Thursday, August 12, 2004

Candidates favor casino vote



By Patrick Crowley
Enquirer staff writer

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Legalizing casino gambling in Kentucky hasn't picked up much traction in Frankfort, but three of the four statehouse candidates at a Wednesday night forum favor putting the issue on the ballot.

And one state Senate candidate - Fort Mitchell Democrat Kathy Groob - is making expanding gambling at the state's thoroughbred race tracks a centerpiece of her campaign in Kenton County's 23rd Senate District.

"People want it instead of taxes," said Groob, a member of Fort Mitchell City Council and a marketing executive. "Someone needs to take a leadership role, and I'm going to do it. I'm not afraid to be bold."

The forum was unique in that it included candidates from two statehouse races answering the same questions from journalists and audience members.

It was held at Northern Kentucky University and organized by Kentucky Women in Acton, a grassroots political activism group, and sponsored by the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at NKU. More than 150 people attended.

Groob's stance is a calculated political risk against an opponent - three-term Crescent Springs Republican Sen. Jack Westwood - who enjoys support from social conservatives.

Westwood said he does not favor gambling and would vote to put it on the ballot in the form of a constitutional amendment.

But Groob said money generated by gaming should be used to pay for education and health care with some of the money returned to local communities.

"I oppose new taxes," she said. "But it's irresponsible for the state to continue to fail to meet the needs of our children, our cities and our needy senior citizens."

Groob suggested that at least some of Westwood's opposition to gambling is due to one of his top campaign advisers, Marc Wilson of Florence.

Wilson is a hired Frankfort lobbyist for Argosy Casino. Argosy's Lawrenceburg, Ind., casino is one of the most successful in the country. Groob did not name Wilson during the debate but said Argosy has an interest in keeping gaming out of Kentucky.

"Who else would benefit the most by keeping gaming out of Northern Kentucky than Argosy Casino in Indiana," Groob said.

"Marc is a (campaign) volunteer," Westwood said after the debate.

"What he does is his business. If he wants to work for Argosy, that's great. I don't have any problem with that."

Reached by phone after the forum, Wilson said Groob's comments are the sign of a "desperate" campaign.

"The fact that Kathy Groob needs to attack volunteers of her opponent's campaign clearly shows that she's got no message, that she is desperate and no one is embracing her candidacy," he said.

Argosy has said that it has a lobbyist in Kentucky only to monitor any potential gaming legislation.

Also appearing at the forum were candidates for Campbell County's 67th House District, Democrat Dennis Keene and Republican Mark Hayden. Both are from Wilder and both said they would support putting the gaming issue on the ballot.

"I would favor it going on the ballot," Hayden said. "But I don't favor it in the 67th District."

"We should put it to a vote and let the citizens decide," Keene said.

The forum turned nasty immediately after it ended.

Keene and Hayden - a lawyer - exchanged some heated words while still on the stage.

Keene, apparently miffed at comments made during the forum, reportedly told Hayden that the "gloves are off" just as the forum ended.

But Hayden's camp has felt that Keene drew the first political blood of the campaign a few weeks ago, when he and Campbell County Democrats criticized Hayden's law firm for sponsoring seminars that instruct businesses how to set up operations in China.

Hayden had nothing to do with the seminar and said during the forum that he does not support outsourcing jobs. He and his supporters have said Keene's criticism was unfair.

At the conclusion of the forum Keene was being interviewed by a reporter when he was approached by Hayden.

"Step aside here, I'm talking," Keene told Hayden.

"You took the gloves first off, buddy, so don't get in my face like that," Hayden replied.

Keene then fired back, "Why don't you get a job. (You're) outsourcing jobs to communist China and you're scared to live up to it."

"I got a great job," Hayden said as he walked away.

Hayden said later that he was "surprised" at the exchange.

"He said the gloves came off. Well, they already came off," Hayden said.

Keene took some criticism from Hayden during the forum as well.

Keene said he would oppose an increase in the state's gas tax to fund road construction and repair. But Hayden claimed that is a change from Keene's earlier position.

"Looks like we have a (John) Kerry flip-flop," Hayden said to cheers from his supporters but jeers from Keene's backers.

On at least two occasions Hayden said that as a six-year member of Wilder City Council Keene has voted for five tax increases.

Keene said all five votes were unanimous in favor of the city taking minimal increases in property tax.

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com




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