Horse Industry-Backed Candidates Win Special Elections

Two Democrats who received financial support from members of the state's horse industry were elected Feb. 14 to seats in the Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives, but officials indicated the result is just a small step on a long road to lining up supporters in the state capital.

Perry Clark will now represent the 37th District in the Senate, while Ron Weston will represent the 37th District in the House. (Both districts are located near Louisville.) Clark vacated the House seat to run for the Senate seat.

According to published reports, Clark defeated Republican Debbie Peden by more than 900 votes, while Weston defeated Republican Carolee Allen by more than 1,400 votes. Clark's term ends in 2008, while Weston and Allen will face each other this fall in another election for a full two-year House term.

Individual donors in the Kentucky horse industry contributed almost $100,000 in total to the Clark and Weston campaigns. Kentucky Equine Education Project officials have strongly stated their intention to rally the horse industry around candidates that support the industry's legislative goals regardless of party affiliation.

"My first reaction is this is just one step on a long journey of supporting candidates interested in the challenges the industry faces," said Joe Costa, president of The Red Mile in Lexington and chairman of KEEP's legislative issues committee. "It's no cause for a celebration--it's not us against anybody--it's part of a long process. And I'm not sure we've done anything more than be involved in that process."

The Democratic candidates received support from other interests, including unions. Costa said voters, not the horse industry, elected the candidates.

"We're simply advocates for our position," Costa said. "To the horse industry, it doesn't matter if (candidates) are Democrats, Republicans, or Independents, as long as they are sensitive to the issues and challenges we face."

KEEP chairman Brereton Jones, a former Democratic governor of Kentucky, couldn't be immediately reached for comment, but in previous interviews he indicated the organization would support candidates who support KEEP's agenda. Some Republicans took offense to what they believe was a KEEP-led effort to back Democrats at the expense of Republicans.

"It's unfortunate that information has been misconstrued about the KEEP PAC and its donations to political candidates," Thomas Gaines, chairman of the KEEP political action committee, said in a statement released several days before the special elections. "The PAC contributed $1,000 to the campaign of Perry Clark for state Senate--not $50,000 as implied in a recent news story. The KEEP PAC has demonstrated bipartisan support for political candidates, as evidenced by the contributions to members of both parties in the House and the Senate.

"What individual members of the organization choose to do on their own is their business, not that of the PAC."

Gaines said members of KEEP on their own have raised money for the Republican Party and its Senate leadership in Kentucky.

The horse industry, led by KEEP, has pushed for a constitutional amendment on casino gambling at racetracks. Legislation has been prepared but not introduced as of Feb. 15 even though the Kentucky General Assembly session is at its midway point.

KEEP has spent about $2 million on its "let the people decide" marketing campaign, though it remains unclear whether the casino legislation will make any headway this year. Officials have said they view horse-industry advocacy as a long-term if not permanent endeavor.

KEEP executive director Jim Navolio couldn't be immediately reached for comment on the special elections or when KEEP may unveil its long-awaited racetrack casino bill. Late last year there was talk the legislation could be ready for public consumption by the second week of January.