Down-ticket race, already looking past May primary, jumpstarts 2015 debate season

01/17/2015 07:54 PM

BOWLING GREEN — A pair of candidates met in the 2015 election cycle’s first debate on Friday, but it wasn’t one of the 60 sought by Republican gubernatorial hopeful Hal Heiner.

A group of Kentucky grain farmers associations hosted a forum between Kentucky agriculture commissioner candidates Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, a Bowling Green Democrat who hosts a weekly agriculture-based radio show and works in international marketing, and state Rep. Ryan Quarles, a three-term Republican attorney from Georgetown.

With the Jan. 27 filing deadline about a week away, they remain their parties’ only candidates for the office. Both Quarles, who entered the race Dec. 1, and Lawson Spann, first in the campaign after declaring June 18, focused on their personal experiences in the potential early look at this fall’s agriculture commissioner matchup.

Quarles opened the forum by highlighting his time in the state legislature as well as his upbringing and education in agriculture.

“I think that Kentucky deserves a commissioner who has a farm background,” he said. “In the Kentucky General Assembly I’ve been an advocate for farming issues, whether it’s an international trade negotiation or speaking up for rural communities, I think it’s important that we have a commissioners that understands that agriculture is not just about production, but it’s also about a way of life.”

Lawson Spann said she is an eighth-generation farmer who has hosted her radio show for 11 years “to promote the positive things going on in Kentucky agriculture. She “has interviewed most of the major players in Kentucky agriculture, including many of you in this room,” she said.

Both also touted their major endorsements at the commodity forum. Quarles listed current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who’s seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination after a single term in office, as one of the top commissioners in the state’s history.

Comer’s immediate endorsement helped, Quarles joked, “but I think Commissioner Comer has set a gold standard when it comes to turning a department around and really trying to put people above politics, and that’s the type of leadership style I’ll bring to the department.”

Quarles also mentioned Billy Ray Smith as one of the best agriculture commissioners. Smith was Lawson Spann’s only choice, and she had the Democrat’s early endorsement to lean on Friday.

“I was very proud to have him travel with us on our announcement tour in June of last year when we kicked off this campaign,” she said. The former two-term agriculture commissioner who left office in 2004 also appears in a video on her website.

“As former commissioner Smith said as he traveled with us along the announcement tour and as he continues to travel with us today, he said I’m the right person at the right time with the right plan and the right background to move Kentucky agriculture forward,” Lawson Spann said.

The agriculture-centric debate coincided with this year’s Kentucky Commodity Conference in Bowling Green, and the discussion ranged from domestic topics, such as the roles of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, to federal issues like Environmental Protection Agency regulations and subsidies in the farm bill.

For Quarles, a former intern for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, “it’s important that we have a commissioner who knows how to work with our federal delegation.”

“I have a great working relationship with the vast majority of our eight members of U.S. Congress as well as our two senators,” Quarles said. Republicans hold seven of the state’s eight congressional seats.

“I’ve worked in Frankfort, worked in Washington, D.C., before, helped work on the tobacco buyout bills so I know the legislative process,” he added. “I also worked for the Foreign Agriculture Service working on multilateral trade negotiations as well, but when it comes to these federal bureaucratic issues it’s important that you have somebody who has pre-established relationships with those actors who actually have influence over these bills.”

Lawson Spann said she has contacts with the Farm Service Agency through her radio program “to help our farmers understand the decisions that are being made in the new farm bill.”

Like many recent Kentucky elections, the race for agriculture commissioner will feature heavy doses of anti-Washington stumping. And both candidates seemed to agree on how the state is responding to proposed water regulations.

“I’d also like to continue to encourage the ag development board to do testing because we know there may be pollutants out there, but nobody knows where they’re coming from and we can’t be making unjustified decisions based off non-scientific information, so I think there needs to be a continued effort to test water quality before it comes in Kentucky and is it leaves Kentucky.”

Lawson Spann, like Quarles, said Kentuckians “don’t want the EPA coming onto our farms.”

“I agree with what the agricultural development board is doing to handle this situation by testing the water as it’s coming into Kentucky, going through Kentucky and then exiting Kentucky,” she said. “This will scientifically show and prove that it is not our Kentucky farmers who are polluting the water.”

She and Quarles said they would defend Kentucky’s agricultural interests, with Lawson Spann saying she would sue the agency over the proposed water regulations if necessary.

“Yes, if a lawsuit or some other action is needed at some point, absolutely,” she said. “We will do whatever action is needed to stand up for our Kentucky farmers, but we don’t think at this point standing up in a speech and attacking from the get-go is the best way to set the stage to work together.”

Quarles’ December entry, a month before the end of the fourth campaign finance reporting quarter, also gives a glimpse at possible financial strength between the two. Lawson Spann leads Quarles, who is looking to become the third consecutive Republican elected agriculture commissioner, with $102,835 raised to the Republican’s $22,974. That includes $60,000 Lawson Spann loaned her campaign, which means Quarles has raised more than half the Democrat’s donor total after a month of fundraising.

Lawson Spann holds a $55,363 cash advantage, according to campaign reports filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

-Pure Politics reporter Kevin Wheatley with video from Bowling Green by Chris Bratton.

About Pure Politics

Pure Politics airs Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. ET and again at 11:30 p.m. ET in all of cn|2's Kentucky markets. The program features political analysis and news, as well as interviews with officials, candidates, policy makers and political observers.

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