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Kentucky Politicians Mum On Jefferson Davis Statue After Vote

Jefferson Davis

In late June, calls to remove the 15-foot-tall marble statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the state Capitol Rotunda were widespread, especially among Kentucky’s elected officials.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, the leaders of both state legislative chambers and candidates for governor from each of the major parties all called for the statue to be placed in a museum.

But in the wake of a 7-2 vote by the Historic Properties Advisory Commission to keep the statue in the Rotunda earlier this week, Kentucky politicians have gone quiet.

In response to a reporter's questions, a spokesperson from McConnell’s office referred via email to his previous comment on the matter. And an email from Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway’s campaign for governor stated that his “views on the issue haven't changed.”

Requests for comment from Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, Republican Congressman Andy Barr, and Republican state Senate President Robert Stivers — all of whom called for removing the statue — have gone unanswered. Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo did not immediately return requests for comment on Friday.

Beshear provided a statement -- emailed to reporters after the commission’s vote -- in which he threw his support behind a plan to beef up the educational content of tours that make their way through the Rotunda, emphasizing a historical context for the Davis statue. The commission on Wednesday established a committee to explore that.

“The generations to come must understand the enormous toll of the Civil War that tore apart this nation and the tragic issue of slavery at the root of that war,” Beshear said in the statement.

Notably, he did not weigh in on the commission’s vote.

Calls for removing the statue came after a shooting rampage in a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., in late June. Several state governments in the South responded by removing Confederate iconography from public land, most notably when South Carolina lowered the Confederate battle flag from outside its own Capitol building.

After the Charleston murders, Conway and Republican candidate for governor Matt Bevin both called for removing the statue and putting it in a museum.

University of Louisville professor Dewey Clayton said he doubts either of the candidates would follow up on that call if elected.

“I don’t think that any of them are in any fear of losing votes because of it,” Clayton said.

The vote to keep the Davis statue where it stands came after a month-long public comment period in which the Historic Properties Advisory Commission received approximately 3,000 online statements about the statue.

Some 1,800 of those who commented favored keeping it there, echoing a recent Bluegrass Poll that estimated 73 percent of Kentucky voters were in favor of keeping it in the rotunda.

Clayton said he expects state politicians to stay quiet on the issue because supporters of the statue made themselves heard, while public sentiment against the statue has waned.

“They understand that their constituents are on both sides of this issue,” Clayton said.

During the commission meeting on Wednesday, statue supporters argued that the state would be able to better educate Capitol visitors about Kentucky’s divided past if Davis's likeness stayed put. It sits mere feet away from the more prominently situated statue of President Abraham Lincoln.

“For better or for worse, the fact that both of those men were born here is a claim to fame for Kentucky,” said commission Chair Steve Collins in an interview Friday.

Gerald Smith, a history professor for the University of Kentucky, noted during the Wednesday meeting that the commission's members are all white. On Friday, Collins, who voted to keep the statue, said race didn’t play a role in the vote.

“I don’t know if the decision would’ve been any different," he said. "I think there’s always value in presenting divergent viewpoints on anything, so I would have certainly welcomed that."

On its website, the commission says it has “final authority over articles placed in (state) properties.” However, according to Collins, an executive order from the governor, a law passed by the legislature or a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court could override the commission’s decisions.

Nash Cox, a commission member who voted to remove the statue, said Confederate iconography doesn't belong in the rotunda, which many consider to be a place of honor.

“The fact that by its very placement — the rotunda of the state’s most important public building — anything that’s there sends a message," Cox said. "This is a message that I think doesn’t belong there."

Clyde Carpenter also voted to remove the statue. Those who voted to keep the statue where it is were: David Buchta, Steve Collins, Ann Evans, Gigi Lacer, Craig Potts, Darren Taylor and Lee Waterfield.

Kent Whitworth did not vote, and Marion Forcht, Sally Meigs and Estill Pennington were not present.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.