Archive for November, 2008

Tom Gish: Profile in courage

Tom Gish

Tom Gish

For more than half a century, The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky., under the leadership of owners Tom Gish and his wife Pat, exposed public corruption, poverty and environmental degradation in Eastern Kentucky. Their battles helped establish the state’s open meetings and open records laws.

When they bought the weekly in 1956, its motto was “A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper …” The Gishes changed its motto to “It Screams.”

The Eagle’s strong voice and watchful eye often brought the Gishes trouble. But they didn’t back down. When they criticized the Whitesburg police for mistreating youth, a policeman, using coal company money, paid arsonists to firebomb the newspaper offices, destroying the building. But the Gishes published the next week’s edition from their home — with a new twist on their slogan: “It Still Screams.”

Tom Gish died today at age 82.

“He was the bravest and most honest man I ever knew,” said his son, Ben Gish, editor of the paper. David Thompson of the Kentucky Press Association called him “the consummate journalist.”

Read Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Andy Mead’s article and more about Tom Gish at the Institute for Rural Journalism’s blog at

Want change? Start with appointments

RFK Jr. as EPA chief?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as EPA chief?

President-elect Barack Obama has been fending off charges of inexperience by surrounding himself with some heavy hitters in his new administration.

If experience in foreign policy and defense was what he was looking for in a vice presidential candidate, he couldn’t have done better than Joe Biden. And in choosing Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, he picked a sharp Clinton White House veteran and one who has also been seasoned in the rough-and-tumble politics of Capitol Hill.
But neither man is charismatic or projects a new approach to governing.
Two former Democratic presidential contenders, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York are lobbying hard to become secretary of state, but I think former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico would be a better choice.
Richardson already has diplomatic experience as a former ambassador to the United Nations. He’s also hard as nails, and he’s Hispanic, which would serve our country well in dealing with Latin America and NAFTA.
Besides, if Obama wants to get some of his agenda through the Senate, he might want to leave old hands like Kerry and Clinton where they are because their legislative clout might prove valuable in passing something hard like health care reform.
Let’s face it: This president was elected on a message of “change we can believe in.” If he really wants real change, Obama should start with his appointments, rather than just recycle Democratic establishment figures.
If I were on the transition team, I would make some radical recommendations.
My first suggestion would be Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Kennedy is also one of the nation’s best known environmental lawyers. As cofounder of Riverkeeper and attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Kennedy has shown the same tenacity his father showed as attorney general in going after the Mafia, corrupt Teamsters leaders, Communists and segregationist governors.
Kennedy is a pit bull when it comes to defending the environment. We could rest assured that with him as head of the EPA, Exxon and ConAgra wouldn’t be writing the country’s environmental regulations.
I would recommend a Kentuckian, Wendell Berry, as secretary of the interior. True, Berry is a poet and farmer, not a manager, but his job would be to set the direction of our policy regarding natural resources and choose others to manage it.

Berry would also be a good choice for secretary of agriculture.
Another good choice for agriculture would be another tribune of family farming, Gene Lodgsdon.

Long ago, this country headed in the wrong direction by favoring big agribusiness over family farming. But the Amish in places like Holmes County, Ohio, have shown that family-scale farming can be prosperous and good for the environment, while many Midwestern grain growers have proven that “too big to fail” doesn’t apply to agriculture any more than it does to banks and auto makers.

Either Berry or Logsdon could contribute to changing that policy. So could Hal Hamilton, the founding director of Kentucky’s Community Farm Alliance. He is someone who is experienced in fighting for farm families and, like Berry and Logsdon, is a farmer.
If Obama really wants to really be a bipartisan leader, he needs to put some Republicans in his cabinet.
He should start with Chuck Hagel, the GOP senator from Nebraska. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and expert on military issues, would make a great secretary of defense, and he’s retiring from the Senate anyway. He’s also conservative, but, like Obama, is a staunch critic of the war in Iraq.
Retired Gen. Colin Powell would be a home run. He would provide heft to the administration, and is one Republican who is well-respected across the party divide. Because of this nation’s tradition of not putting generals in charge of the Department of Defense, he couldn’t go there. But he would be a good choice for almost any other cabinet-level position.
Another Republican Obama should consider is former Connecticut Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. She was the second President Bush’s chief of the EPA, but had to leave because she couldn’t stomach the administration’s anti-environmental radicalism.

Another woman he might consider is RFK Jr.’s sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. She would be a good pick for secretary of education.

Secretary of energy? Why not T. Boone Pickens? Sure, he would be a wild card, but the oil tycoon, who has been preaching alternative energy and telling TV viewers that we can’t drill our way out of the energy crisis has some credibility.
Obama should also want to reach out to evangelical Christians as he did in the campaign.
One controversial but solid choice would be to make Dr. James W. Holsinger Jr. of Kentucky secretary of health and human services. Holsinger was derailed as President Bush’s choice for surgeon general because of some statements he made long ago about homosexuality. But he is a learned physician who is compassionate toward all people — including homosexuals, and a committed Christian.
Another good choice for health and human services would be former Ohio Congressman Tony Hall, a conservative, pro-life Democrat who has made fighting poverty his life’s work and is one of the most respected evangelical leaders on the planet.
And if the president elect wants to “think outside the box” on housing, maybe he should consider Millard Fuller, the who, as founder of the Christian ministry Habitat for Humanity International, has built more houses for poor people than anybody in history.

For attorney general, I would choose Fuller’s old college roommate, Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which recently won a multimillion-dollar verdict against the Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky. Who would be better to enforce civil rights and take on the bad guys? Dees is fearless and smart, two things you need in an attorney general. And he was once considered to head the FBI, which is part of the Justice Department.
Finally, for ambassador to the United Nations, I would choose former President Jimmy Carter. Almost no one is more knowledgeable about international issues or more respected than Carter. His appointment as the nation’s representative to the world would be a slam dunk

Bald eagles in the Bluegrass

This eagle was photographed on Scott Miller's farm on Wades Mill Road.

This eagle was photographed by Scott Miller.

First it was black bears, now it’s bald eagles.

It seems Clark County is getting wilder.

For years, we’ve heard talk of eagles being seen in the Bluegrass region. Last year the Lexington Herald-Leader reported two sightings in Fayette County, one of them at Jacobson Park.

My father, Ray Patrick, who lives on Colby Road near Basin Springs, was convinced that he saw one flying over his backyard some time ago.

Now Scott Miller has evidence. He told the Sun he photographed the majestic bird you see in this picture in a dead tree on his farm on Wades Mill Road. He sent it to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which confirmed the bird is what appears to be in the small, grainy photo.

Miller found a nest that he first believed to be the eagle’s, but concluded it was too small, so now he thinks the predator was just passing through.

State wildlife officials in 2007 counted 48 nesting pairs in Kentucky and believe several hundred winter in the state.

Read reporter Mike Wynn’s story at

While development in the Bluegrass region is growing and we’re losing farmland and forests at an alarming rate, we’re starting to see more wildlife. I’ve seen more white tail deer in the past two years than I’ve ever seen, and I often see red tailed hawks, great blue herons and swans. I often hear coyotes, which are not native to this area but have been here for at least 20 or 30 years. And last year there were reports of black bear sightings in Clark County before someone struck and killed one with a vehicle on Mountain Parkway. These are the first bear sightings that have been reported here in a century, although my father found footprints in the ice of what he believed to be a bear or large cat near Basin Springs in the 1980s, and sent photos to wildlife employees who said they thought they were bear tracks.

The only wild animals that I’ve seen fewer of in recent years are foxes, although a red fox was killed on Colby Road last year. And I haven’t heard of anyone having seen a bobcat or mountain lion in Kentucky in a long time, although my brother-in-law, Stan Vermillion, said he heard a big cat of some kind while fishing at night on Cave Run Lake.

Do you have any stories to share about eagles or other rare wildlife in Clark County or the Bluegrass region? Feel free to share them by commenting here.

Odd election odds and ends

State Rep. Bob Damron tallies precinct totals on election night. He won, but local TV stations reported throughout the night that he lost.

State Rep. Bob Damron tallies precinct totals on election night. He won, but local TV stations reported throughout the night that he lost. Photo by Bob Flynn, The Jessamine Journal.

Some observations from Tuesday’s election

— If you get your election news from television, you may have gone to bed last night thinking that Nicholasville City Commissioner Chris Moore is the newly elected state representative for the 39th District. And you would be wrong. Both WKYT-TV and KET reported throughout the night that Moore had beaten incumbent Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, by 53 to 47 percent. The numbers were right, but the names were wrong. It was Damron who won that much. The conservative Democrat will be going back to the state House for a ninth consecutive term.

— Family Court Judge Jeff Walson carried his native Clark County by a landslide in the circuit judge’s race, more than 76 percent. But District Judge William Clouse of Richmond won more votes in Madison County than he and Walson together won in Clark County, giving him the victory in the 25th Circuit as a whole.

— In Winchester’s city commission contest, the policeman copped a win over the philosopher. Former Officer Dennis Wallace narrowly won the open seat on the Board of Commissioners created by JoEllen Reed’s relocation to the county. His opponent, Clint Jones, a University of Kentucky grad student in philosophy and instructor, lost by 54 votes and could seek a recount. The top vote-getters for the four-person board were incumbents Shannon Cox, Kenny Book and Rick Beach.

— B.J. “Billy” Swope soundly defeated incumbent Minnie Spangler to win the District 2 seat on the Clark County Board of Education in a race that centered on the board’s unpopular $80 million facilities plan that includes building a new high school, closing rural elementary schools and raising property owners’ taxes. If Ray Shear had stayed on the board, the faction against the plan would have had a solid 3-2 majority.

— Who would have thought Mitch McConnell would win an election based on personality? That was the question Kentucky veteran political journalist Al Cross asked on KET’s election discussion last night. Cross said the Democratic candidate, Bruce Lunsford, came across to voters as an arrogant millionaire, while the Senate Republican leader turned on the charm.

— If having pro wrestler, Jesse “The Body” Ventura as governor of Minnesota and Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger as governor of California wasn’t strange enough, we came close to having “Saturday Night Live” comedian and Al Franken as the senator-elect in Minnesota. However, incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman won by a whisker, 762 votes out of nearly 3 million cast. Look for a recount. Who says politics isn’t show business?

— How’s this for irony? Barack Obama is the first African-American president elect in the nation’s history, but he is not descended from West African slaves, as most black Americans are. His father was an East African immigrant. On his mother’s side, Obama is descended from white southern slave owners, and one of his maternal ancestors was a cousin of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

— The Republican U.S. candidate in Louisiana was named John Kennedy. No wonder he lost the majority of the vote in this historically conservative southern state.
— Virginians must like the name Warner. Longtime Republican Senator John Warner will be succeeded by former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who won by a landslide. Mark Warner had been touted as as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination after his party’s sweep in 2006, but he decided to go for the sure thing instead of having a good chance of becoming president in a Democratic year.
— Presidential candidates usually appeal to their party’s base in the primaries by campaigning as conservatives or liberals, then take a moderate tone in the general election and move to the center to win independent voters and those from the other party. Sen. John McCain did the opposite — running as a moderate in the primaries and shifting to the right in the general race, most notably by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. It didn’t work.

— McCain made campaign finance reform his signature issue during his 2000 campaign and won a hard-fought victory for reform in the Senate. It may have been what did him in. He accepted public funding and had to adhere to spending limits. His opponent, Democrat Barack Obama, didn’t accept public funding and raised more money than any candidate in history.

Elections 'the damnedest' in Kentucky

Mountains tower proudest,
Thunder peals the loudest,
The landscape is the grandest - and
Politics - the damnedest
  In Kentucky.
Voting in Clark County

Voting in Clark County

— James H. Mulligan, from "In Kentucky" (1902)

Election Day in Kentucky always brings back pleasant, not-so-pleasant and downright bizarre memories for me as a newspaperman.

Today for some reason I’ve been thinking about the huge crowds filling the halls at the Madison County Courthouse on Election Night in the 1980s and how good County Clerk Mary Jane Ginter’s country ham biscuits were. The sandwiches were supposed to be for election workers, but familiar reporters like me were usually offered some.

The first elections I covered were in Estill County. I recall a drunk complaining to me that the sheriff had taken his half pint of whiskey from him, and he wanted me to write a story on the “theft.” Actually, the real story was that someone was giving away half pints in exchange for votes, but I was never able to nail it down.

Speaking of sheriffs, I was telling my staff this morning about the time a sheriff’s race in Estill County was decided by a coin toss. The election officials counted the ballots several times, and each time it was a tie, so they had to toss a coin. That must have been 1985. I don’t remember now who the candidates were or who won, but if Guy Hatfield, publisher of the Citizen Voice & Times and my boss at the time, were still living, he could tell you. The man was an encyclopedia of political folklore and enjoyed politics more than just about anyone I’ve ever known.

I enjoyed it a little myself. Just for fun, when I was working at The Jessamine Journal a decade later, I wrote a phony byline for my election story, “Randy Patrick, Political Junkie.” I meant it as a joke on my employees and wanted to see if they would catch it in proofreading, but I got distracted by the busyness of the Day After, and the story was published with the fake byline.

The next day I was sitting in a Fiscal Court meeting when I overheard two men sitting behind me whispering about the mistake. “He must have started celebrating early,” one said.

We’ve come a long way as a democracy in the 25 years I’ve been covering politics as a reporter or an editor.

I remember a conversation a county official had with a voter when the results of the 1984 presidential race became clear: Democrat Walter Mondale had carried only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia in the Reagan landslide. The official dismissed his winning D.C., saying that the district was “all black,” and the Democrats could have it as far as she cared.

I wonder what that same woman would think now that a black man finally has at least an even chance of becoming president of the United States.

It makes me think that what we were taught as children in school — that any bright, talented man or woman of good character who is willing to work hard can rise to the pinnacle of success in this great country of ours, regardless of race or economic background — has at last come true.

How would Jesus vote?

Sojourners slogan

Sojourners bumper sticker

It’s about 9 on Sunday night, and there is a crowd gathered around the flag pole in front of the Clark County Courthouse. My guess is that they are praying for the country in preparation for Tuesday’s presidential election.

This morning at First Fire, it was announced that members of the congregation would be holding a prayer vigil on Election Day at the church campus in Winchester Plaza. Many other churches around the nation are doing the same. That may be a good thing — as long as churches don’t openly support particular candidates.

Last Saturday, after covering Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s rally in Winchester, I had a conversation with a church friend about this election. I confided to her that the current two-party system poses a dilemma for people like me on the evangelical left (which is why I’ve been registered as an independent since 2002).

On the one hand, I’m conservative on sanctity-of-life issues such as abortion and euthanasia, and on matters of personal responsibility and personal morality. On the other, I’m liberal on issues such as justice for the poor (the earned income tax and Medicaid, for example), welcoming the stranger (immigration) and being good stewards of creation (i.e. the environment).

But for Christians, this woman said, abortion is the one issue that must take precedence over all others. The rest are just “temporal issues.”

While I respect this lady’s opinion, it isn’t an easy decision for me. I think I know how I’m going to vote Tuesday, but the closer the election gets, the more doubts I have.

One consideration for me is that “temporal” issues are what presidents and legislatures deal with every day.

Abortion is mainly a judicial matter, not a legislative or executive one, and legal abortion has a long history of judicial precedent. It’s been 35 years since Roe v. Wade guaranteed the right of abortion in every state, with some restrictions allowed during the third trimester.

Regardless of what activists on both sides say, it is not realistic to think that any president could appoint Supreme Court justices who would make abortion illegal — or, to put it another way, to make felons of frightened young women or their doctors.

Also, abortion can be a temporal as well as a spiritual matter. For example, during President Clinton’s eight years in office, the abortion rate declined. During President Bush’s eight years, it has gone back up. The main reason for this, I believe, is the economy. Fewer people were poor during the Clinton years, largely because of the adminisration’s economic and social policies.

So the way I see it, if you want to reduce the number of abortions (and who doesn’t?) you should vote for leaders who will improve the economy, provide more funding for social programs to help poor families and single mothers, put more emphasis on sex education in schools and promote adoption. If those same leaders also believe abortion is wrong in most circumstances, it may make them more attractive to pro-life voters, but it may not make them any more effective.

As for the myriad of other temporal (and spiritual) issues, I think it’s reasonable for Christians to emphasize the things Jesus and the Bible emphasized.

Poverty and justice for the poor are mentioned some 2,400 times in the Scriptures.

When Jesus announced his ministry, he said his purpose was to preach “good news to the poor,” and he proclaimed the “year of the Lord’s favor” — that is, the year of Jubilee: a God-mandated forgiveness of debts and redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. (Some would call it socialism.)

Also, when Jesus told a parable of the Last Judgment, he said those who would be welcomed into God’s kingdom are those who care for the hungry, the homeless, those without clothes on their backs, the imprisoned, the “least of these.” In other words, the poor.

By any objective measure, neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party is consistently “Christian.” Pro-life Catholic and evangelical Democrats are troubled by the Democratic Party’s tendency to make opposition to any abortion restriction whatsoever a litmus test for support. And “compassionate conservative” Republicans are often bothered by their party’s lack of concern for the disadvantaged.

Sojourners magazine sums it up well with a slogan that became popular during the 2004 presidential election and which has been revived this year: “God is not a Republican … or a Democrat.”

From 1980 until 2004, the Republican Party had a lock on evangelical and conservative Catholic voters. But that isn’t true anymore. Many younger evangelicals and Catholics are crossing over to the other side or becoming independents. Also, for the first time in many years, the Democratic candidate for president is someone who is comfortable talking about his faith, and the Republican candidate is someone who is not — although they both identify as Christians.

So, whoever wins on Tuesday, it will be interesting to see what the results of post-election polling show about how people’s religious faith influenced their votes.

I think the answers may surprise many of us.

November 2008
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