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Runyon: New Political Blood in Kentucky

Until Tuesday, there had been only eight Republican governors in Kentucky history. And only two — Louie Nunn and Ernie Fletcher — in my lifetime.

For those who believe in a strong two-party system, the election of Matt Bevin is a welcome event. It’s an opportunity to bring new blood into government. And it offers Democrats a chance to re-examine their party.

Of the last two Republicans to lead this state, Louie Nunn of Glasgow was by far the better. Nunn’s administration was highlighted by passage and implementation of one of the nation’s best community mental health programs. Under his leadership, the University of Louisville was integrated into the state’s system of public higher education.

Ernie Fletcher, who was elected in 2003, was less successful. His term was derailed by a grand jury investigation of his administration’s alleged misuse of the state merit system. A likeable guy, Fletcher never recovered after he and several staff members were indicted.

In modern times, it has been difficult for an attorney general to move to the Governor’s Mansion. A number have tried — including Fred Cowan, Ben Chandler and Jack Conway. Each was effective as the state’s chief lawyer. And so was Steve Beshear, who managed to become lieutenant governor but later was defeated in his first bid to become governor back 1987 — by a maverick Democrat named Wallace Wilkinson.

In many ways, Matt Bevin reminds me of Wallace Wilkinson. He, too, was a self-made businessman and outsider who seemed to come out of nowhere to win.

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Like the rest of the nation, Kentuckians seem unsettled about life. After emerging from a crippling recession, the state’s prospects seem upbeat. But ongoing fears about the coal industry, health care and gay rights persist. And the electorate was clearly looking for an outside perspective.

Beshear gained national praise for his leadership in implementing the Affordable Care Act and expanding Medicaid. Bevin was elected as a big-time critic of Obamacare. No doubt about it: He has a different worldview from the incumbent.

Part of that worldview is no doubt informed by his family. It will be fun to watch a family of 13 move into the center of Kentucky politics. The photo of Bevin hoisting his young son into the air was endearing.

And with the election of Jenean Hampton as lieutenant governor, the party of Lincoln has at long last provided the first African-American to win statewide office in Kentucky. That heritage, I hope, will inform and guide Matt Bevin as he approaches his formidable new job.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. His commentaries run every Friday on 89.3 WFPL and wfpl.org.


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