Bevin takes aim at Courier-Journal reporter in Conway's absence at Louisville forum

07/14/2015 09:07 PM

The event was touted as a gubernatorial forum and its logo featured the mascots of both political parties, but those who lined the pews of Crescent Hill Baptist Church on Tuesday only heard from one candidate: Republican Matt Bevin.

The Louisville investment manager had the stage to himself for more than an hour, touching topics like poverty, health care, drug abuse and early childhood education in front of officials from myriad non-profits and community groups at the forum hosted by the Council of Agency Executives.

Donovan Fornwalt, chief executive officer of the Council on Developmental Disabilities and public policy chairman for CAE, said he reached out to Attorney General Jack Conway’s campaign in March and hoped to have the Democratic nominee speak to the group at a later date.

Daniel Kemp, Conway’s campaign spokesman, said the candidate had a “longstanding conflict,” but he declined to elaborate. House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Sannie Overly, Conway’s running mate, was offered as an alternate, but CAE declined that offer, Kemp said, adding that the campaign was “disappointed” the audience did not hear from the ticket.

Despite Conway’s absence, Bevin found a target within his vicinity in The Courier-Journal’s Joe Gerth.

Bevin accused the journalist and others in the news media of intentionally misinterpreting his views on early childhood education. During his response, Bevin turned to, gestured toward and addressed Gerth, who was seated in a front pew, by name.

Bevin’s vitriol stems from coverage of the May 11 Republican primary debate on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight,” in which Bevin criticized the federal Head Start program. He said Head Start “serves no purpose” once students reach third grade, and he advocated “putting everything we have” in developing a new system, although he did not propose an alternative.

While Gerth’s piece on that debate reflected Bevin’s call for a reconsideration of money spent on early childhood education, Conway and the Kentucky Democratic Party have seized on Bevin’s Head Start remarks to portray him as an enemy of such initiatives.

Bevin, who reminded the audience of his nine natural and adopted children, said he wholeheartedly supports early childhood education initiatives at Tuesday’s forum, but specific policies he would pursue to bolster young learning if elected governor were nonexistent.

“We need education across the board, on all fronts,” he said. “No question about it. What does that look like? What is the cost of that? Because whether we like it or not, there is a cost to everything. Maybe it’s the cost of your time. Maybe it’s absolute dollars. Maybe it’s some combination thereof, but it will cost something.”

Stable families and societal support will also help improve education outcomes for children, he said.

Bevin was clear on one point, calling to randomly drug test recipients of “some of the benefits that are received in this state” when asked how he would combat substance abuse as governor.

He said the state could not test every public aid recipient because that would be too costly.

“Will it preclude this from happening? Of course it won’t,” Bevin said. “Is this going to fix the problem? Of course it’s not. I don’t have any delusions to the fact that it will. Will this help to limit the influx of people who are wrestling with this? You bet, because some people among us have the wherewithal, if we know that there may be some punitive result, to not enter into activity that ultimately would entrap us.”

What’s more, the proposal may be limited solely to recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services, in a 2014 legislative analysis on a bill that would have mandated drug tests for recipients with prior felony or misdemeanor drug convictions, said federal law prohibits the state from setting additional requirements on Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp, beneficiaries.

Thirteen states have passed measures mandating drug tests for public assistance recipients in some form, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Associated Press reported in March that Florida Gov. Rick Scott declined to request a U.S. Supreme Court review on Florida’s drug-testing law after a federal appeals court ruled it an unconstitutional search and seizure.

Bevin has made dismantling Kentucky’s health-benefit exchange under the Affordable Care Act a key plank of his campaign platform, and he also has his sights on shaking up CHFS. When asked about the cabinet under his administration if victorious, Bevin said it would “look very different than it looks today.”

He heaped praise on Louisville Metro Council member Julie Denton, a former state senator who chaired the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and backed Agriculture Commissioner James Comer in the May 19 primary.

Bevin called Denton, who sat in a front pew, “an extraordinary asset and ally to me” and someone “who you know for a fact cares about this issue, is knowledgeable about this issue, knows 10 times anything that I’ll ever know about some of these issues, which is why I’m grateful for the fact that she’s willing to be somebody who is supportive of my willingness to learn more.”

Due to time constraints, Pure Politics could only cover the first hour of the CAE forum Tuesday afternoon.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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