. They don’t expect people to be quiet, but visitors and local residents ought to be able to hear what the candidates have to say. “We just basically laid it on the line. As a Catholic parish down here—a fundraiser for us—we want some civility out there and we want them to respect us as organizers,” he said. “It’s just turned into a lot of WWF or a Jerry Springer show and we’re going to try to get rid of that element of it.” Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Conway's opponent in 2009.