A rundown of conversation topics sounded more like a meeting of sports broadcasters than an exclusive dinner with the state’s most powerful political leaders.
But one of those men, Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown, said the tone of the meeting was much more important that what was said.
Thayer, the newly elected majority floor leader for the Republican-controlled state Senate, was among the General Assembly’s leaders who attended a private dinner hosted by Gov. Steve Beshear at the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort last week.
The guest list was exclusive, Thayer said — just the governor, the 16 legislators who hold leadership positions in the Senate and House of Representatives, and two waiters.
With divisive former Senate President David Williams now a circuit court judge, the evening was about building bridges between the two chambers, Thayer said.
“The governor sat at the head of the table and there were eight seats on each side,” he said. “There was only one rule: He told us we have to sit next to someone who’s not a member of your party. That’s what we did.”
So with legislators facing weighty issues including tax reform and pension reform in a short session, did the lawmakers talk politics during the dinner?
Not so much, Thayer said.
“We talked about football. We talked about basketball. We talked about the new UK (football) coach and the great season UofL football had,” he said. “I was sitting near Rep. Larry Clark from Louisville. He kept bringing the conversation back to the Cardinals.”
Though a dinner filled with sports conversation sounds like a small thing, the strained relations between Beshear and Williams and the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House made it a significant event, Thayer said.
“At least we’re talking and having conversations that before just didn’t happen,” he said.
With Manchester Republican Robert Stivers serving as Senate president, Thayer said he thinks the tone in Frankfort will change somewhat.
“We are going to work together better and not be so vitriolic and vengeful and spiteful,” he said. “I don’t want people to get the idea we’re going to sing Kumbaya and agree on everything. We’re still going to disagree, but I think we can be more cordial about it.”
The dinner capped a whirlwind day, Thayer said, which included a bipartisan luncheon within the Senate that 61-year Kentucky political veteran Julian Carroll said was historic.
In a speech, Carroll talked about the difficulty of the issues facing the legislature this year, including pension and tax reforms, Thayer said, and talked about how he felt the new leadership style would be helpful.
“When someone like him, who has tremendous historical and institutional knowledge, gives a speech like that, it’s significant,” Thayer said.
The two bipartisan get-togethers, particularly the dinner at the Governor’s Mansion, portend a new day in Frankfort, Thayer said, and could help the Kentucky and could help the Kentucky legislature avoid the divisiveness which has become endemic in the nation’s capital.
“I don’t want Frankfort to continue to devolve and be like Washington D.C.”
Meeting away from the eyes of the public and the media at the governor’s mansion eliminated the temptation for grandstanding and allowed the lawmakers to talk on a more personal level, he said.
“If we start being more collegial, I think it will lead to less devisiveness, even when we disagree,” he said. “I think it will cause us to maybe take a step back before we ramp up the rhetoric.
“That’s not to say there’s not going to be some rhetoric. We’re politicians after all. That’s what we do.”