A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Beshear reflects on time as governor, offers views on how to make government work in People over Politics

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

Steve Beshear entered Kentucky politics like a thoroughbred — young and with his eyes on the win.

Left to right, Steve Beshear during his tenure as Lieutenant Governor, with Gerald R. Toner, Julie Hayes, and Chuck Eilerman. Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library archive, donated by Chuck Eilerman.

His first victory came in 1973, when at age 29, he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives. The capital press corps saw fit to name him Outstanding Freshman Legislator and he went on to win re-election twice. In 1979, voters elected him as state attorney general, and four years later, still shy of 40, he was elected lieutenant governor.

A bid for the governorship in 1987, however was met with disappointment and at a young age he’d all but shelved a political career that he thought was over.

In his newly released book, People over Politics , which he wrote with his former speech writer and former Kentucky Post reporter Dan Hassert, of Covington — Beshear doesn’t sugar coat the sting of that defeat any more than he holds back on his belief in the imminent need to fix a government that he sees as plagued by bold partisan divides and dysfunction.

“Quite honestly, I was devastated,” he writes about the loss for his attempt at the governorship in the book’s opening chapter

At the time, he found solace in Teddy Roosevelt’s now famous “The Man in the Arena” passage from a 1910 speech, a rhetorical triumph that drove home the message that whether in victory or defeat, putting oneself in the “arena” to do the work to bring about change is what matters. Beshear had been in the arena and known both outcomes.

Consoled but practical, and with a family to care for, he resumed his law career.

But 20 years later, Roosevelt’s words — and a group of Democrats looking for a credible gubernatorial candidate — spurred him to enter the political arena again. In November 2007, he defeated incumbent Ernie Fletcher to become Kentucky’s 61st governor.

Friends, according to his book, jokingly referred to him as the “Lazarus candidate,” having risen from the dead. In “People over Politics,” Beshear rises once again to reflect on his two terms as governor — looking both back and ahead, to address what he believes must be done to fix a broken system.

“The main message of the book is how to make government work again,” says Beshear. “I believe most people feel like our current system is broken and dysfunctional, that rank partisanship has a grip on the government process and is strangling democracy. It doesn’t have to be that way and that’s the lesson this book teaches.

The lessons, as they are, are delivered in sections covering governing, health care, the economy, education, politics, and memories. The messages are delivered throughout 361 pages and 65 chapters whose very titles imply a pure candor: “Sow’s Ear into a Milk Purse;” “The Pew and the Ballot Box;” “Getting Past the Rancor;” and “Hypocrites in Office.”

Sworn in as governor in late 2007, Beshear writes that he was determined to restore
trust in state government, wrangle an out-of-control state budget, and end “the acrimonious partisan warfare that was interfering with good decisions.”

Poor health, lack of education attainment, a workforce that fell short of marketplace demands, and child poverty, were what he viewed as among the state’s weak points holding back generations of Kentuckians. He knew that raising the quality of life for Kentuckians would not be a quick fix, but rather a “long, hard slog.”

Gov. Beshear (official photo)

“Governing is a complex process and I know that the public would like to hear easy answers to every issue, but most issues the government deals with does not have easy answers, they involve so many factors,” Beshear says.

As governor, he said, one must deal with those issues with the ability to convey thoughts and solutions in terms that people can understand.

“You need to be able to talk to people in ways that reach them in their hearts and minds, and give explanations they need for actions that they take,” he says.

Rather than aim for winning the next news cycle, next election, or Internet trend of the day, Beshear says he focused on long-term goals related to education, job creation, workforce, health care and child school-readiness.

He worked with a divided government in both House and Senate, finding common ground. Putting Kentuckians first and politicians second, he says, was a hallmark of his administration.

“We took a state mired in fundamental weaknesses for decades and turned it into one of the more progressive states in the country,” says Beshear. “I worked hard and long at building personal relationships — that’s what this business is all about — building trust. Obviously, with some that must be impossible, but with a lot of folks it is possible.”

As he prepared to leave office, Beshear issued a press release to call attention to those long-range strategies and praise those who partnered with his administration to address those needs. He listed a baker’s dozen of measurable, but vulnerable, “seedlings” of progress his administration had made.

Hassert (provided photo)

“Unfortunately, Kentucky’s new governor (Gov. Matt Bevin) has been stomping on the brakes.,” Beshear writes. “He cut spending for higher education and attempted to cut spending for K— 12 education. He vetoed an increase of some 8,000 more kids in preschool. He dismantled the state’s award-winning health benefits exchange, and he is pulling back on Medicaid expansion – changes that will make it harder for the poor to get health care.”

In the book’s chapter nine, titled “Get Off Our Backs,” Beshear refers to the comment that he made to the General Assembly in front of a statewide television audience during his 2011 re-election campaign. He reflects in the book that even though those four words were not his finest hour as a leader, they did represent his commitment to an industry that helped build the state.

Whate he describes as his “fierce support,” for coal mining families and defiance of a president whose push for cleaner air seemed to disregard economic havoc on Kentucky’s coal families, ultimately improved support from the state’s coal regions.

“Even today, I don’t back away from any of those messages,” writes Beshear.

In fact, it seems there is very little that Beshear backs away from in “People over Politics,” and that includes the topic of gay marriage.

Beshear came under fire for supporting the state’s ban on same sex marriage. He writes that for a short time the political left, which sang his praises for implementing health-care reform, were burning him in effigy, while the political far right suddenly held him as a defender of their ideals.

On March 4, 2014, Beshear announced the state’s appeal of a federal judge’s decision to throw out the Kentucky Constitution’s ban on gay marriage. It was also the day, he writes, that he “embarked on a lonely path” but sought to “bring clarity to one of the most contentious issues of our time.”

Noting that gay marriage was the most politically and morally sensitive issue of his entire eight years as governor, he states that it was the singular issue on which his views and actions were “mischaracterized, misinterpreted, and misunderstood.”

Throughout, Beshear declined to respond to media inquiries about his personal views on gay marriage. His personal opinion on the subject, he maintained, were not at issue. What was at issue, he insisted, was getting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that would bring clarity and finality to the issue.

“Gay marriage was probably the most controversial issue that I dealt with in my eight years as governor, and it was one of those issues that evolved for me over my lifetime,” says Beshear. “It was a real evolutionary process for me and my thinking. I came to the point while I was governor that I was of the belief that two people who love each other and want to spend their life together, regardless of gender, should have a legal relationship that preserves that. At the same time, I felt it was extremely important that we get a decision out of the Supreme Court.”

Kentucky was one of four states that had active cases on the issue of gay marriage, says Beshear. He added that Kentucky was the only one of those four states that faced both of the two critical questions — whether a state can prohibit same sex marriage, and whether it can refuse to recognize same-sex marriage from other states.

“I felt that it would be good for everybody in the Commonwealth — that we would all be best served — by making sure the Supreme Court made decisions so that we knew what the rules of the road were,” says Beshear. “I think the court made the right decision but knew if we didn’t take Kentucky’s case to the Supreme Court that a whole lot of Kentuckians would have a different opinion. I think they felt the issue deserved a whole airing by our courts and the highest court of the land.”

Northern Kentucky figures in the book in more than one chapter. Reflecting on his relationship with most of the state’s media members, Beshear notes that Northern Kentucky, with nearly 400,000 people in its three counties, had no regular media presence in Frankfort since the closure of The Kentucky Post in 2007.

Jane Beshear (official photo)

For Beshear, the book would not be complete without a nod to his wife Jane. She is the focus of two chapters, “The Reluctant First Lady,” and “Don’t Mess with the First Lady.”

“Those chapters are there for a purpose,” says Beshear. “Any success that I had as governor for eight years were in good part because she was my partner and contributed to my success. She served as my closest advisor, and she, as First Lady, dealt with issues and brought about change in Kentucky and bettered the lives of people.”

The final chapter, “What Kentucky Needs,” bluntly states “Kentucky needs its leaders to worry less about winning elections and more about improving the state, long term.”

Beshear says during his political career he tried to approach decision making as two-step process — determine the right thing to do and how to do it, while also surviving politically.

“Too few elected officials go through this process, opting instead to hide behind the opinions of the most vocal constituents or cater to special interests.,” Beshear writes. “What this means is that not enough gets accomplished. Not enough officials are willing to take the risk of losing the next election to move the country or their state in the proper direction.”

Beshear is quick to acknowledge that during his political career he wasn’t infallible on the decision-making process he touts.

“There were times when I ‘wimped out’ and took the easy way out. But most of the time, I made myself do the right thing because I wanted to be able to get up each morning, look myself in the mirror, and not be ashamed.”

Beshear is currently visiting bookstores throughout the state and will be scheduling an event in Northern Kentucky.

In addition to bookstores, “People over Politics” can be purchased at www.astrongerkentucky.com, a corporation organized exclusively for charitable, religious, literary, educational, and scientific purposes.

Funds were donated to A Stronger Kentucky, Inc. to produce and publish the book and proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to charitable and educational causes.

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