Vouchers, COVID and Trump: Beshear and Cameron debate in Ky. governor's race
Education took center stage as Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron debated before a statewide audience a little more than two weeks before election day.
Some supporters lined up for more than two hours before Monday’s debate, cheering and booing the candidates as they made their way into KET’s studio in Lexington.
But inside, there was no audience. Just the two candidates and moderator Renee Shaw, who pressed the politicians on issues that could determine who will be the state’s next governor.
The discussion focused a great deal on education, how the state should have handled the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of former President Donald Trump.
With Election Day fast approaching, polls continue to show a significant number of Kentucky voters are undecided in the race. Meanwhile absentee balloting has already begun across the state and early voting begins on Nov. 2 — just a week from Thursday.
Here are some highlights from the KET debate:
Beshear and Cameron differed strongly over education as the two candidates vie for the support of teachers and parents. Some political watchers attributed Beshear’s close win over previous Gov. Matt Bevin in 2019 to teachers’ support for him and disdain for Bevin.
Cameron attacked Beshear for proposing across the board raises for teachers without buy-in from the state’s GOP-led legislature.
“And the reason that you haven't gotten any of those [raises] is because this governor has no relationship with the legislature,” Cameron said. “I've already talked about my plan to increase the pay of our teachers.”
Ahead of the previous biennial budget, Beshear proposed a 5% raise for all teachers. Instead, lawmakers designated more school discretionary funds, which some districts used to provide raises.
But according to a 2022 report from the National Education Association, Kentucky’s average teacher salary has declined more than 11% over the last decade, when adjusted for inflation.
Cameron’s plan does not directly provide raises to existing teachers, instead proposing a universal starting pay for newly hired teachers.
Beshear said all educators deserve a “big raise.”
“That's why my proposal is an 11% across-the-board raise — not just for teachers, but for bus drivers, custodians, and mental health counselors. It takes that whole village of a school.”
Beshear attacked Cameron for not answering questions about whether he supports school vouchers and other so-called “school choice” measures.
“Look in the camera and answer the question,” Beshear said. “I oppose vouchers 100%. They steal money from our public schools and send them to our private schools.”
Cameron did at last say that if the legislature passed a school voucher bill, he would sign it. He previously expressed support for a tax break for those who donate to private school scholarship funds.
But Cameron said he is still focused on public education, citing family members who work or worked in public schools.
“It's about our kids and our grandkids, making sure that they're in the best position to fuel the workforce of the future,” Cameron said.
When asked if he stood by his decision to impose restrictions during the pandemic, Beshear defended his choices, saying he did the best he could at the time with the information available.
“This is about leadership,” Beshear said. “I showed people during the pandemic I was willing to make the hard decisions even if it cost me. I put politics out the window, and I made the best decisions I could to save as many lives as possible.”
Cameron said the actions were not worth the restrictions on civil liberties. When asked what he would have done differently, Cameron said he would have lifted restrictions on schools and businesses sooner.
“A lot of red-state governors were trying to find ways to reopen our schools. We were the only state in the nation that shut down the chiropractors,” Cameron said. “I've heard from so many folks that tell me that the decisions that were made — the short-sighted decisions that were made — by Andy Beshear during that period of time are still having devastating consequences.”
Studies have shown crowd restrictions and other policies saved lives during the pandemic.
Beshear said shutting down schools was the best and only option he had to halt the spread of the disease and limit the risk to teachers and caretakers.
“I was the first governor in the country to prioritize teachers for vaccines,” Beshear said. “This attorney general is saying he would have sent teachers into classrooms, poorly ventilated, old buildings, before they could get even the option to get a vaccine.”
Former President Donald Trump’s name was brought up frequently during the debate. Trump remains extremely popular in Kentucky and endorsed Cameron for the governorship early during the race. Cameron dodged questions about whether he would condemn Trump for his alleged role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
After the debate, Cameron said he appreciated Trump’s support and would welcome him and any other Republican leaders to come and join him on the campaign trail (Trump held a last-minute rally for Bevin in 2019). He also said the country was in a better state under Trump’s leadership than President Joe Biden’s.
Beshear said he is not beholden to either party and tried to separate himself from national politics.
“My job as governor is to stand up for Kentuckians whether that is for or against any president,” Beshear said. “There were times I agreed and disagreed with President Trump. There are times I agree and disagree with President Biden. I don't make that decision based on my party.”
The election is Nov. 7. To find out more about the gubernatorial candidates’ stand on the issues, check out the 2023 Kentucky Public Radio Voter Guide.