LOUISVILLE — Republican gubernatorial candidate Hal Heiner and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a potential entry in next year’s GOP primary, shared similar positions on issues such as Common Core education standards, right-to-work legislation and tax reform Tuesday at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s Business Summit and Annual Meeting.
Regardless of those policy similarities, though, the possible foes traded some slights at the event’s closing forum.
Heiner, a Louisville real estate developer, has pumped $4.2 million of his money into his campaign. When asked about his largely self-financed gubernatorial bid thus far, Heiner said as a business owner he understands the woes of private-sector employers and “can’t think of any better place to invest that success than in the future of Kentucky.”
“It’s true, I don’t have a political organization,” he said. “I haven’t spent years and years in Frankfort.”
Heiner’s frequent criticism of Comer centers on the agriculture commissioners time in the capital city, where Comer spent 11 years as a state representative and the past two and a half years running the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Proud of service
Comer, responding to a question about his status as a “Frankfort insider,” said he’s not a career politician and he’s proud of his time in public service. Heiner’s time in public service would have nearly matched Comer’s had Heiner beaten Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in 2010, Comer said.
“It’s not about how long you serve, it’s about what you’ve done when you serve,” Comer said. “I think that one reason that people are encouraging me to run for governor is because they think, ‘Here’s a guy that does what he thinks is best. He may not be the most polished candidate, but he’s somebody that I can trust.’”
Comer, who has said he will announce his political ambitions at the annual Fancy Farm picnic in western Kentucky Aug. 2, leaned on his experience inside the state bureaucracy in identifying wasteful spending. Frankfort should explore “comprehensive spending reform,” he said, boasting that state government could operate on a “considerably cheaper price tag.”
Two areas on which he particularly focused: cutting the state workforce and privatizing some aspects of government.
“The biggest expense in each division of every cabinet in state government is personnel,” Comer said, suggesting no governor has broached the subject because state workers turnout in statewide elections. “We have too many state employees.”
Heiner, the only major Republican candidate for the 2015 election thus far, said in his four and a half months touring 60 counties across the state, the state’s economy weighs heavily on nearly every person’s mind.
Passing a right-to-work law, which would end mandatory labor union membership, would boost Kentucky’s appeal to new industries and should be a “top-tier issue,” he said.
Another top issue, Heiner said, is education reform. He has led efforts in recent legislative sessions to bring charter schools to Kentucky and took aim at Common Core standards Tuesday.
“We need to put it on the shelf as a minimum standard in Kentucky, and we need our own Kentucky standards, our own Kentucky curriculum and our own Kentucky testing,” he said.
Comer, too, railed against Common Core and touted right-to-work legislation, saying such a change in the state’s law would send “a signal that Kentucky is open and ready for business.”
Attorney General Jack Conway, the lone Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was scheduled to appear at Tuesday’s forum but didn’t, leaving Auditor Adam Edelen as the lone Democrat on stage. Daniel Kemp, a spokesman for Conway, said Conway notified the chamber a couple of weeks ago he could not attend.
Edelen, who decided to run for a second term as auditor rather than seek the governorship, called right to work “yesterday’s argument” and defended Common Core as a benchmark of high performance for Kentucky youths.
“The Common Core standard was born from frustration in the business community that we need to have a national way to evaluate the base level of knowledge of young people coming out of our school system,” Edelen said, “and all of us who have managed a business or a payroll know that the worst thing you can have in doing that is uncertainty.”
Edelen said Conway is in “a very strong position” as a gubernatorial candidate, though he expects more Democrats to enter the fray. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo have expressed interest in the race, and Edelen joked that he offered his seat at the forum to Lexington banker Luther Deaton, another potential entry, but Deaton “said he wasn’t ready for it yet.”
“Primaries make good candidates better, and I think that’s been the history on our side,” Edelen said. “I think that’s something that speaks well for whomever our candidate is.”