Ky. Democrats don't expect to catch fallout from Rowan County clerk's contempt incarceration this fall

09/07/2015 09:19 PM

As more than 3,000 munched on hot dogs, baked beans and potato salad at Monday’s Greater Louisville United Labor Picnic, Kentucky Democrats sounded unconvinced that a county clerk celebrating Labor Day inside a jail cell nearly 170 miles away will have much impact on their electoral prospects this fall.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has been behind bars since Thursday after defying U.S. District Judge David Bunning’s injunction ordering her office to resume issuing marriage licenses despite her religious objections to same-sex marriage. Deputy clerks have since begun issuing licenses, but Davis has appealed her incarceration for contempt to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court battle has spilled into the political realm, with Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin and GOP attorney general nominee Whitney Westerfield describing the situation as a struggle for religious liberty. Many of those protesting the legal action against Davis on the Ashland courthouse steps on Thursday often railed against the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage and espoused negative views of homosexuality in general.

Davis’s incarceration has also attained national attention, with Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is currently polling ninth among the GOP field in an average calculated by Real Clear Politics, scheduled to attend a rally for Davis outside the Carter County Detention Center in Grayson.

But Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway said his opponent is focusing on Davis’s incarceration on the campaign trail “because he’s not winning on the issues.” He and other Democrats on the ballot Nov. 3 told reporters Monday they’re unconcerned with the political ramifications of a federal judge jailing someone for not following his order.

“I have sympathy for Kim Davis, but she’s in jail because she defied a federal judge’s court order,” Conway said after a pro-union rally at the Louisville Zoo picnic, adding his view that marriage licenses issued by deputy clerks are valid despite Davis’s attorneys arguing otherwise. “You can’t do that.”

Conway’s office has considered the referral of an official misconduct charge against Davis from Rowan County Attorney Cecil Watkins, who requested a special prosecutor in the matter. The attorney general said Monday he will decline that request.

“He’s got control of the matter and I think he’s doing a very competent job, so given that it’s in Judge Bunning’s control, I don’t see a need at this point and at this time to appoint a special state prosecutor,” Conway said.

Some protesters backing Davis outside the federal courthouse in Ashland last week urged those within earshot to vote against Conway and another Democrat, attorney general candidate Andy Beshear, this fall.

While the vitriol directed at Conway stems from his decision against appealing the original federal ruling overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, any ill feelings toward Beshear come after his father, Gov. Steve Beshear, said he will not call a special session to consider changing the marriage licensing process, telling Davis and other clerks who stopped issuing the documents to either resume or resign. Two other county clerks — Casey Davis in Casey County and Kay Schwartz in Whitley County — have instituted no-marriage-license policies since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June.

Andy Beshear attended Monday’s picnic but was unavailable for questions after a pro-labor rally. His spokeswoman, Galia Slayen, told Pure Politics in a text message that he left to attend another Labor Day picnic in Fayette County.

Other down-ticket Democrats said they did not expect Davis’s incarceration to affect their races this fall.

“I think that overwhelmingly Kentuckians like to see the people they elect do their jobs, and that’s what the courts have indicated and we hope that continues to be the case,” said Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is seeking a second term. “… You don’t elect people so that they can go in and make rules for themselves. You want them to follow what the law is.”

Some changes have been proposed in the licensing process, with the state clerks’ association calling for the removal of individual clerks’ names from the document and Bevin suggesting that forms be available online, potentially through the secretary of state. Grimes said her office will follow directives from the governor and General Assembly in those matters.

Auditor Adam Edelen said his re-election campaign will remain focused on the work his office has performed in nearly four years and “let the politics fall where they may” in regard to Davis.

“I think ultimately there’s nothing in our system of laws that contemplates ignoring a federal judge’s order, and I think this is going to be something that people are going to have to sort out given their own conscience and given their own appreciation that we’re a nation of laws,” Edelen said before the labor rally.

Whatever fallout comes from Davis’s situation remains to be seen, as U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth noted.

While he’s not seeking office in the current climate with Davis behind bars, the Louisville Democrat says those who back Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses likely would’ve voted for Bevin without the Rowan County clerk’s sudden emergence in the national limelight.

“I imagine that it won’t move a lot of votes, that the people who are sympathetic to Ms. Davis would probably vote for a Republican candidate, and I doubt if there are people who are inclined to vote for Jack Conway who are moved because of that issue, so I think it probably will be a net-minimum impact,” Yarmuth said in an interview with Pure Politics.

Yarmuth said he could support drafting “a non-personalized marriage license” to alleviate concerns among county clerks in the state, “but the bottom line is we can’t have people violating the law and that’s what Ms. Davis did.”

“It’s nice of all these Republicans to take up for a Democratic officeholder, but again I think anybody who tries to guess what impact this will have two months from now is, I think, on shaky ground,” he said when asked about the attention brought by Huckabee another other GOP presidential hopefuls to the small eastern Kentucky detention center.

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 or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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