Gubernatorial candidates spar in first televised debate

09/15/2015 11:53 PM

LOUISVILLE — The three candidates for governor met Tuesday night at Belleramine University in an hour-long debate where social issues took a sharper focus.

Democratic candidate Jack Conway, Republican candidate Matt Bevin and independent candidate Drew Curtis shared the spotlight on Tuesday night in Louisville at the debate sponsored by The Courier Journal, WHAS-TV, WKYT-TV and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Bevin and a visibly sweating Conway exchanged barbs over state pension plans and same-sex marriage from the stage as a crowd of 300 people watched on from the Cralle Center. All the while Curtis slipped in and out of the wider debate with comedic timing.

“I think you’re both wrong,” Curtis said during one tense exchange between Bevin and Conway over Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis and questions over her civic obligation and religious freedoms to deny marriage licenses to all couples in her opposition to same-sex marriage.

“As an executive you have an oath to uphold the laws of the land of your state regardless if you believe in them or not,” Curtis continued after bringing the room to laughter — including Conway.

Bevin said he thought it was “fantastic” that Kentucky was leading the national conversation about religious freedoms.

After the debate the Republican candidate said the issue has “redefined this race, whether any of us candidates would like that to be the case or not.”

When asked if the debate helps him in the campaign, Bevin replied, “I don’t think it hurts me, but I’ll leave that up to the voters to decide.”

Conway told the crowd that he has sympathy for Davis. However, he said she didn’t go to jail over her religious convictions, but rather for her defiance of an order from U.S. District Judge David Bunning.

“I think a majority of Kentuckians want to see people follow the law,” Conway said to the press after the debate. “And they want to see someone running for governor focused on education and economic development, because those are the twin rails of what governors do, and nothing that happened in Rowan County did anything to advance education and job creation in the state.”

The most awkward exchange of the night came as Conway tried to handle a question from the Herald-Leader’s Sam Youngman when he asked about the recently settled sexual harassment case in the General Assembly and how the Capitol has become a safer workplace for women.

Conway searched for an answer, saying, “Gosh let me count the ways.” What Conway settled on had overtones of former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” remark during the second presidential debate in 2012.

“I can tell you this — when I became attorney general I think half of my directors were women,” he said. “My first chief deputy was a woman. I’m married to a strong professional woman in Elizabeth Davenport Conway. I’ve got two little girls. I’ve even got a female dog — they’ve got me surrounded Sam, I’ll tell you what.”

Calling the sexual harassment in the state House “absolute shenanigans,” Bevin chided Conway for not calling attention to what was happening.

“It was the responsibility of your running mate Sannie Overly who was deposed and had her deposition sealed because she didn’t want people to know that these women went to her as the first woman in leadership thinking they would find somebody that would have their back, and she didn’t,” Bevin said.

Curtis opted to not attack on the issue, instead saying he favored diversity.

The debate also honed in on the issue of state pensions, with candidates again giving their solutions to the state’s most pressing fiscal issue.

Curtis explained his plan which calls on pulling a $5 billion bond to be used as a revolving credit line.

Bevin offered a new wrinkle to his plan, calling for teachers to be placed back under Social Security.

The Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System is seeking $1.4 billion in next year’s two-year budget session. New federal accounting standards are changing for KTRS, meaning without a funding plan in place, the agency’s funded ratio will drop below 50 percent and unfunded liabilities will rise to $21.6 billion.

Conway said that the state needs to fully fund the actuarially required contributions for the state pension plans, but he said he looks forward to an end-of-year report on funding recommendations for KTRS. A work group has been tasked with formalizing potential fixes ahead of next year’s session.

The night had its fair share of sharp elbows after the debate, but Curtis said that Conway and Bevin are “pretty cool guys.”

If Curtis was not in the race, he said he would likely vote for Matt Bevin “solely because of his running mate.”

Tuesday’s debate is the first of at least four televised debates in the gubernatorial race.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics, the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the connection between the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape and a Kentucky hacker whose push for further investigation could put him in federal prison. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@twcnews.com.

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