Timing may not be everything in politics, but as in comedy, it can mean an awful lot. Twenty years after failing to win the Kentucky governorship as the candidate of youth and innovation, and a full decade after giving up politics altogether, Steve Beshear stepped in cautiously this year at age 63--and won the statehouse in a landslide.
Beshear entered the 2007 gubernatorial contest only after most of the state's big-name Democrats had removed themselves from contention. The fact that they did so came as a surprise. Ernie Fletcher, the outgoing Republican governor, was seriously wounded by a hiring scandal that led to indictments of 15 administration officials, including Fletcher himself.
Republicans complained all year that the entire scandal had been much ado about nothing, but from the time Beshear won the Democratic nomination, his election was never seriously in doubt. Now the hard part begins. "The honeymoon ends soon," says Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson. "He's got in that first six weeks to build a budget for two years, and pensions are a ticking time bomb in the state budget."
Beshear entered the Kentucky legislature at age 29, became attorney general at 35 and lieutenant governor at 39, then met with political disaster in 1987, when he finished third in a three-way gubernatorial primary. He came out of retirement once to run for the U.S. Senate but failed to come close. So he went back to his law practice in Lexington.
During his 2007 comeback campaign, Beshear promised to spend more on education, bumping up K-12 teacher salary levels and broadening the state's innovative university recruitment and research programs. All of this can be paid for, he insists, if Kentucky gets into the casino gambling business.
But his entire agenda might turn out to be a hard sell. The gambling argument has gone on for years and won't be settled so easily. If it is not settled, there is no clear path to Beshear's spending priorities in a conservative state where revenues are not particularly robust.
David Williams, the Republican Senate president, argues that Beshear won no mandate for his platform, despite his formidable margin of victory. Williams says he's prepared to work with Beshear but only if the new governor avoids making partisan attacks prior to next year's legislative elections.
Still, Beshear has at least a chance to make things work. He has a reputation as a thoughtful person who thinks beyond the next election. In earlier jobs, he led task forces that addressed such longstanding issues as child welfare and the state's economic future. And it's exactly that kind of perspective Beshear will need to lift Kentucky from its accustomed place near the bottom among states in economic and educational attainment. "He was talking about entrepreneurism and the new economy before they became buzzwords," says Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Now, after most state leaders have caught up with him, he has an opportunity to pursue some of the goals he has promoted since his long-ago youth in political life.