Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Back to the future

When Jamie Comer recently announced that he would be announcing that he'll be announcing his run for governor in next year's race, Ronnie Ellis' coverage of the pre-pre-announcement announcement mentioned something that haunted Kentucky's last Republican governor, and will no doubt be an elephant in the room should either Comer or Hal Heiner emerge victorious next November.

Ellis speculates that Comer will make his preliminary announcement at Fancy Farm and his formal announcement in his hometown of Tompkinsville, the seat of Monroe County in the heart of Kentucky's GOP-leaning Old 5th congressional district.

The columnist takes a trip down memory lane and mentions 2003 Republican nominee Ernie Fletcher getting questions while campaigning in Tompkinsville about why state government discriminated against Republicans in hiring for state civil service jobs, and what he would do about it.

In recalling that episode, Ellis mentions a fact the Democrats would prefer we forget. So much so that they have scrubbed all public references to a study commissioned during the Fletcher administration that confirmed how under previous Democrat governors, the state had favored Democrats over Republicans in hiring for jobs that are supposed to be free of political influence.

The story mentions that while voter registration runs 7.5-1 in favor of Republicans in Monroe County, employment at the local state highway garage favored Democrats by nearly twice that margin, 13-1. And as a report issued by a state-appointed commission revealed, that phenomenon was repeated in virtually every county with a GOP majority.

We don't need to recount what happened during the Fletcher administration. That's a matter of history, even if that history has been totally distorted by the Democrat sympathizers in the Kentucky press. It's a fact that Democrats played games with patronage hiring, yet cried foul when Republicans tried to end that process. It's a fact that hiring managers spoke in code, saying applicants had to be "the right religion" to be considered for a job, or their political operatives outright told Republicans that they'd have to change their registration if they hoped to be hired. It's a fact that mid-level managers in the state bureaucracy continued to run a patronage system in the Fletcher administration, basing their hiring decisions on the wishes of the local Democrat power brokers instead of appointees within their own departments.

We don't believe in quota systems, but we have no trouble seeing how something fishy was up, not only just in Monroe County but all across the Old 5th and in other Republican counties. As the persecution of the Fletcher administration dragged on, his Department of Personnel produced research showing how the registration of state employees was heavily skewed toward the Democrats even in counties where Republicans dominated the total voter registration rolls.

After Steve Beshear took over, all references to that Blue Ribbon Commission's report were scrubbed from Personnel's website and other state records. We'd bet that if you wrote the Personnel Cabinet today and made an open records request for those documents, you'd be told the state no longer is in possession of them.

Ending the political discrimination against hiring in state government was a major concern for Fletcher's constituency. Had he not addressed their desires, his term would have been even more hampered because of the support he would have lost from within his own party.

And that's something that Heiner and Comer need to take into consideration. Democrats are back to their old ways, playing politics with hiring in the Beshear administration. They talk a good game about how they're playing by the book, but the results pretty much speak for themselves. Any inroads the Fletcher people had made into reversing the political discrimination against Republicans have been lost.

If a Republican wins the governor's race next fall, which many believe to be very likely, there will be intense pressure once again to stop the Democrats' patronage system. If the governor does not respond, it will come at a price in political capital. Perhaps the governor's appointees will handle it better than did some of Fletcher's people -- never forget that Dan Druen was basically placed in his job by Mitch McConnell -- but a Republican governor will have to ensure that Democrats are no longer favored in state hiring decisions for merit system jobs.

When Ellis goes back to Tompkinsville, perhaps he can inquire again as to the percentage of Democrats to Republicans in the state highway "barn." And perhaps his brethren in the statewide press will ask how a county with vastly more Republicans than Democrats has so few Republicans who are qualified and capable to drive graders or flag traffic.

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