FANCY FARM, Ky. (AP) - Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Steve Beshear lit into each other on a steaming hot Saturday at Kentucky's premier political event, kicking off the fall campaign with an exchange focusing on the incumbent's past legal turmoil and the challenger's support for opening the state to casino gambling.
Before a boisterous crowd at the 127th annual Fancy Farm picnic in far western Kentucky, Fletcher derisively dubbed his opponent "Easy Money Steve" in pounding away at Beshear's ambitious plans to fund his education and health care initiatives by amending Kentucky's Constitution to allow limited casino gaming.
"`Easy Money Steve' offers you nothing but a grand scheme to fund all of his false promises," said Fletcher, who is seeking a second term as Kentucky's first Republican governor in a generation.
Beshear, a former lieutenant governor and attorney general, fired back by bringing up a special grand jury investigation that led to Fletcher's indictment last year as part of a probe into the Republican administration's hiring practices.
The Democratic challenger said that Kentucky has slipped further behind most of the nation in several categories of economic performance but said Fletcher's administration was at the top in one dubious category.
"It has had more indictments, more pardons, more times that the governor has taken the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify before a grand jury than any other state in this country," Beshear said.
The grand jury returned 29 indictments, one of which charged Fletcher with criminal conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination. The charges against Fletcher were dropped in an agreement with prosecutors, even though the grand jury concluded he had approved a "widespread and coordinated plan" to skirt state hiring laws so political supporters could be rewarded with jobs. Fletcher issued pardons for anyone else who had been charged or could be charged.
Fletcher has criticized the probe as a political witch hunt.
On Saturday, thousands thronged to the grounds of St. Jerome Catholic Church for the annual picnic, which serves up thousands of pounds of barbecue along with fresh vegetables and homemade pies.
Politicians served up plenty of zingers for the crowd of partisans who cheered their candidates and booed the opposition during a round of speeches.
Republicans offered some gimmicks in trying to score political points. Near the speakers' stage, Fletcher's campaign debuted a float dubbed "Beshearville" that included a casino, a payday lending store, massage parlor and a boarded-up family business. The GOP also brought out someone portraying Moses. It was a dig at Beshear for his role years ago as attorney general in enforcing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering the removal of the Ten Commandments from Kentucky public classrooms.
Beshear, the son and grandson of Baptist preachers in western Kentucky, was ready for that attack.
"I obeyed the law," he responded when it was his turn at the podium. "And let me tell you this, as governor I'll obey the law, too. And wouldn't that be a great change if we had a governor who would obey the law for a change."
The hiring scandal and Fletcher's job performance were fodder for Democrats leading up to the picnic. Earlier Saturday, at a Democratic gathering in nearby Mayfield, state Auditor Crit Luallen lambasted Fletcher for presiding over "the most embarrassing and incompetent administration" in Kentucky history.
Talking to reporters later, Fletcher called Luallen's comments "the most hypocritical thing I've ever heard," and said the criticism came from someone who ran the "entire patronage system" for former Democratic Gov. Paul Patton.
"But what do you expect, they have nothing to say about my policies," said Fletcher, who has taken credit for, among other things, boosting education funding, revamping the Medicaid system and overhauling the state tax code.
Luallen has said she never rewarded Patton's political supporters with protected state jobs when she was Patton's executive cabinet secretary.
Meanwhile, Fletcher's sharpest attacks at the picnic honed in on Beshear's support for limited casino gambling.
The governor warned that expanded gaming would promote a host of
social ills, including more crime, divorce and bankruptcies. He said that casino players in Kentucky would have to lose nearly $1.5 billion each year to achieve Beshear's state revenue projection.
Most of that money is now spent at existing businesses, Fletcher said.
"While `Easy Money Steve' promises you money for nothing, the real truth is the casinos get your money while we get nothing," Fletcher said.
Beshear supports putting the issue of expanded gambling on the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment and supports allowing casino gambling at some racetracks and two to four freestanding facilities along the state's border. Beshear has estimated the state could collect at least $500 million a year in extra revenue from expanded gambling.
In his speech Saturday, Beshear said Kentuckians already are spending millions of dollars at casinos just across Kentucky's border. That money, he said, is helping pay for schools, roads and health care in neighboring states, and he accused of Fletcher of using "bogus figures to try to scare you to death."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)