A Little-Known Democratic Governor Is Breaking Out in Kentucky

Something strange is happening in Kentucky. A centrist Democratic governor is attempting to wield actual power. What’s even stranger: It’s working.

In this Sunday, March 29, 2020, photo, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., to provide an update on the novel coronavirus. Beshear announced a new order Monday, March 30 instructing Kentucky residents to avoid traveling to other states in another aggressive step to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., to provide an update on the novel coronavirus on March 29, 2020. Photo: Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP

In the absence of federal leadership, governors have become the public face of the effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Some of them, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, have risen to the media status of national hero, certainly in comparison to the deadly, daily clown show on display at the White House. Others have exposed themselves as unfit for office — such as Georgia’s Brian Kemp, who this week expressed shock after learning a basic fact about the disease, namely that asymptomatic carriers can spread it.

Lost between the coasts, meanwhile, is the remarkable story of Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, whose handling of the coronavirus crisis looks especially strong next to neighboring Tennessee. The two states are like a life-and-death experiment, showing the difference between governing and not governing in the face of a pandemic.

The 42-year-old son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, he won a contested Democratic primary against a more progressive opponent, and then went on to face the extraordinarily unpopular Matt Bevin in the general election in the fall. The Libertarian Party, which Bevin had tussled with, decided to field a candidate simply to undermine him. The libertarian pulled 28,000 votes, enough to swing the election; Beshear beat Bevin by just 5,000 votes.

Republicans in the state legislature immediately began calling the result illegitimate, with Republican Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers saying it was “appropriate” of Bevin not to concede and that the GOP-controlled legislature might end up choosing the victor. He specifically cited the libertarian vote, claiming the results weren’t a genuine reflection of support for the Republican incumbent. It felt like a dry run of the 2020 presidential election, which skeptics have warned Donald Trump may not concede even if he loses.

But instead of the quivering response the public has come to expect from Democrats — a threat of a lawsuit, complaints about norms to the media — Beshear plowed forward, talking and acting like the rightful winner of the election. He began naming cabinet members and setting up his government, and in the face of his show of force, the media recognized him as the winner of the election and the GOP crumpled.

Beshear was sworn in as governor on December 10, 2019, and immediately began wielding power. That day, he signed an order restoring voting rights to more than 100,000 felons. On December 16, he killed Bevin’s Medicaid overhaul, which had been designed to throw people off the rolls. Another key issue in the election had been anger from teachers at Bevin over a slew of assaults, chief among them his attempt to undercut their pensions. Bevin had been concealing a 65-page official analysis of that plan showing its cost to public workers and its ineffectiveness in the long term. Beshear spiked the plan, and, on December 20, publicly released the assessment, in all its gory details.

In February, Beshear, a deacon at his local church, became the first governor to appear at the Fairness Rally, an anti-discrimination event organized each year by LGBTQ leaders.

A photo he took with a group of drag queens launched a local scandal, and one Republican lawmaker lashed out at him for defiling the state Capitol. Beshear again fought back, calling the lawmaker’s attack “homophobic” and demanding he apologize personally to everybody in the photo. Beshear’s aides, and the state party, called on the man to resign, transforming the scandal into one about Republicans and their backward views on social issues.

Days later, on March 6, Beshear became one of the first governors in the country to treat the coronavirus pandemic with the seriousness it deserves, declaring a state of emergency when he announced the state’s first confirmed case — a day before New York state.

Trump was still laughing the pandemic off as no worse than the common flu. That same day, March 6, Trump toured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declaring himself a natural expert. “Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” Trump lied from the CDC. “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”

Trump’s expertise had led him to conclude, on March 2, the pandemic would be less of a problem than the flu. “We’re talking about a much smaller range” of deaths, he said. Two days later, he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity, “It’s very mild. The day after Beshear had declared a state of emergency, Trump said, at a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his entourage (who all went home with the virus) at Mar-a-Lago, “I’m not concerned at all.” On March 10, he was still full of bliss. “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” he said.

Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee followed Trump’s lead, telling his state’s residents no emergency declaration was necessary, even though Tennessee has more large urban centers than neighboring Kentucky. He finally switched course nearly a week later and declared an emergency, citing new information.

By that point, Beshear had already ratcheted up his warnings, urging Kentuckians to take the crisis seriously and to avoid large gatherings. By March 11, he announced the coming closure of schools. Beshear began 5 p.m. daily press briefings that have become appointment TV for a nervous public, even as Kentucky has one of the lowest spreads of the virus — producing endless memes celebrating the governor’s empathy and authoritative style.

Less than two weeks later, Beshear began warning Kentuckians not to travel to Tennessee, where cases were exploding. “Here in Kentucky, we have taken very aggressive steps to try to stop or limit the spread of the coronavirus to try to protect our people,” he said. “We have made major sacrifices such as shutting down bars and restaurants, nail salons, all these forward-facing businesses. But our neighbors from the south in many cases have not.” On Sunday, the U.S. Army restricted travel to Nashville from nearby Fort Campbell in Kentucky, as well.

Tennessee’s mistakes couldn’t be allowed to harm Kentuckians, he warned. “I cannot control that Tennessee has not taken the steps that we have,” Beshear said. “I need you to be strong in your pride in this state, and I need you to make sure that you don’t take someone else’s lack of action and ultimately bring it back to Kentucky to harm us.”

Beshear, by choosing to govern, has gradually risen to his own hero status, and, like Cuomo, become an unlikely sex symbol. A Reddit thread titled “Govern me, daddy,” became a Salon headline — and a T-shirt.

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