By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
There’s a special election Tuesday in six counties along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, but because of the timing, one week before Christmas and right after a major national election, it hasn’t drawn much statewide attention.
Republican state Rep. Sara Beth Gregory, a Monticello attorney, and Democrat Bill Conn, a Williamsburg teacher, face off in a Dec. 18 special election to succeed Republican David Williams who resigned his seat to accept an appointment as circuit judge. Republicans will control the majority in the Senate regardless of Tuesday’s winner.
The 16th District covers six counties along the state’s southern border: Monroe, Cumberland, Clinton, Wayne, McCreary and Whitley counties. The district is about 70 percent Republican registration, a strong advantage for Gregory.
Conn recognizes he has “a great uphill battle” and he says he intends to overcome the advantage in registration for Gregory by going “door to door asking people for their vote and presenting our ideas.” He said that means explaining to voters that he’s a “conservative Democrat” who supports the coal industry and is pro-life and pro-Second Amendment.
“I am a public servant,” Conn said. “The people don’t serve me, I serve the people.”
Gregory “strongly supports the coal industry” and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and Kentucky Right to Life.
“I think on the issues, the district is overwhelmingly in agreement with me on the issues and with the Republican Party,” she said.
Conn, 30, was born in Madison County but has lived in Whitley County since he was two and is a first-time candidate. He teaches math intervention in kindergarten through third-grade classes at Williamsburg Independent Schools. He and his wife, Rebecca, who works in advertising and graphic design for the Corbin Times-Tribune, are expecting their first child. (The Times-Tribune is a CNHI-owned paper.)
Gregory, 30, is a lifelong Wayne County resident and is completing her first term in the Kentucky House of Representatives. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and the UK School of Law and clerked for a year for federal judge Eugene Siler. She is single.
Gregory has far outpaced Conn in fundraising. According to Dec. 3 campaign reports filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Conn had raised $5,935, including $4,700 of his own money, and had $807 on hand. The Kentucky Democratic Party contributed $500 and the Clinton County Democratic Executive Committee contributed $135.
Gregory had raised $85,000 during the same time, including an $11,000 loan to her campaign. Her campaign has received contributions from several prominent Republicans throughout the state, including Don and Mira Ball, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, former party chairman Robert Gable, Jess Correll, and several Republican state lawmakers.
She also received $25,000 from the Republican Senate Caucus Committee and from U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s political action committee, the Bluegrass Committee. Her campaign has spent $33,934 and has $51,166 left on hand.
Conn concedes “money is tight,” but he is trying to overcome the financial disparity by meeting as many voters as he can and explaining his views. His advertising consists primarily of yard signs and fliers but he has a spot on a local cable access channel serving Clinton and McCreary counties.
He said he has campaigned in all six counties of the district.
Gregory’s advertising is in local newspapers and on radio. The Republican Party of Kentucky has also sent out a mailer on behalf of her candidacy. She said it’s difficult to go door-to-door in a six-county district during a time-compressed special election campaign. Instead, she is attending as many group events as possible and meeting with political and civic leaders in every county.
Both candidates expect a low turnout — which conceivable could help Conn. But Republicans are wary of letting that happen — McConnell will headline a Saturday, Dec. 15, bus tour across the district to turn out the Republican vote. He’ll be joined at some stops by Comer and by U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers in the counties which are in his 5th Congressional District.
Conn and Gregory agree on several issues, but there are distinct differences on some.
Conn, who was once registered Republican, said he changed his registration as he realized his views were more in line with the interests of “the common man.” He’s careful to distinguish himself from the national Democratic Party, emphasizing his support of coal and conservative social issues but says he is “pro-labor.”
Gregory on the other hand would like to see the state adopt a right-to-work law to “make Kentucky more competitive and attractive to business.”
Like Conn, Gregory said jobs are the key issue in the district and she’d like to see “a more comprehensive” tax reform than the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Commission chaired by Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson.
That commission is recommending taxing pension income over $40,000, a one-percent tax on utilities, and extending the sales tax to some services while reducing the corporate income tax and top individual income rate.
Conn generally supports the commission’s recommendations with one major exception: he opposes taxing retirement benefits.
He wants to encourage tourism in the 16th District by among other things building a golf course at Cumberland Falls State Park. He wants to help the farm economy by legalizing production of industrialized hemp and supporting bio-fuels development. (Conn owns an interest in a bio-fuels company.)
Conn and Gregory differ on how to deal with Kentucky’s public pension systems which face a combined $30 billion unfunded liability.
“We need to look at all the options,” Conn said, but he opposes changes to the system for future hires, specifically opposing asking those future hires to contribute more to their retirement.
Gregory said changes are necessary to protect promised benefits to current employees and retirees and she supports a “defined contribution” plan for future employees.
They also disagree on whether to allow a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling to go before voters.
Conn said as a deacon in his Baptist church he is personally opposed to gambling, “but I recognize 90 percent of the commonwealth wants to vote on a constitutional amendment.” He said he would support putting the issue before the voters but he would vote against the measure at the ballot box.
Gregory said she opposes gambling. She agrees it would legally require a constitutional amendment.
“But I’m not in favor of expanded gambling either way,” she said.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.