Candidates duke out state issues

Josh Coffman

The 2003 race for governor may be the most hotly contested campaign in Kentucky in decades. And the speeches made by the candidates at Thursday night’s debate provided many sparks for that fire.

Gubernatorial candidates Ernie Fletcher and Ben Chandler traded verbal blows behind podiums in the Bowling Green Junior High School auditorium before an audience of about 700 people.

The two candidates answered questions about healthcare, education and the state’s budget crisis – and questioned each other’s credentials for the job.

In opening statements, both Chandler and Fletcher said there were differences between the two, and raised questions about what needed to be done for Kentucky’s future.

“This is an election that determines the direction Kentucky is going for the future,” said Fletcher, the Republican candidate who spoke first after winning a coin toss. “… We haven’t attracted the kind of jobs and the type of growth that I really think we have the potential to do. “

Fletcher criticized democratic Gov. Paul Patton’s administration, and Chandler criticized how the United States Congress has handled the nation’s economic woes, noting that Kentucky has lost 60,000 jobs in the past two years.

Fletcher serves as a U.S. House of Representatives member for Kentucky’s sixth district. Chandler is Kentucky’s attorney general.

Chandler also praised Western in his opening remarks.

“You have a first-class university in Western Kentucky University, and I hope to support it in whatever way I can,” he said.

Nearly 20 minutes of the 60-minute debate went toward discussing negative campaign advertisements. The candidates questioned each other’s tactics, and the audience, which had been instructed at the beginning of the debate to withhold outbursts until the end, became vocal.

Crowd members wearing blue stickers, showing support for Chandler, groaned when Fletcher said he was unaware of an ad paid for by the Kentucky Governor’s Association until after it ran. Those wearing white Fletcher stickers applauded strongly when he said it was important for Kentuckians not to be misled by the advertisements.

The College Republicans and Young Democrats, two campus political groups, were involved with the debate.

Scottsville senior Sarah Davasher, president of Western’s College Republicans, asked Fletcher if he supported expanded gambling – for instance riverboat casinos or racetrack slot machines – in the state.

“I’m not going to gamble with teachers’ pay,” Fletcher said.

Chandler, who supports the proposal if voters approve a referendum, questioned how else Fletcher would increase teachers’ salaries, something both candidates support.

Fletcher said in rebuttal that he wants to create more jobs – that includes building a federal research lab in Kentucky.

Philpot senior Chad Aull, president of Western’s Young Democrats, asked Chandler how he’d reduce the state’s deficit.

Chandler said just because he’s for expanded gambling doesn’t mean he won’t focus on the economy. He said his running mate, Charlie Owen, has “tremendous experience” in developing economies.

The candidates were asked how they’d help projects for Bowling Green before giving closing statements.

Both candidates said Southcentral Kentucky is vital for the state’s growth, and they would support funding the Transpark to create more jobs.

Chandler said he’d invest in programs Western is offering. Fletcher did not mention the university during the debate. He said he wants to set up a program called “Unite Kentucky,” with regional directors to help the area grow.

Reach Josh Coffman at [email protected]