Fancy Farm: unfiltered politics and spicy barbecue worth the trip

August 2, 2014

140802FancyFarm-TE0027 Jim Weise, a retired Army lawyer from Elizabethtown, campaigns for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at the Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen



FANCY FARM — This time each year, I am often asked why I drive four hours to a tiny town and sit in sweltering heat to hear politicians make wisecracks and partisan crowds scream at them. It can’t just be for the barbecue.

No, I tell them, it isn’t just for the barbecue. But my share of the nine tons of spicy pork and mutton, home-grown vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the good folks of St. Jerome Parish is always worth the drive.

I go to the Fancy Farm Picnic because, in this age of big-money lobbyists and TV attack ads, it is the only place where Kentucky’s most powerful politicians must face voters from both sides, the press and each other in a setting they can’t control.

The 134th annual picnic Saturday did not disappoint. And the stars of the show — Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — performed well under pressure.

Partisan activists come in from all over the region to crowd under a metal roof — Democratics on one side, Republicans on the other — wave signs, cheer their candidates and boo their opponents. This year’s crowd was reportedly the biggest in history, but it did a better job than usual of heeding organizers’ pleas for civility.

The main attraction was the Senate race, because it is the first time in decades that Democrats have a shot at beating the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.

Polls show McConnell and Grimes essentially tied with an undecided electorate of less than 10 percent.

McConnell is an old pro on the Fancy Farm stump, and he focused his remarks on trying to paint Grimes as an inexperienced novice and puppet of liberals and President Barack Obama. He likened her lack of experience for high office to Obama, who ran for the presidency while in his first term as a senator from Illinois.

“He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?” McConnell said of Obama. “He really didn’t have any qualifications at all. Sound familiar?”

I had to wonder if McConnell’s comments made his Republican colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, squirm in his seat on the stage. Paul, an eye surgeon, was elected in 2010 with no previous government experience, and he is now actively pursuing presidential ambitions.

Grimes, 35, was 6 years old when McConnell, 72, first took office in 1985. But she showed no respect for her elder. She accused him of being a Washington obstructionist who is out of touch with working Kentuckians and their needs. She said creating jobs, raising the minimum wage and legislation requiring equal pay for women would be her priorities.

Will Fancy Farm change the Senate race? Probably not, because neither candidate made any serious missteps. As the old saying goes, a good Fancy Farm performance doesn’t really help a candidate, but a bad performance can ruin a campaign.

The picnic gave an early preview of next year’s governor’s race, with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway promoting his candidacy and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer making his bid official.

State Auditor Adam Edelen, who decided against running for governor next year, is still one of the Democrats’ best stump speakers and clearly sees a future for himself in politics. Appearances by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo made people wonder if they are eyeing bigger ambitions.

Sure, Fancy Farm might be nothing more than a lot of political theater packaged with great food. But it sure beats TV attack ads.

Fancy Farm shows McConnell is in for a fight, left and right

August 3, 2013

FANCY FARM — After a tough month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell found out Saturday that his life could be getting a lot tougher.

More than a year before McConnell faces re-election in November 2014, he shared the stage at the 133rd annual Fancy Farm Picnic with two viable, articulate challengers: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of Lexington, a Democrat, and Republican businessman Matt Bevin of Louisville.

It was their first face-to-face meeting, and probably their only one until next year’s Fancy Farm Picnic.

Democratic activists were more numerous and enthusiastic than I have seen them at Fancy Farm in years. Bevin had only a small group of supporters here, but he has support among Tea Party activists.

130803FancyFarm-TE0208McConnell, Kentucky’s longest-serving senator, was his usual calm, assured self, arriving just before the program started and leaving the stage before Bevin and Ed Marksberry of Owensboro, another Democratic challenger, spoke.

McConnell’s appearance came after a tough month, including the embarrassment of having fellow Republican senators go around him to cut a deal with Democrats on confirmation of several Obama nominees to block changes in filibuster rules that McConnell has used to create gridlock in the Senate.

McConnell tried to frame his re-election as essential to stopping the “Obama agenda” — specifically health care reform and the administration’s crackdown on environmentally destructive coal-mining practices.

“We’re not just choosing who’s going to represent Kentucky in the Senate,” he said. “We’re going to decide who’s going to run the Senate.”

What he didn’t do was cite accomplishments, other than obstructing Obama and joining other Republicans in opposing an Army Corps of Engineers effort to restrict boating and fishing below Cumberland River dams.

130803FancyFarm-TE0230Bevin seized on McConnell’s lack of positive accomplishment, which could be a potent weapon in the hands of a smart Republican challenger.

“Mitch McConnell is known as mud-slinging Mitch, because the only thing he has to run on is destroying other people,” Bevin said. “There is nothing in his 30-year history of voting that he’s proud enough of to actually run on.”

Attacking him from the right, Bevin accused McConnell of being too timid in opposing Obama’s health-care law. “Be a man, stand up and put your money where your mouth is,” he taunted.

Bevin chided McConnell for arrogance for leaving with his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, before Bevin spoke. Bevin invited his wife, Glenna, and their nine children, including three four adopted from Ethiopia, to join him onstage.

Bevin didn’t give specifics about what kind of senator he would be. He also didn’t criticize Grimes, saying there would be plenty of time for that after he beats McConnell in the primary.

Grimes also was poised and confident. She joked about McConnell’s embarrassment on the filibuster showdown and his obstructionist tactics in what has been the least productive Congress in decades.

130803FancyFarm-TE0340“There is a disease of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and Sen. McConnell is at the center of it,” she said. “As long as he remains in Washington, D.C., D.C. will stand for ‘dysfunctional capital.'”

Grimes slammed McConnell for votes against raising the minimum wage and legislation on two women’s issues: domestic violence and equal pay. She said she could do a better job of working across the aisle to get things done in Congress, which has record-low public approval ratings.

Both of these challengers showed they could do considerable damage to McConnell’s reputation. But can they beat him?

Bevins has some personal wealth and Tea Party support. But, unlike Rand Paul with his famous father, Rep. Ron Paul, Bevins doesn’t yet seem to have much grass-roots support or organization. He did little or nothing to solicit support at related GOP events this weekend in Western Kentucky.

Grimes has Democratic activists united, and she got strong endorsements on the Fancy Farm stage from Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen.

Given the party connections of her father, Jerry Lundergan, and national Democrats’ desire to unseat McConnell, she shouldn’t lack for money. But to win, Grimes will have to be more aggressive about framing the debate: she must make McConnell the issue, rather than allowing him to make Obama the issue.

McConnell’s record makes him vulnerable to a candidate who can exploit it.

One thing is clear: McConnell is less popular than ever. Whether either of these two challengers can take him out in a 15-month marathon in the national spotlight will be fascinating to watch.

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption:

At election time, we will miss Gatewood Galbraith

January 4, 2012

Gatewood Galbraith speaks at the Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Pablo Alcala

You could say a lot of things about Gatewood Galbraith, except that he was “just another politician.”

Galbraith, who died Wednesday at age 64, was a Kentucky original.

Everyone knew him as Gatewood — as with Elvis, the last name eventually became superfluous. In fact, I’ll bet if you showed most adult Kentuckians a tall, lanky silhouette of a man wearing a quirky, wide-brimmed hat, they would know immediately who it was.

Galbraith managed to become one of Kentucky’s best-known politicians without ever being elected to anything. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He ran for everything but the county line: attorney general, agriculture commissioner, congressman (twice) and governor (five times). Criticized as a “perennial candidate,” he responded that Kentucky has “perennial problems” that need solving.

The Lexington criminal defense lawyer began in politics as a Democrat, talked like a libertarian and finally ran as an independent. Galbraith was nothing if not independent. He criticized both the New Deal’s legacy and “greedy” corporations.

His best-selling 2004 autobiography was titled, The Last Free Man in America Meets the Synthetic Subversion. The book’s cover showed a smiling Galbraith holding a large machine gun, a bandoleer of bullets over each shoulder.

Perhaps the highlight of Galbraith’s political career came last fall, when he ran as an independent against incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and the Republican nominee, state Senate President David Williams.

Galbraith got 9 percent of the vote, compared to Beshear’s 56 percent and Williams’ 28 percent. But he outpolled Williams in four counties: Bourbon, Woodford, his home county of Nicholas and Franklin, where the county seat is also the state capital. Not bad for the low-budget campaign of an anti-politician politician.

A friendly man and a tireless campaigner, Galbraith could be a funny and effective stump speaker. He personified an independent streak that Kentuckians have admired since the days of Daniel Boone. Freed from any illusion of electoral victory, Galbraith spoke the truth as he saw it to anyone who would listen.

His most famous stand was for legalizing hemp and marijuana, which earned him the nickname “Gateweed.” He was a strong supporter of gun-ownership rights.

He attracted many liberals’ votes in his last campaign by calling for mountaintop-removal coal mining to be outlawed. That put him in sharp contrast to the major party candidates, who embraced Kentucky’s powerful coal industry.

Still, while many people admired and agreed with Galbraith’s frank talk, they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him. He looked and acted just a little too goofy to elect to public office, which, in Kentucky, is saying something.

“We need a credible Gatewood Galbraith,” conservative columnist John David Dyche observed during a media and politics panel at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s meeting last year in Louisville. I saw many in the audience nod in agreement.

After Galbraith delivered a withering takedown of Beshear at last summer’s Fancy Farm picnic, I wrote that his remarks were “over the top.”

Galbraith’s response, in a letter to the editor, was this: “In reply to Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen’s assertion that I ‘went over the top’ in my Fancy Farm speech, I note that those who never go ‘over the top’ always stay in the same rut.”

As was often the case, Galbraith had a good point.

Kentucky will be a poorer state now that he will no longer be around at election time.



Assessing the gubernatorial slates at Fancy Farm

August 6, 2011

A booth at the Fancy Farm picnic takes a jab at Gov. Steve Beshear over allegations that his supporters solicited campaign contributions from state workers. Staffing the booth were Jason Hollon, left, Chase Hieneman and Andi Johnson. Photo by Tom Eblen

FANCY FARM – Kentucky politicians have learned the hard way that the best strategy for speakers at the Fancy Farm Picnic is to have a point, make it forcefully, zing your opponent with a memorable line – and don’t screw up.

At this annual church barbecue that begins Kentucky’s fall election season, the biggest sin of all is to say or do something that the other side can use like a club to beat you senseless.

So how did this year’s three gubernatorial slates do today?

Gov. Steve Beshear’s strategy was to stay above the fray. He has done a decent job managing the state through tough times, and he enjoys a huge lead in the polls over his Republican challenger, state Senate Pres. David Williams, and independent Gatewood Galbraith.

Neither Beshear nor his running mate, longtime Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, mentioned their challengers.

Just home from a week visiting Kentucky troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, Beshear wore a blue Kentucky National Guard shirt. Saying he wanted to talk about something more important than partisan politics, Beshear used almost all of his allotted eight minutes to praise the troops, which all but silenced the GOP jeering section.

It was a brilliant strategy – for two or three minutes. But as Beshear went on and on, introducing a soldier’s grandparents and asking the audience to applaud all veterans, even some of his supporters started rolling their eyes.

Perhaps sensing that Beshear had overplayed his hand, Galbraith delivered a withering response. Instead of talking about solutions for Kentucky’s problems, he said, “You go over there and try to hide behind the bodies of our young men and women in the military. I was highly offended” by the speech.

Galbraith said the only reason Beshear went to the Middle East was because he had failed to accompany President Barack Obama to Fort Campbell to congratulate the Navy SEALS who killed Osama bin Laden. “It’s like trying to buy a room full of flowers for your girl after you’ve been caught cheating,” he said.

Galbraith’s takedown was over-the-top, but he is always over-the-top. That is why the perennial candidate has never won an election and probably never will.

Otherwise, Galbraith courted Tea Party voters by calling for limited government, liberal voters by criticizing mountaintop-removal coal mining and moderate voters by blaming bitter partisanship for government gridlock. He said only an independent executive can bring both parties together.

It would have been a more powerful message coming from a different candidate. Still, Galbraith is likely to take a lot of conservative votes away from Williams, and even some away from pro-coal Beshear.

Because Williams is trailing so badly, he had little choice but to attack Beshear, despite limited ammunition. At the same time, though, Williams is trying to counter perhaps his biggest liability, summed up in his nickname, “The Bully from Burkesville.” Williams is a brilliant man, but his abrasive style and arrogant demeanor turn off Republicans as well as Democrats.

His choice of running mate, the former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer, was supposed to help his popularity. But Farmer has been a magnet for controversy, from his free-spending ways as Agriculture commissioner to his wife suing him for divorce during the campaign.

Farmer began his own Fancy Farm remarks by sounding like he was going to talk about his divorce. But the punch line was this: “David Williams is actually a pretty good guy!” That’s right: My running mate is not a jerk!

John Kemper, the Republican candidate for auditor, implied the inevitability of Williams’ loss by questioning how his own opponent, Democrat Adam Edelen, could be a truly independent auditor as Beshear’s former chief of staff.

Abramson delivered a solid speech, although he seemed out of his element and stumbled over some Western Kentucky geography.

Galbraith’s running mate, Dea Riley, said he was hoping to get a lot of support from women. “I’m even thinking Richie’s wife might vote for me,” she said.

Gov. Steve Beshear greets a supporter before the speaking began at Fancy Farm. He wore a Kentucky National Guard shirt after a week of visiting Kentucky troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. First Lady Jane Beshear is in the background. Photo by Tom Eblen

2010: My Year in Pictures

January 2, 2011

As we begin 2011, a slide show of some of my favorite photos of 2010.

‘7 Habits’ work in life, business — why not politics?

August 11, 2010

Before I left for the Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday, I stopped by the public library to borrow some audio books for the five-hour drive to Graves County and the five-hour drive back.

One was leadership consultant Stephen Covey lecturing on his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey has sold millions of copies of his book, and some of America’s most successful executives have said those “habits” transformed their lives and companies.

As I drove down the Western Kentucky Parkway listening to Covey, I was struck by two thoughts: The first was that the success habits he recommends for people and organizations are just common sense. The second was that American politics violates every one of them.

I would soon hear ample evidence of that, both from the politicians who spoke at the annual church picnic that kicks off Kentucky’s fall campaign season and from the thousands of partisans who cheered and jeered them.

This could help explain why, rather than being “highly effective,” government has become increasingly dysfunctional. Take, for example, the U.S. Senate, where the main warriors at this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic — Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul — hope to serve.

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine had a fascinating piece about the Senate by journalist George Packer. The article, “The Empty Chamber,” described how the legislative body that the Founding Fathers intended as a place for reasoned debate has become hobbled by the destructive behavior of Republicans and Democrats alike. Many senators seem more concerned with money, power and petty politics than with governing.

Consider Covey’s seven recommended habits in the context of today’s political environment:

■ Be proactive. Don’t wait for a crisis to react, Covey says. Politicians are the most reactive people on the planet, afraid to take a stand or make a tough decision unless public opinion, often in response to a crisis, forces them to. As a result, many complex problems just keep getting bigger.

■ Begin with the end in mind. Covey asks his audience to imagine what they would like others to say about them when they die. Given the large egos of many politicians, you would think they would want something better than “he/she was a money-grubbing tool of corporate interests.”

■ Put first things first. Peace, prosperity and justice, anyone?

■ Think “win-win.” This is a big one. In today’s political environment, even an honest change of mind is labeled “flip- flopping” or “waffling.” Compromise is called weakness. America is pretty evenly split between red and blue — in the case of the 2000 presidential election, remarkably so. Yet politics is increasingly a zero-sum game. In the Senate, whichever party is out of power wages a war of obstruction against the party in power. They simply fight to regain control, at which point the other party will do the same to them.

■ Seek to understand, then to be understood. What politician today seeks to understand the other party’s concerns? After all, that might change a mind, lead to compromise or accidently create a “win-win.”

■ Synergize. “To put it simply, synergy means ‘two heads are better than one,'” Covey says. Again, this is an alien concept in politics. Many would rather walk barefoot over broken glass than admit that someone in the other party has a good idea.

■ Sharpen the saw. This is not the same as sharpening the knife so you can stick it in your opponent’s back. Covey is talking about expanding your mind through reading, study and social interaction. In The New Yorker, Packer pointed out that bitter partisanship in the Senate has increased as social interaction between Democrats and Republicans has decreased. It is easier to call the person across the aisle Satan’s henchman if you never play golf together or share a meal.

But we can’t just blame the politicians. They often are responding to voters who marinate their minds in segments of the media that have discovered there are big profits to be made by dishing up distortion, propaganda and extremism.

America would be more successful if politicians — and the voters who elect them — applied Covey’s seven habits, which have been so successful in business and personal development, to politics and governance.

“We already know,” Covey says as I roll down the highway toward Fancy Farm, “that what is common sense is not common practice.”

Photo gallery from today’s Fancy Farm politicking

August 7, 2010

Here’s a gallery of photos I took today at the 130th annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County in far western Kentucky. After a lunch of barbecued mutton and pork, fresh vegetables and homemade pies, Kentucky politicians spoke while their fans cheered and detractors heckled. The main attractions were Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul, who are running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jim Bunning.

You had to look hard for substance at Fancy Farm

August 2, 2009

FANCY FARM — The governor was vacationing in Florida. Members of Congress were working in Washington. The audience was smaller and less rowdy than usual. Even the traditionally oppressive heat stayed away from this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic.

With no statewide elections this year, the best reason to make the long drive to Graves County on Saturday was the barbecue, fresh vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the families of St. Jerome parish.

The focus of this year’s political speaking was the 2010 U.S. Senate race, which turned into a wide-open contest last week, when Republican incumbent Jim Bunning, 77, became the last person in Kentucky to realize it was time for him to retire.

Three Republicans and four Democrats who are seeking their parties’ nominations for the seat next May spoke to the crowd. I found them all disappointing. Click here to hear the speeches.

Democrat supporter Thomas Kirby of Clinton was among those at the 129th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

Democrat supporter Thomas Kirby of Clinton was among those at the 129th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

When they weren’t beating up on each other, the Democrats were blaming eight years of Republican government for the nation’s economic problems. The Republicans were stoking fear about what might happen as a result of Democrats’ efforts to solve those problems.

The sharpest words came from the two Democratic frontrunners, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway.

Mongiardo, a Hazard physician and coal industry advocate, tried to portray himself as the candidate of the common man. He attacked Conway, of Louisville, for his Duke University education and alleged “silver spoon” background.

Then Mongiardo tried to link Conway to President Barack Obama’s “cap-and-trade” legislation, which is designed to reduce pollution from burning coal. It was a stretch. Besides, Fancy Farm seemed like an odd place to argue, in essence, that concerns about man-made climate change are unfounded.

Western Kentucky’s trees remain bent and broken from last fall’s bizarre hurricane winds and last winter’s crippling ice storm. It’s usually about 100 degrees at the Fancy Farm Picnic. This year, temperatures never left the low 80s, while, across the country, usually balmy Seattle is gripped by a heat wave.

Conway, whose supporters held up signs that said “Mongiardo doesn’t know Jack,” took a few verbal swipes at the doctor and showed he knows how to cuss. The attorney general talked about how much he has worked on consumer-protection issues.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson’s speech was straight from the conservative playbook, complete with sneering references to Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed and House Speaker Nancy Pelonsi.

Grayson needed to play to the GOP’s conservative base. His main challenger is Bowling Green eye doctor Rand Paul, son of Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, the darling of libertarians.

Paul attacked Republicans and Democrats alike. He talked about balanced budgets and held up a thick stack of paper, saying senators shouldn’t vote on any bill they haven’t fully read. At one point, somebody in the GOP cheering section behind me yelled, “You’re boring!”

Three virtual unknowns cast themselves as alternatives to politics as usual: Democrats Darlene Fitzgerald Price, a former U.S. Customs agent from McCreary County, and Maurice Sweeney, a businessman from Jefferson County; and Republican Bill Johnson, a Todd County businessman.

The Fancy Farm crowd is always more interested in heckling than listening, so it’s hard to tell which candidates’ messages might resonate with average voters. For me, the most relevant words came from State Auditor Crit Luallen, once you filtered out her obligatory Democratic partisanship.

Crit Luallen

As citizens have seen jobs disappear, Luallen said, “they have watched banking scandals unfold, the meltdown on Wall Street, the disclosure of extravagant corporate perks and irresponsible spending of their tax dollars by public leaders. The American people have had it up to here. They’ve said enough is enough.”

What voters want is accountability, and she said it is not a partisan issue.

“These are times that demand leaders with integrity to restore trust, leaders with principles to act responsibly, leaders with the courage to take on powerful interests and leaders who will insure accountability for your hard-earned money,” she said.

“It’s time to honor the public’s demands for greater accountability. Every public leader is a guardian of the taxpayer’s trust. And we must all recommit ourselves to honor and hold sacred that trust.”

It was a good speech. But I couldn’t help but think Luallen should have delivered it facing the stage rather than the audience.

Hear the speeches from 129th Fancy Farm Picnic

August 1, 2009

Listen to the Fancy Farm Picnic speeches of the three Democrats and three Republicans running for their parties’ nominations to the U.S. Senate in 2010. They’re listed here in the order they spoke to the crowd in Graves County on Saturday. (Click on the link to hear each candidate’s speech.)

Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (Democrat)

Attorney Gen. Jack Conway (Democrat)

Secretary of State Trey Grayson (Republican)

Darlene Fitzgerald Price (Democrat)

Bill Johnson (Republican)

Maurice Sweeney (Democrat)

Rand Paul (Republican)

In addition to the 2010 Senate candidates, here are remarks from State Auditor Crit Luallen (Democrat)

Attorney Gen. Jack Conway, left, and Secretary of State Trey Grayson chat on the stage before the speaking began Saturday at the 129th annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County. Conway, a Democrat, and Grayson, a Republican, are seeking their parties' nominations for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Photo by Tom Eblen

Who’s a PolWatchers fan? We find out

August 4, 2008

Ryan Alessi, Jack Brammer and I weren’t the only Herald-Leader folks at the Fancy Farm picnic Saturday. Marketing intern Ashlee Garrett was busy passing out fans advertising the Herald-Leader’s PolWatchers political news blog. News intern Anna Tong helped, and she also decided to see how many Kentucky political figures she could convince to fan themselves with a PolWatchers fan. She made this funny video.

Gov. Steve Beshear was a good sport when intern Anna Tong asked him to pose with a PolWatchers fan. Photo by Tom Eblen

Back from a long weekend in the Jackson Purchase

August 4, 2008

After three days in Fancy Farm, I had to get back on the bicycle this morning to work off some of those calories. Of course, I ate too much barbecue Saturday (and brought home some mutton for the freezer). Truth be told, I got an early start at St. Jerome Catholic Church’s fish fry on Thursday night. Yes, the folks in Fancy Farm can cook catfish as well as they can barbecue pork and mutton.

After a long, hot afternoon Saturday listening to political speeches, and a busy evening writing, sending in photos and preparing audio clips, three friends and I drove to Paducah for a late dinner. Aside from downtown Louisville, I doubt there’s a more-hopping place in Kentucky on a Saturday night than downtown Paducah. The streets were blocked off for pedestrians, and a band was playing down by the Ohio River. Downtown Padacah has restored many of its old commercial buildings as restaurants, shops and lofts. It’s a charming place.

I hope to get back there soon to take a closer look and see what Lexington could learn from Paducah about creatively reusing old buildings, bringing people downtown and using entertainment to pump up the local economy.

Listen to the Fancy Farm speeches

August 3, 2008

Click on each person’s link to hear their speech at the Fancy Farm picnic.

Gov. Steve Beshear

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Bruce Lunsford, McConnell’s Democratic challenger

Sen. Jim Bunning

Fancy Farm: Sometimes, the best politics is local

August 3, 2008

FANCY FARM — I was glad I had just filled up on barbecue, because the political speaking Saturday afternoon at the 128th annual Fancy Farm Picnic was anything but satisfying.

This year’s focus was Democrat Bruce Lunsford’s challenge of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader who has held the seat for 24 years. It was no surprise that Lunsford and other Democrats would come out swinging — or that McConnell wouldn’t even mention Lunsford’s name, leaving that job to fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning.

As always, the thousand or so people who crowded around the stage were mostly partisans who came to shout down speakers from the other party. And, of course, there were costumed characters walking through the crowd.

Young Republicans dressed as Arab sheiks, “thanking” Lunsford for higher oil prices, through some stretch of the political imagination. Young Democrats dressed as characters with the names “Texas Oilman Mitch” and “Bush’s Lapdog Mitch.”

Democrats bashed President Bush and his administration; Republicans stirred up fears of what “San Francisco” and “Chicago” liberals might do if they were in charge. Much of the rhetoric focused on oil prices — as if American politicians have much influence on commodity prices in a rapidly changing global economy.

It had to be an eye-glazing experience for the few average voters in attendance. And there probably were a few — people from Fancy Farm and other Western Kentucky towns who came more for the food or the bingo or the car raffle than for the politicians’ speeches.

It seemed like a disappointing afternoon, until the candidates for the local state Senate seat got up to speak. The Republican incumbent, Ken Winters, 74, and his Democratic challenger, Carol Hubbard, 71, took the conversation in a different direction.

Hubbard and Winters talked about the need for better schools and more economic development in the seven rural counties that make up the 1st Senate District. It’s a region that has lost population as factories have moved overseas and farming has declined.

Both mentioned specific school building and renovation projects that were needed, and Hubbard used Gov. Steve Beshear’s presence on the stage to lobby for a stoplight at a nearby intersection. The only point of contention seemed to be whether Democrats or Republicans deserved the most credit for getting Fancy Farm a new school.

Hubbard mentioned that this was his 40th Fancy Farm Picnic. But what went unmentioned — even by his opponent — was his record, both political and criminal. After holding this state Senate seat a generation ago, Hubbard served 16 years in Congress before going to prison for misusing his office for personal gain.

You would have thought Winters, an accomplished educator and former president of Campbellsville University, might have said more about it than this remark at the very end of his speech: “My record is clean. If you want to know more about the other candidates on the stage, including my opponent, you may want to Google us and see what you find.”

Of course, his constituents knew all about Hubbard and probably had formed an opinion of him, one way or another, years ago. I’m sure they cared more about bringing new jobs to the district, building and renovating schools and even getting that new stoplight.

Unlike the old saying, all politics aren’t local. But the most meaningful politics at this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic may have been.

Behind the scenes at Fancy Farm

August 2, 2008

CLICK HERE to see an audio slide show about how members of St. Jerome Catholic Church in the Graves County community of Fancy Farm prepare their annual picnic, which will attract more than 10,000 people Saturday. The show is narrated by Eddie Carrico, above left, of Fancy Farm.

The food makes Fancy Farm’s picnic fancy

August 1, 2008

FANCY FARM — There was a special Mass at 7 a.m. Friday at St. Jerome Catholic Church in this small Graves County town. Then the priest blessed 18,500 pounds of meat, and the people of the parish got cooking.

Of course, they had already been working for weeks. Before the men could put 10,000 pounds of pork and 8,500 pounds of mutton on the long rows of brick and block barbecue pits beside the school yard, the families had to get a lot of other work done.

They had to help pick, shuck and cut 150 gallons of sweet corn. They had to pick bushels of tomatoes and cucumbers from their gardens. They had to boil and peel 800 pounds of potatoes for the potato salad. There were the chickens to fry and the homemade pies to bake.

More than 10,000 people are expected to attend Saturday’s 128th annual Fancy Farm Picnic, which always seems to come on the hottest weekend of the year.

The picnic is famous for the spicy political speeches that will be made Saturday afternoon by candidates for local, state and national office.

At least since A.B. ”Happy“ Chandler came in 1931 and considered it the good-luck charm of his first election as governor, Fancy Farm has been where Kentucky politicians begin the fall campaign by extolling their virtues and blasting their rivals. It’s old-time political theater, as it was before campaign rhetoric was reduced to 30-second attack ads.

”Some come for the political speaking, some come for the food, some come for the bingo and some come for the (bluegrass) bands,“ said Todd Hayden, chairman of the picnic for the past eight years. ”And then the finale of the picnic, you might say, is when we raffle off a car.“

The picnic is a Kentucky tradition and a dandy fund-raiser for St. Jerome, which clears about $100,000 each year, Hayden said. And back in the 1980s, when everybody seemed to want to be in the Guinness Book of World Records, Fancy Farm was formally recognized as the world’s largest one-day picnic.

But for the descendants of the Catholic pioneers from Maryland who settled these rolling, wooded fields in 1826, the picnic is so much more than all of that.

”Just look around at how people work together; they all know their jobs,“ Ralph Stamper said as his lifelong friends and neighbors shuttled hot coals to the barbecue pits from seven huge ”fire barrels“ filled with slabs of hickory.

Fancy Farm natives who have moved away often plan their vacations for this week, so they can come back to help, or attend family or school reunions, Eddie Carrico said. Like his father before him, Carrico, 62, has helped cook picnic barbecue all of his life.

”It’s like a big family reunion,“ he said. ”It helps keep the community together.“

I enjoy the political theater, hate the heat and never cared much for bingo. But what always makes the Fancy Farm picnic worth the drive for me is the food. The $10 all-you-can-eat buffet at the Knights of Columbus hall is easily the commonwealth’s best annual meal.

And I’ve always wondered: How do they do it?

Barbecued mutton is a Western Kentucky peculiarity, made even more peculiar by the fact that there are almost no live sheep here. Fancy Farm’s mutton is trucked in from Iowa and Nebraska.

Once Mass is done and the food is blessed, trucks of mutton and pork are unloaded, the meat cut and placed on wire mesh inside the long barbecue pits. The pits are then covered with sheet-metal panels to keep in the smoke, which must escape through small vents in the pits’ masonry walls.

Hickory coals are then carried with long-handled shovels from the fire barrels to be placed inside the bottom of the pits. Hayden said Fancy Farm’s cooks baste the meat with a thin vinegar-based sauce — the recipe, of course, is a secret — three or four times during cooking.

After more than 16 hours of cooking, the meat is done by about 4 a.m. Then a second crew of church men relieve the cooks to keep the meat warm and cut it up for the big buffet, for the sandwich stands on the picnic grounds and for sale by the pound.

One thing is for sure: By about 6 p.m. Saturday, all of the meat will be gone.

Stamper, who has lived next to the barbecue pits since he was a boy, said there’s something magical about Fancy Farm during picnic weekend each year. So many people. So much food. And the air all over town is thick with sweet smoke.

”When I was a kid, we would put a box fan in our upstairs window and turn it so it would draw the smoky smell into our room,“ he said. ”Mmmm. We would be so hungry by the next morning, we could hardly wait for the picnic to start.“

Live from Fancy Farm: ‘Comment on Kentucky’

August 1, 2008

Kentucky Educational Television’s weekly public affairs show “Comment on Kentucky” broadcast live Friday night from the political speaking arena at Fancy Farm. Host Ferrell Wellman, facing, chats with guests Mark Hebert of Louisville’s WHAS, left, Ronnie Ellis of CNHI newspapers, and Bill Bartleman of the Paducah Sun, hidden. On Saturday afternoon, candidates for state, local and national office will speak to several thousand supporters and hecklers there. Photo by Tom Eblen

They’re cooking up the ‘cue at Fancy Farm

August 1, 2008

Ben Thompson waits Friday morning for more pork shoulders to be brought to the barbecue pit at Fancy Farm. Photo by Tom Eblen

St. Jerome Catholic Church in the small Graves County community of Fancy Farm had a 7 a.m. mass Friday, then the priest blessed the meat and the people of the church got cooking.

They’re working all day and night Friday to prepare 18,500 pounds of barbecued pork and mutton for the more than 10,000 people expected here Saturday for the church’s annual picnic. It’s the Commonwealth’s best meal of the year, and a chance to hear Kentucky politicians take their best verbal shots at each other.

Be sure to get Saturday and Sunday’s Herald-Leader for full coverage of the politics, the food and the scene. And watch this blog, PolWatchers and all weekend for updates.