by Patrick Crowley
Following the June demise of expanded gambling in the legislature, representatives of Kentucky’s horse industry vowed to take a more aggressive role in statehouse campaigns.
The industry’s involvement in a special state Senate election in Eastern Kentucky Aug. 25 is proving the threat wasn’t hollow.
Through individual and political action committee contributions combined with a newly established campaign fund, the industry is coming to the aid of Democrat Robin Webb of Grayson, who is running against Republican Dr. Jack Ditty, an Ashland dermatologist.
Webb and Ditty are running for the seat vacated by former Sen. Charlie Borders, an Ashland Republican who Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appointed to the Public Service Commission in July. Webb, a state representative, voted in favor of racetrack video lottery terminals during the June special session.
The full House passed the bill 52-45. But the Senate budget committee, which Borders headed and the Republicans controlled, killed the bill in committee before it could get to the full Senate floor.
The day after the session ended, Beshear, speaking at a rally at Keeneland, said when it came to the gambling legislation, he would work to either “change senators’ minds or change senators.” Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate.
Webb's campaign finance report filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance shows that about $19,000 of the nearly $236,000 she has raised came from individuals and PACs in the horse industry. That amount does not include money being spent by a 527 campaign fund formed by racing interests tied to The Kentucky Equine Education Project, a Lexington-based lobbying and information organization that has pushed hard for gambling legislation.
The 527 Committee, called Keep Our Jobs in Kentucky, was formed by Will Farish of Lane’s End Farm and Bill Casner of WinStar Farm. Both are active in KEEP; Casner is chairman and the organization’s co-founder.
KEEP executive director Patrick Neely has taken a leave of absence to run the 527 fund. Such funds, named for a section of the IRS Code, are permitted to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for so-called issue advertisements. The committees, which have gained popularity in the last few years, are not allowed to coordinate with candidates or advocate for a candidate.
But the funds can pay for ads critical of a candidate. The KEEP-related 527 fund is running television and radio ads in the race, and also is spending money on direct mail and grassroots organization, Neely said.
Neely would not say how much money the 527 has raised or spent. Eventually, that information will have to be reported to the IRS, but is not public now and not governed by Kentucky’s campaign finance reporting laws.
In an interview, Neely pointed out that KEEP is not involved with the 527 fund; it is a vehicle to educate voters “about setting policy for job creation, not just in the horse industry.”
In one radio ad, Ditty is accused of not meeting a deadline for paying state unemployment taxes and then having a state lien slapped on his medical practice. But Kentucky Republican Party head Steve Robertson said the 572 ad “trivializes” the situation and “drags Dr. Ditty’s good name through the mud.”
Robertson said Ditty’s office assistant electronically filed the unemployment tax bill Oct. 30, 2006. It was due a day later, but was not processed until Nov. 1. That resulted in the lien, which was removed after Ditty paid a $5 late fee, Robertson said.
“The entire KEEP organization is spending untold amounts of money on something ridiculous,” Robertson said. “They are talking nothing about their issue or about Robin Webb voting for slots.”
“What they are doing to the people who own, breed, and race horses is a disservice,” said Robertson, who noted he is a Thoroughbred owner and breeder. “They are presenting an ugly face, and that turns people off.”
Ditty has said he opposes racetrack VLTs.
Webb said she had not heard or the seen the 527 ads. And while she did vote for VLTs, she has long been active in non-racing equestrian activities and issues.
“I’ve been a judge, a show person, and active with horses most of my life,” said Webb, a lawyer. “I have a lot of friends in the racing and non-racing breed industry. I’ve worked for and passed legislation involving the non-racing breeds.
“I supported (gaming) at racetracks, but that’s about the extent they’ll get from me. I supported that particular bill because I helped write the non-racing breeder incentives part of it. And I supported that bill because it would help our state’s signature industry, which is a driver of our economy.”
Western Kentucky University political scientist Scott Lasley said the 527 can impact this race and others.
“One impact can be on the issue agenda for the campaign and the ability of the 527 to raise the profile of an issue, in this case KEEP and the gambling issue,” Lasley said. “A second impact can be on the outcome, but it would most likely be around the margins. A race needs to be close enough where small shifts can have a dramatic impact.
“An advantage that a group like KEEP has is that it is narrowly focused, well-funded, and can mobilize quickly. This makes it a bit easier to mobilize in a special election than some other groups.”
Neely suggested the 527 will get involved in future statehouse races.
“Every race for the state legislature is important,” he said. “This organization is going to look at case by case and make those decisions.”
On Aug. 22, KEEP organized a rally at Ellis Park, the western Kentucky racetrack that is lobbying for alternative gaming. Racing industry representatives spoke during the event, which included a parade of breeds.
Ellis Park has been soliciting signatures from patrons during its summer meet. Track owner Ron Geary has not yet said whether racing will be held in 2010.