Former Ky. Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott makes it official, enters GOP gubernatorial primary

01/13/2015 04:09 PM

LOUISVILLE — On a bitter, gray morning outside the old Jefferson County Courthouse, former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott announced his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination on Tuesday.

Scott, of Pikeville, and his running mate, former Menifee County Sheriff Rodney Coffey, are the third ticket in the primary field and the first to formally file paperwork with Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

“If I climb this mountain with the sheriff and I get to the Capitol on Dec. 8, we’ll have a saying: You ring and we answer,” Scott said in a speech with about 30 supporters huddled on the courthouse steps. “Because we’re going to listen to the people of Kentucky about the programs in Kentucky that aren’t working.”

Scott, who resigned from the bench earlier this month to pursue the governorship, laid out a campaign platform that includes shoring up the state’s pension systems through expanded gaming and authorizing charter schools to help underperforming school districts. His campaign, run by campaign manager David Adams and political director Roger Ford, also released issue papers on subjects like drug policies, the criminal justice system and lowering the state’s corporate tax rates.

Scott, an unsuccessful GOP candidate for the 7th Congressional District in 1988 and 1990 and attorney general in 1995, called for a constitutional amendment allowing the issuance of five casino licenses, four of which would be granted to racetracks.

Gov. Steve Beshear campaigned aggressively for expanded gambling in 2007 and 2011, but the General Assembly, particularly the Republican-led Senate, balked at proposals over the years.

The Republican candidate sounded optimistic, however, saying he could not only produce up to $250 million annually through his plan, but also convince skeptics in rural areas of how important such an influx of money would be for Kentucky’s beleaguered pension systems for state workers and teachers.

After all, Scott said, a number of border states already allow gambling and keep Kentucky dollars that are wagered in casinos there.

“Why can’t we take that money and why can’t it be our jobs? Why can’t we pay our debt with their money?” Scott asked reporters after his speech. “It makes sense, and those of us in the southeastern, southern and western (Kentucky), we’re against it on religious grounds, but we do understand obligations and promises, and I believe the people, if they have the right to choose based upon the plan I’ve said, will vote to keep a promise.”

About 5 percent of gambling revenue would be spent on elderly residents living in isolated areas, he said.

Despite the late start and trailing both Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and former Louisville Metro Council member Hal Heiner in terms of fundraising, the 67-year-old Scott said he expects to compete in a crowded primary with a well-stocked war chest.

Comer has netted nearly $1.1 million for his campaign since his Sept. 9 launch while Heiner, who has loaned himself $4.2 million thus far, has brought in more than $4.6 million since entering the race in March.

“I stepped down (from the Kentucky Supreme Court) because I’ve got these ideas in my pocket that I’ve got, all these years living this life in Kentucky, knowing the pain and problems that the families have, and I’m taking their solutions with me,” Scott said. “So I’m not afraid of this campaign. I love my opponents, I truly do, and this is not personal.”

Scott and Coffey, 44, both hail from eastern Kentucky, but Scott said his running mate’s work as president of the Kentucky Sheriff’s Association will help boost the ticket’s profile throughout the state.

The other GOP slates offer more diverse regional pairings – Comer, of Tompkinsville, chose state Sen. Chris McDaniel from northern Kentucky as his running mate while Heiner, of Louisville, formed a ticket with Lexington’s K.C. Crosbie.

“I have a ticket that reaches to Paducah,” Scott said. “Rodney Coffey’s got a finger in all 120 counties, and believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time out there too. I’m not worried about it.”

The Heiner and Comer campaigns welcomed Scott to the fray.

Comer, in a phone interview with Pure Politics, said he looks forward to “a healthy debate about the future of Kentucky” in the months leading to the May 19 primary, adding he’s not concerned that Scott may siphon away votes in a crowded GOP field.

“I think the more in the race the better,” he said. “I know where Sen. McDaniel and I are going to run the score up big, so I welcome more people in the race. I hope two or three more file.”

The first-term agriculture commissioner, discussing his support on the campaign trail, noted that his fourth quarter fundraising haul of $555,842 is more than the the total of Heiner, $146,462, and Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, $176,042, combined in the same three-month time period.

Doug Alexander, Heiner’s communications director, said in a statement, “Throughout the campaign, against all who are in the race, we look forward to sharing Hal Heiner’s message as a conservative outsider looking to change business as usual in Frankfort.”

Still, Scott and others who may enter the primary field are “hoping to catch lightning in a bottle” against Comer and Heiner, veteran political consultant Scott Jennings told Pure Politics in an email, pegging Comer as the early frontrunner while adding that Heiner “will be a player until the end because of his resources.”

Jennings, a White House aide to former President George W. Bush and former campaign advisor for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, called Scott a third-tier candidate “and without significant resources will stay there.” The former justice may have some name identification in eastern Kentucky and Lexington markets, but boosting that recognition in the Louisville region will be costly between now and May 19, Jennings said.

“With just these three in, though, I find it unlikely that Scott’s candidacy could muster the resources to compete the way Comer and Heiner have and can in the future (I say that without knowing if Scott has personal wealth he may be donating to the race),” he said in the email. “The most important thing for a little-known candidacy is to raise funds (or give it to yourself) and build enough name ID for people to even consider you.”

He continued: “You are looking at having to build credibility and rationale for a candidacy in the face of two guys — Comer and Heiner — who have already been out there doing it for months, and who have proven they’ll have the resources to tell a story in the weeks leading up to the May primary.”

Conway is the only prominent member of his party mounting a gubernatorial bid with the Jan. 27 filing deadline two weeks away.

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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