Republicans Comer, Heiner trade shots at KPA gubernatorial forum

01/23/2015 09:03 PM

A relatively tame forum between four gubernatorial candidates Friday finished with a bang after the simmering tension between Kentucky Agriculture James Comer and Louisville real estate developer Hal Heiner reached a boil.

The light skirmish began after Comer suggested he and Heiner shared similar views on expanded gambling. Comer said he could back a constitutional amendment on casino-style gaming and allowing voters to ratify the proposal, but political realities in Kentucky’s General Assembly have marginalized the topic.

Heiner had previously supported putting the gambling question to voters back when he ran for Louisville mayor in 2010, but he said Friday at the Kentucky Press Association’s gubernatorial forum that casino gaming has no place on his platform.

“I know what it takes to grow good jobs in Kentucky,” Heiner said. “That’s why I’m running, not to take more money from Kentuckians to try to shore up this part or that part of Kentucky, but to build real revenue, real jobs. That’s what helps Kentucky families.”

While Heiner pointed to Comer’s honorary co-chairmanship of the pro-casino group Kentucky Wins, the first-term agriculture commissioner noted that K.C. Crosbie, Heiner’s running mate, is married to a lobbyist who’d represented gambling groups.

“Let’s just state the facts here: We have the same position,” Comer said. “He said on cn|2, I believe it was the only interview I’ve seen that your running mate’s given the whole year you’ve been in the campaign, that they support letting the people decide.”

But as Heiner and Crosbie, a former Lexington councilwoman who ran for state treasurer in 2011, prepared to launch their campaign, they eluded taking a firm stance on whether they support allowing voters to decide expanded gambling’s fate at the ballot box.

Here’s what the pair told Pure Politics in March:

Heiner countered that Comer’s remarks “again shows the kind of hyperbole that we can’t have as governor.”

“To identify somebody that represents a hotel company for five months and never says the first thing about this issue is the kind of exaggeration that we can’t have in the governor’s office,” he said.

Comer said his comments weren’t antagonistic toward K.C. Crosbie, but her marriage to a lobbyist raises a potential conflict of interest.

“I don’t think spouses of lobbyists or lobbyists should hold office,” he said after the forum. “… When commercials are run attacking Frankfort insiders and then you’ve chosen as your running mate the spouse of a lobbyist, I think that’s a little hypocritical.”

Heiner’s campaign, later Friday, said in a statement that Scott Crosbie had actually ended his lobbying career last week, selling his interest in the firm, HCM Government Relations, Jan. 16.

“In front of the entire Kentucky press community, Jamie Comer said he was committed to running a positive campaign and minutes later attacked the Heiner/Crosbie campaign with false allegations about KC Crosbie’s husband,” Heiner spokesman Doug Alexander said in a statement. “… How will we be able to trust any of Commissioner Comer’s statements in the future?”

HCM Government Relations’ website still features Crosbie’s picture and a link to his biography on the homepage as well as a listing of clients, including Tropicana Casinos and Resorts and GTech, two gambling groups Comer mentioned in his speech.

Ethics filings show Crosbie isn’t registered to lobby the General Assembly this session, but he lobbied on behalf of GTech, one of his five clients, in 2014. Crosbie is registered with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission as a lobbyist for GTech and six other groups, filings show.

The forum was quiet before the dust-up between Heiner and Comer. Republican Will T. Scott, a former Kentucky Supreme Court justice, largely agreed with his primary opponents on topics like Medicaid expansion, bonding for the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System and tax incentives for the Ark Encounter project in Williamstown.

Little-known Democratic candidate Geoff Young carried his party’s banner solo after Attorney General Jack Conway declined the KPA’s invitation. He mostly kept his attacks to the GOP itself, although he tossed some barbs toward the Republican candidates on occasion.

Comer, even after the brouhaha, pledged to keep his campaign’s messaging on issues rather than missteps.

“This campaign is not going to be about who went to a cockfighting rally or how much someone paid rent on their bus,” he said in his closing remarks. “I want this election to be about ideas and achievement, ways we can move Kentucky forward.”

The testy exchange, though, didn’t appear to convince Heiner.

“It certainly seemed the direct opposite of say this and do that, so we’ll see as this campaign’s just really getting moved forward in earnest,” he said after the forum.

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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