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:

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

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.

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.

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.

Thanks for an online readership milestone

July 31, 2008

I began this blog four months ago, and it already has been read more than 50,000 times, as of yesterday afternoon. That pales in comparison to the daily readership of columns that appear in the newspaper and those posted directly on, but it’s not a bad start.

Even better, though, is that readers have left more than 730 comments so far. Like any online forum, this blog has its share of anonymous trolls. But most of those leaving comments are behaving themselves. Some are using their real names, which I encourage. And many, many readers on all sides of various issues have left thoughtful, passionate comments that have enriched our civic conversation. That’s the goal.

I’m leaving soon for Fancy Farm in Graves County, looking forward to a weekend of lively political debates and some of the best barbecue around. Watch the Herald-Leader, and this blog Saturday and Sunday for reports on both.