After starting with controversy of abuse allegations, final gubernatorial debate finishes on issues

05/11/2015 11:18 PM

LEXINGTON — A bitter Band-Aid was ripped off at the onset, but Kentucky’s gubernatorial candidates touched on a bevy of subjects during their final debate on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight” on Monday.

Bill Goodman, who moderated the debate, started the statewide broadcast by asking Agriculture Commissioner James Comer about allegations of abuse levied by a college girlfriend last week and former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner whether his campaign had any involvement in Marilyn Thomas’ decision to air the accusations that date back to 1991.

Comer said he has been truthful in his denials of Thomas’ allegations of physical and mental abuse and that he drove her to a Louisville abortion clinic in 1991.

“We’ve had countless interviews,” he said. “We’ve answered every question. I’m glad that this behind us and now we’re going to close this campaign out talking about the issues.”

Heiner declined to address the specific allegations — “Domestic abuse is a serious issue, and that’s between Jamie Comer and Miss Thomas,” he said — but he said his campaign had nothing to do with Thomas’ public statements on her previous relationship with Comer.

Comer, in an editorial board meeting with The Cincinnati Enquirer, accused Heiner’s campaign of offering money to coerce Thomas, but she and the Heiner campaign have denied any such activity.

“We’ve had no involvement whatsoever in the fact that this young lady felt the need to come forward,” Heiner said. “We’ve had zero involvement — never met her, never talked with her, and to my knowledge no one in our organization has as well.”

Louisville investment manager Matt Bevin zeroed in on Heiner when asked for his thoughts on the current tone of the Republican primary, saying pro-Heiner groups Citizens for a Sound Government and Bluegrass Action Fund “decided to soil the bed” in focusing on other candidates in the race.

“When this kind of slandering of other candidates took place, it discourages people from turning out,” Bevin said. “It dampens the turnout, and it’s bad for Kentucky, it’s bad for the GOP, and frankly it’s bad for America.”

Bevin’s complaints have been oft-repeated since CSG’s entry in the race in early April, but Heiner said the one-time U.S. Senate candidate is being disingenuous by criticizing political attacks while engaging in them himself, starting with his primary challenge last year against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“He’s done nothing but attack,” Heiner said.

Comer retorted that Heiner doesn’t have “the moral authority to even criticize anyone on attack ads right now” given the ads that outside groups have aired against him.

While accusations of abuse and coordination have dominated news coverage recently, the four candidates spent much of their time Monday pleading their cases on a number of subjects before their final statewide television audience.

Much of the debate focused on education-centric issues like Common Core and incentive-based pay for teachers.

On early childhood education, Bevin said the federal Head Start program “serves no purpose” once students reach third grade.

“The evidence is very clear that it is not working the way we’re doing it, and yet absolutely I believe that early childhood education is important and we should be putting everything we have” in developing a new methodology, he said, adding after the debate, “I think we could accomplish a tremendously greater amount of good with fewer dollars.”

Comer praised Gov. Steve Beshear’s efforts in early childhood education, but he said the state doesn’t have the resources to expand such programs. Instead, he said reallocating resources in public education could help boost money for teachers and supplies.

Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott said he “would love to find money for these children” to improve early childhood education while Heiner proposed retooling the K-12 model into a “K-14” system.

“We’re not preparing about 50 percent of our children for the jobs that are available today and the jobs that are coming, so as revenues become available, as we grow jobs in this state, my administration, that focus will be on how we get our children prepared,” he said. “… A 12th grade education doesn’t allow you to be successful in supporting yourself today.”

Goodman also asked the candidates to provide an estimate on what they consider a “comfortable” wage on which a family of four could live.

Bevin provided the lowest floor at $40,000 annually while Scott set the high bar at $50,000 to $60,000 per year. Comer called $45,000 annually the “bare minimum” for a comfortable living, and Heiner set his threshold at $40,000 to $50,000 in yearly pay.

On average, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator predicts a single-source income earner in Kentucky must make $17.18 per hour, or $35,734 annually, to cover food, housing, medical care, transportation, taxes and other expenses to support a family with two adults and two children.

After the debate, Comer said he was happy to address the allegations against him at the onset before discussing other topics in the campaign.

“I’ve been very transparent with all of you all about that,” he said. “I think the people of Kentucky have made up their minds, and we’re going to move forward and I’m confident that this was a good debate. We’ll just keep pressing forward over the next week.”

Heiner also seemed ready to press on when asked about the controversy’s impact.

“I’ll leave that to the pundits,” he said. “My focus is solely on what’s possible in Kentucky and talking to voters all across the state.”

Bevin, who has attempted to capitalize on the recent back-and-forth between Comer and Heiner in a recent ad titled “Food Fight,” said he will be “delighted when those (accusations) are all gone.”

“I’ve had one ad where I’ve made a bit of fun at them, made light at them, trying to bring a little levity to the equation, but truth be told, whether or not it helps any one of us or hurts any one of us is going to be determined at the ballot box in eight or nine days,” he said.

Republican voters with elect their gubernatorial nominee in the May 19 primary.


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