BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - In September 2003, Matt Bevin felt celebratory: He had just settled a stressful legal dispute that justified his risky decision to leave a lucrative investment firm, and paved the way for him to strike out on his own.
Three days later his 17-year-old daughter was dead, killed in a car accident in front of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He grieved by sitting in her bedroom, struggling to find the words for her obituary.
“If you’ve ever questioned your faith, you’re going to question it when you are burying your own children,” Bevin said.
But the questioning did not last long. Bevin and his wife responded by making a “significant” donation to the seminary to establish a training center for young evangelists, named after his daughter who wanted to be a missionary. And now Bevin is running for governor by building his campaign around that same faith, running TV ads identifying him as a Christian conservative and coming to the defense of Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“It’s something I’m unapologetic about,” he said.
But voters might have difficulty reconciling Bevin’s values with his contradictions. Records show Bevin was late paying his personal and corporate property taxes at least 30 times, only to deny that he has ever had a tax problem. He said he would reverse the state’s Medicaid expansion “immediately,” but later denied he said that.
He said he would not object if “my entire life is truthfully put on the front pages of every paper in America,” yet he has refused to release his personal income tax returns as his opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, has done. Earlier this week, Bevin was asked to explain comments from his running mate, Jenean Hampton, that early childhood education was a “non-issue” for the campaign. Bevin said “I will not speak for her nor does she speak for me.”
A few minutes later he denied he said it and clarified that Hampton speaks for the ticket but not for him personally.
Democratic nominee Jack Conway and his allies have used Bevin’s words to portray him as a dishonest, angry businessman who cannot be trusted to lead the state and its annual $10 billion public budget. But Bevin dismisses the criticism, arguing his statements are taken out of context and his tax issues exaggerated. He acknowledged he has been late paying his taxes, but noted he always paid them in full and many times has paid them early.
Bevin blamed his contradictory statements partially on his critics, who pay someone to follow him around with a camera wherever he goes. Bevin rarely speaks from prepared remarks, and he did not hire a communications director until a few weeks ago. And he says his faith opens him up to closer scrutiny. He named his first company Integrity Asset Management and the holding company that owns most of his businesses is called Integrity Holdings.
“I name my companies things that are intentional, that are specific, that are worthy of ridicule if you are anything other,” he said.
His close friends insist the real Bevin is a man of indisputable character and integrity.
“The Matt Bevin that I have known for years has been a man of unquestioned character and proven integrity,” said Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, home to the Bevin Center for Missions Mobilization. “I know Matt Bevin is intense. I have never seen him intense in any inappropriate way.”
Bevin often gets into arguments with reporters, sometimes refusing to take questions. Conway says Bevin “doesn’t have the temperament” to be governor, but Robbie Brown, Bevin’s close friend and business partner, praised Bevin as an expert negotiator with a gift for understanding what the other side wants and giving it to them without compromising his goals.
“When he decides he wants to achieve something, he goes after it pretty strongly,” Brown said.
That’s true with the governor’s race, as Bevin has put in close to $2 million of his own money in his campaign. But he views the governor’s office not as prize, but as an obligation.
“I’m willing to do this job. I don’t love this,” he said.
And if he does get the job, Bevin said voters can be sure how he will govern.
“I’m unapologetic for the fact my Christian faith defines my decision-making process,” Bevin told the Kentucky Farm Bureau in July. “I will bring those Christian principles and that mindset to Frankfort.”
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