12 for 2012: A dozen Kentucky political figures to watch in the new year

01/02/2012 07:25 AM

Happy New Year! Pure Politics will be back on the air from its eight-day winter slumber on Tuesday, Jan. 3.

In the meantime, thanks for keeping up with latest happenings online. In that spirit, I thought I’d kick off 2012 with a pair of columns looking ahead at some of the key people and storylines to watch. On Tuesday morning, I’ll publish the second part.

First, I’ll start with some of the people who could have interesting years — beyond the obvious ones such as Gov. Steve Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, Senate President David Williams, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Kentucky’s congressional delegation. They are bound to make plenty of headlines anyway.

But some other politicians deserve watching in 2012:

1. Sen. Tom Jensen, Republican from London: No, he’s not going to be Senate president. Williams keeps that job. But many point to Jensen as a potential successor … some day.
Jensen is respected by his fellow Republicans in both chambers and by Democrats. Many of the veterans worked with him in the legislature when he served as House GOP floor leader from 1992-‘94. And he helped craft and shepherd the penal code reform last year by working with Democratic Rep. John Tilley and judicial leaders. So if Williams fumbles or frustrates, look for Jensen to take a bigger role in negotiations. And the Senate and House choose their leaders next January, so December 2012 could be an interesting month.

2. State Auditor Adam Edelen, Democrat: Edelen is probably one of the few people who can truly identify with what new St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is going through. Both have tough acts to follow. Edelen, having never held elected office before, takes over the state auditor’s office from Crit Luallen, who demanded bipartisan respect during her productive two terms in office. And Matheny follows Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who just won the World Series. At least Edelen doesn’t have to replace Albert Pujols in the lineup too.
But Edelen does have to be careful. He got rapped a bit during the campaign for his ties to Gov. Steve Beshear as his former chief of staff. And he’s eager to prove he can be independent. But the risk in that position is that he could overreach in an investigation and appear either politically driven or in over his head. It will be a fine line to walk.

3. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Republican: He will be the lone Republican holding statewide office after Monday’s swearing in ceremony. That, itself, would be enough to land on the list as the GOP looks to rebuild in this year’s legislative races and in advance of the next governor’s race in 2015. Comer will have to balance Republican political demands with being agriculture commissioner duties — a position he won with the help of many Democratic voters, as he has pointed out. .
But perhaps the most interesting facet of Comer’s first year in office will be the changes he makes in the Agriculture Department. The agency, and its $29 million budget, has been under media scrutiny over the last year of Richie Farmer’s tenure, as Farmer spent heavily on vehicles (a $30,000 SUV for his own use), TVs and mini-fridges of questionable usefulness and employees (his girlfriend and her friend).

4. Mike Haydon, Gov. Beshear’s chief of staff: 2012 marks Haydon’s first even-year General Assembly session running the point for Beshear’s administration. Haydon, a former chief of staff for House Democratic Floor leader Rocky Adkins, knows how the lawmakers work. And legislative relations weren’t Beshear’s strong suit in his first term. Even though Haydon was the legislative liaison for those first three years, this time he’s calling more of the shots.
And Haydon has some strategic credentials. Privately, some lawmakers credit him as an architect of last year’s plan for the Democratic-controlled House to agree to the Senate’s budget cut proposal, which allowed Beshear to veto language he didn’t like that would have cut education.
If passing a budget and key parts of Beshear’s agenda — a constitutional amendment to allow gambling, raising the dropout age and cracking down on illegal prescription pills — have any prayer, Haydon will be key. Plus, the governor put him in charge of a panel to fix the traffic problems around the Kentucky Speedway, which is a whole other headache and maybe more important to NASCAR fans everywhere.

5. Janie Miller, Health and Family Services Cabinet Secretary: Forget the will-she-stay-or-will-she-go rumors. Miller has remained at the helm of the cabinet with Beshear’s backing despite the public call for her resignation by Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville.
Now that the calendar has turned to 2012, Miller looks to be staying. But that doesn’t mean her job will get any easier. She has to hire replacements for the two key commissioner jobs in that cabinet: Medicaid and the department of community based services, which includes social workers.
Her cabinet’s budget will be under the microscope as Medicaid costs continue to go up. And the cabinet was supposed to find nine figures worth of savings through managed care contracts with three private companies. Some already are fretting that those companies might affect services, especially to the mentally ill.
And Miller likely isn’t through answering lawmakers’ questions about the tardy release of child abuse and neglect records.

6. Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown: As the Senate’s state government committee chairman, Thayer will carry a lot of the load early in the session with the redistricting process.
He already released a congressional map — so far the only map of any kind to come out from the Senate Republicans. And how the negotiations on redistricting go to start the session could go a long way toward setting the tone in 2012.
Perhaps more importantly, Thayer could play a role in passing a constitutional amendment that would allow gambling. He already met with Beshear, as Elizabeth Donatelli of WAVE-TV reported.
Thayer has ties to the horse industry as a consultant and former Breeders Cup official.
Plus, Thayer is up for re-election and drew a primary challenge from a Republican who has been active in the Scott County tea party.

7. Attorney General Jack Conway, Democrat: For the first time since 2008, Conway has a chance to make news away from the campaign trail after spending 2009-‘10 running for U.S. Senate and 2011 in a re-election bid.
Conway has said he wants to get in the courtroom this year, especially in the cases regarding for-profit colleges. That should make for some interesting hearings.
He could play a pivotal role in new drug laws that will be debated in the legislature. And he said during the last campaign that he will likely serve in a leadership role of the Democratic Attorneys General Association. That could give him a bigger voice in pushing for drug-related reforms nationally, such as a uniform prescription pill monitoring system like KASPER.

8. Crit Luallen, former Democratic state auditor: Luallen has been pretty good at keeping secret what her plans for 2012 will be. Many Democrats want her to run for U.S. Senate against Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014. And that would likely mean she’d have to start now to raise enough money to be competitive with McConnell, who is all but certain to raise more than $20 million as he did in 2008.
Luallen isn’t saying for sure, but she seems more inclined to run for governor in 2015.
Either way, she probably has to decide this year because as long as she’s a potential candidate, few Democrats are likely to jump in.
And given Luallen’s successful tenure as auditor whatever she decides to do in the meantime will be newsworthy.

9. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Democrat: She is ambitious. She is 33. And she has a very enthusiastic and powerful support group (her father, businessman and former party chairman Jerry Lundergan, House Speaker Stumbo, former Govs. Julian Carroll and Martha Layne Collins and even former President Bill Clinton, who wrote a personal check to her campaign last year.)
That combination of motive, means and youth alone is enough to warrant watching.
The challenge will be harnessing as secretary of state, which oversees elections, business filings and other functions like notaries and promoting civics education.
Only two secretaries of state have gone on to become governor and both were so long ago they now have counties named after them (William Owsley from 1844-1848 and John Crittenden from 1848-1850). And the last four secretaries of state all were seen as having promising futures only to lose their next statewide race: (Bob Babbage lost the 1995 Democratic nomination for governor; John Y. Brown III lost the 2007 Democratic gubernatorial primary as the running mate with Jody Richards; Trey Grayson lost the 2010 GOP primary for U.S. Senate; and Elaine Walker, whom Beshear appointed in January, lost to Grimes in the May Democratic primary for secretary of state.)

10. R. Mike Duncan, Inez banker and former RNC chairman: Now that outside groups are playing huge roles in campaigns, look for Duncan to be a force in the 2012 election. He teamed up with Karl Rove and others to form American Crossroads and later Crossroads GPS. And those two organizations spend tens of millions of dollars in the 2010 Senate and congressional races.
That only will be amplified in a presidential year, especially as Democrats try to match those GOP-backed groups.
So Duncan will be worth watching as he continues his involvement.

11. Colmon Elridge, executive assistant to Gov. Beshear and executive vice president of the Young Democrats of America: Elridge serves more of a behind-the-scenes role with Beshear’s administration. So it will likely be his post as No. 2 of the national young Democrats that propels him into the spotlight in 2012.
Elridge has natural speaking talent, and with a little polish and the opportunity amid this presidential year, he could find himself serving as a surrogate for President Barack Obama’s re-election. Look for him to perhaps pop up on cable talk shows — or even the stage of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

12. Joe Craft/Kelly Knight, coal company owner and GOP fundraiser, respectively: This power couple from Lexington lead a growing list of Kentucky-based donors to national Republican groups. Others include Corbin banker Terry Forcht, self-storage magnate B. Wayne Hughes and former U.S. ambassador to Latvia Cathy Bailey.
But Craft and Knight have been the most high-profile lately, hosting dinners for several GOP presidential contenders before signing up as the Kentucky campaign chairs for Mitt Romney. Craft, a big donor to the University of Kentucky athletics, and Knight also hosted House Speaker John Boehner at the Kentucky Derby and the UK-UNC basketball game last month.


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