FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Political fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage will likely show up first in Kentucky, one of the few conservative states where Democrats still control state government.
The issue has already split two of the state’s most powerful Democratic leaders five months before voters go to the polls to elect six statewide officers, including governor and attorney general.
It began in March 2014 when Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway - a former U.S. Senate candidate who is now running for governor - decided not to appeal the initial federal court decision that overturned Kentucky’s same sex marriage ban. During an emotional news conference at the Capitol, he said that to appeal would be to defend discrimination.
However, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear later overruled Conway and hired private attorneys to defend the state’s ban in federal court.
“His job as governor was to take the emotion out of it and say, ‘What’s the rule of law going to be?” said Colmon Elridge, Beshear’s longtime aide. “And the only way to do that was to get a final ruling from the Supreme Court.”
For more than a year, Beshear never strayed from that sentiment. Asked repeatedly about his views on gay marriage, Beshear said his personal opinion didn’t matter. He was simply appealing the decision in the hopes that the court would rule, one way or another. Even Elridge, who has worked closely with Beshear for eight years, doesn’t know how he feels about it.
“It’s interesting, we just have not talked about it,” Elridge said.
Conway, meanwhile, has faced critics who suggest he ignored his duties as attorney general. While Republican nominee for governor Matt Bevin criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling, he especially targeted Conway, who he said “abandoned his oath of office.” Bevin said Conway’s “failure to do his job … disqualifies him from being elected to the office of governor.”
“How can voters trust him not to break his oath again?” Bevin said.
Whitney Westerfield, the Republican nominee for attorney general, also blasted Conway in his reaction to the court’s decision.
“Unlike Attorney General Jack Conway, who failed in his responsibility to fight for the laws of this commonwealth, as Attorney General I will act to uphold the law even as it runs counter to my personal beliefs,” Westerfield said in a news release.
Conway declined to be interviewed for this story. On Friday, Conway used much of his news release reacting to the court’s decision to defend his own 2014 decision.
“As Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I did my duty and defended Kentucky’s constitutional amendment,” Conway said. “When Judge Heyburn ruled the amendment was unconstitutional, I agreed with his legal analysis and used the discretion given to me by statute to … not waste the scarce resources of this office pursuing a costly appeal that would not be successful.”
Conway’s decision may have contributed to what his office said was an increase in threats against him and his family. While the commissioner for the Department of Criminal Investigations in Conway’s office did not specify why those threats occurred, he attributed them to “the sensitivity of recent subject matter.” The threats were enough that the Executive Branch Ethics Commission said it was OK for Conway to use state employees on state time to provide security for him while he campaigns for governor.
A spokeswoman for Conway said his relationship with Beshear has not eroded in any way. Beshear has appeared with Conway twice so far this year at campaign rallies. And Elridge says their relationship is fine.
“The attorney general is his own man and the governor felt he needed to do what was in the best interest of the commonwealth,” Eldridge said. “The court was going to rule one way or the other. And we obviously now have finality.”
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