Sunday, August 8, 2004

Voters involved early this year

Kentucky politics

Click here to e-mail Patrick Crowley
The calendar says early August. But Northern Kentucky's political activity screams late October.

A November ballot loaded with high-profile, hotly contested campaigns has fueled an early start to the region's political season. While Labor Day has long stood as the traditional campaign kick-off, candidates are already busy working - and attacking the opposition - as voters are paying more attention to the issues and races.

"Generally speaking, people are more interested," said Bill Schmiade, owner of the Grocery Bag in Taylor Mill, where a group of regulars gathers each morning to chat over coffee.

Lately, Schmiade said, the conversation has turned political with debates over the war in Iraq, the presidential race, the inability of the Kentucky General Assembly to pass a state budget and local campaigns. "Too many things going on to just hit cruise," he said.

There is much for Northern Kentucky voters to focus on:

• The presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry. Though Kentucky is largely considered Bush country, voters here are exposed to media coverage and advertising out of Ohio, a battleground state targeted by both campaigns.

• Races for the U.S. Senate and Northern Kentucky's seat in the House of Representatives.

• Three statehouse races.

• Council contests in most of Northern Kentucky's largest cities.

In every race candidates have begun raising money, knocking on doors, handing out literature at festivals and fairs, promoting their own platforms and - in many cases - going on the attack.

"I've never seen this much activity this early," said veteran GOP strategist Marc Wilson of Florence, who is advising Sen. Jack Westwood's re-election campaign. "I see it from the candidates, and I see it from the campaign volunteers. We had a meeting last week of Women Working for Westwood, a group that just formed, and 30 women showed up. That's a great turnout for a new group."

In Bellevue last week more than 200 people turned out for a town hall-style meeting put on by the campaign for Democrat Nick Clooney, who is running in the 4th Congressional District against Republican Geoff Davis.

"People are more energized than I've ever seen at this stage in a campaign," said Kenton County Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Smith. "The presidential race has energized people, and that's trickling down to other races. I know there are a lot of Democrats who aren't sitting on the sidelines because they feel they must do something to defeat George W. Bush."

The real heat in campaigns is often generated when candidates square off. It's still summer, but the first major face-to-face forums are planned for this week.

Clooney and Davis make a joint appearance Tuesday before the Kentucky Farm Bureau in Highland Heights. And a Wednesday night forum at Northern Kentucky University will feature candidates in two local statehouse races: Republican Mark Hayden and Democrat Dennis Keene in Campbell County's 67th House District; and Democrat Kathy Groob and Westwood in Kenton County's 23rd Senate District.

The NKU event, which is set for Greaves Hall, is likely to be spirited. Candidates in both races have been chewing on each other for weeks over issues, qualifications, ideology and more. But the forum's organizer thinks the best way to win votes is to stay positive.

"It would serve the candidates well to get their message and ideas out early because of the many races this year," said Diane Brumback, the founder and organizer of Kentucky Women in Action, which is hosting the NKU forum. "Save the negative attacks and focus instead on shining above the others."

The heavy interest in this year's campaigns has forced many candidates to change their strategy.

In Covington, where voters will elect a mayor and four city commissioners, commission candidate Rob Sanders has altered some of his campaign spending and planning because of high voter interest.

Sanders, a first-time candidate, wouldn't reveal specifics of his strategy. But he anticipates a higher turnout than a typical city hall election, and not just because Bush and Kerry are on the ballot.

Voters in Covington's southern neighborhoods and suburbs are dissatisfied with a year-old city "gay rights ordinance" that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other categories, he said.

"In walking door-to-door in Latonia and south Covington I've found that voters are not happy with the gay rights ordinance," Sanders said. "So I would expect that the turnout on the constitutional amendment would be higher as somewhat of a backlash against the ordinance that many people feel is not in line with their values."

But it doesn't take a rocket, or even political scientist to determine what is driving voters interest this election year, said Campbell County Commissioner Dave Otto.

"There is a mixture of patriotism and anger with what is going on with Iraq," said Otto, who is advising the Keene campaign. "Whether it's Republicans or Democrats, people realize the votes they cast this year are, in some cases, life and death decisions. We have people losing their lives overseas on a daily basis. That's really hitting people in the face and getting them interested in the election."

Races fueling interest in politics

• President: Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry.

• U.S. Senate: Republican incumbent Jim Bunning and Democrat Dr. Daniel Mongiardo.

• 4th Congressional District: Republican Geoff Davis and Democrat Nick Clooney.

• Campbell Circuit Judge: Incumbent Julie Reinhardt Ward, District Judge Greg Popovich and lawyers Steve Franzen and Charles Lester.

• Campbell County's 67th House District: Republican Mark Hayden and Democrat Dennis Keene.

• Kenton County's 23rd Senate District: Democrat Kathy Groob and Republican Sen. Jack Westwood

• Southern Kenton County's 17th Senate District: Republican incumbent Sen. Damon Thayer and Democrat Cliff Wallace.

• A statewide constitutional amendment banning same sex marriages and civil unions.

• City commission and council in Newport, Covington, Independence, Florence, Bellevue and Erlanger.



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