’Tis the season for books as gifts, and two Kentucky political books deserve your consideration. They are quite different, but both have their place, perhaps on your own shelf.
The volume you can see in bookstores is “Kentucky Government, Politics and Public Policy,” a University Press of Kentucky book edited and partly written by James Clinger of Murray State University and Michael Hail of Morehead State University.
The book is overdue because there has been no such comprehensive volume about Kentucky government and politics since the state Senate went Republican 14 years ago, the General Assembly cemented its pre-eminent role in policymaking and the state became reliably Republican in most federal elections.
Clinger and Hail assembled a strong list of 22 co-authors to write 19 articles about every major element of Kentucky government, and got U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and his protégé, former Secretary of State Trey Grayson, to write forewords.
McConnell calls the book “the most in-depth and comprehensive study of political science in Kentucky I have come across.” Grayson, now director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, says the book “can be a valuable step back from the day-to-day news stories to put events in a proper context.”
I agree. The book will be a valuable reference for those who follow politics and public-policy debates. A good example is the chapter on gubernatorial-legislative relations, written by Paul Blanchard, retired from Eastern Kentucky University. (Blanchard interviewed, and gives some credit to, your columnist.)
The chapter accurately traces the growth of the legislature’s power since the late 1970s, and notes a great irony in then-House Speaker Don Blandford’s use of special appropriations to win votes for the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990: “The most blatant form of patronage politics was used at the state level to pass a package that had as one of its major goals the elimination of blatant patronage politics at the local level,” by reducing authority of elected school boards.
In their introduction, the editors say the “Political Parties and Elections” chapter discusses “how and why the commonwealth changed from a one-party-dominated Democratic state to one with viable two-party competition and a tendency to be carried by Republican candidates in presidential elections.” The chapter is a good, narrative box score for that great partisan game, but it has factual errors (getting former U.S. Rep. Romano Mazzoli’s name wrong, misnaming 1943 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lyter Donaldson and placing the election in 1945), and doesn’t fully deliver on the editors’ promise.
Kentucky actually was a very competitive two-party state from 1895 to 1931, but the Great Depression, the New Deal and the unionization of the two coalfields made it Democratic. Republicans began their comeback with the help of Democratic factionalism, then gained traction on social issues, in this order: school prayer, civil rights, backlashes to Vietnam War protests and Democratic welfare policies, gun control, abortion and gay rights. Other major elements were the appeal of Ronald Reagan, the national Republican surge in 1994 and McConnell’s party leadership.
Those key “why” points are missing, with the exception of McConnell, who gets shorter shrift than deserved. His role in pushing Republican colleague Jim Bunning out of a re-election bid in 2010 is not mentioned, and the next chapter, on campaign finance, does not mention his active discouragement of potential GOP candidates for governor in 1999, his ostensible argument being that a Republican couldn’t beat a Democratic incumbent under the system of spending limits and public financing in effect at the time.
The book’s omissions likely stem from its nature — a reference volume with separate articles by different authors on discrete topics, with strict space limits. One wishes for an online version that could be expanded and updated.
The other Kentucky political book worth your consideration is a one-person job — a self-published memoir by a former state official and lobbyist whose career tracked Kentucky’s political evolution of the past 50 years.
Roy Stevens was one of the top professionals in state government from 1972 to 1980, and a well-regarded lobbyist for two decades after that. He prepared the office organizational charts for Govs. Julian Carroll and John Y. Brown Jr., then served both as a top assistant, a rare if not unprecedented status through an unfriendly gubernatorial transition. And Stevens writes that he turned down a chance to be chief of staff for Gov. Brereton Jones, preferring to stick with Ashland Oil.
Stevens, 73, is a sterling example of those who are essential to making state government work because they care less about politics than doing a good job for the public. The title of his book, “Grass Roots,” sounds political, but he never ran for office (though he says he turned down an invitation to run for lieutenant governor with then-Senate President John “Eck” Rose in the 1995 governor’s race). The title is a signal that he remained faithful to the values he learned growing up in Princeton, where he has retired.
Stevens learned the ropes in the 1960s from then-Highway Commissioner Henry Ward, who he says “was the hardest working human being I have ever known, and he expected the same level of dedication from all around him. ... His ethics were above reproach.” The book includes many such assessments of important, and sometimes little known, players in state government.
Ward’s lessons surely helped Stevens during the Carroll administration, which was rocked by scandal that never really touched Stevens — who became finance secretary to help clean up the mess. He writes that Carroll’s problems came “because some administration officials were too quick to say ‘yes’ when ‘no’ or even ‘Hell, no’ would have been the correct answer.”
Stevens says Carroll’s problems began with a state warehouse lease that “did not pass a superficial smell test (and) let loose investigative bloodhounds who saw (it) as the tip of an iceberg.” Cracking wise, he says the lease “may have been the space that launched a thousand tips.”
The book is loaded with details about Carroll’s administration and the beginning of Brown’s. Like many self-published memoirs, it could have used some sharp editing, but Stevens was diligent enough about the project to draw on interviews former legislators gave to the Kentucky Legislature Oral History Project at the University of Kentucky. Those add perspective about the rising role of the General Assembly, and some are revealing and entertaining.
The book often connects the past with near-present. Stevens notes how McConnell made Brown’s revision of the gasoline tax an issue in 2008 when the senator was fending off a challenge from Democrat Bruce Lunsford, who had been Brown’s legislative liaison.
Stevens writes that McConnell knew the law rightly created “a Road Fund that grows with the economy” but “I took no offense at the ad because I supported Senator McConnell’s re-election and it wasn’t up to me to defend the law.”
So a former top aide to Democratic governors and would-be governors supported the man most responsible for making Kentucky a Republican state. Stevens told me he’s a still registered Democrat but is “moderate to conservative” and rarely votes Democratic in federal elections because the national party no longer fits his views.
And there, in the life of one man, is Kentucky’s recent political evolution. To get his book, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.