The Political Blood Feud in the Bluegrass

Rarely do politicians quarrel as openly as Kentucky’s governor and attorney general. Family ties may have something to do with it.
by | October 2016
Kentucky AG Andy Beshear, left, and Gov. Matt Bevin (AP)

Maybe it was inevitable. When a governor and an attorney general belong to different parties, there are bound to be some disputes and hard feelings. But rarely do two politicians feud as openly as the current pair in Kentucky.

When Republican Matt Bevin was elected governor last year, he pledged to undo much of the handiwork of his Democratic predecessor Steve Beshear, notably the state’s health coverage expansions. But Bevin went beyond that. Soon after taking office, he removed Jane Beshear, the ex-governor’s wife, from her unpaid post on the state’s horse commission. He also removed her name from a visitor center at the Capitol for which she had raised private renovation funds.

It’s understandable that the attorney general doesn’t like that. The attorney general, Andy Beshear, is Steve and Jane’s son. In the past few months, he has sued Bevin three times, claiming the governor overstepped his authority by unilaterally cutting higher education spending and dissolving appointed boards. “Bevin ran explicitly against Gov. Beshear’s legacy, so it’s no surprise he has tensions with his family,” says Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political scientist.

Both men insist it’s just business. Jessica Ditto, Bevin’s communications director, says the governor would much rather discuss his actions regarding the budget, criminal justice and pensions than any apparent ill will toward the Beshears. Nevertheless, Bevin ridiculed a pretend Andy Beshear lawsuit at a state political gathering this summer. He started a countdown clock on his personal Twitter feed, repeatedly demanding answers from the attorney general about one of their areas of dispute. He also gave a half-million-dollar contract to a private law firm to investigate Steve Beshear’s administration, accusing it of shaking down state workers for campaign contributions.

Andy Beshear insists that his responses have not been “personal or political or partisan” in any way. He notes that Bevin’s official actions have triggered multiple lawsuits from other parties as well, including unions, a former pension trustee and state House Speaker Greg Stumbo. “As long as he’s violating the constitution, I am duty-bound to do something about it,” Beshear says.

Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky political writer, notes that there have been previous instances in the state when the governor and attorney general had public spats yet were able to work together, if only through back channels. There appears to be none of that with the current combo. “People do take it seriously because there are major issues involved and we’re talking about the two most powerful statewide officials,” Cross says. “There’s bad blood here and I suspect it will continue for a long time.”

The two men have been in office only since the start of the year. But given the fact that Beshear was one of just two statewide Democrats elected during the GOP sweep that brought Bevin to power, there’s already talk that the AG will challenge Bevin in 2019 in an effort to again put a Beshear in the governor’s office.

That may never happen, but it’s clear that the two feuding officeholders will continue to have a dicey relationship, even if they are not formally political opponents. “Most are depressed by it all,” says Ronnie Ellis, a Frankfort reporter with the CNHI News Service. “Many in the press corps foresee an endless round of litigation for the next year or so.”