Politics 2003Week of December 15


“I was visiting my Mom back in Williamstown [Kentucky] and asked her what she was going to watch on television,” Catherine Cahill, native Kentuckian and fellow parishioner at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington DC, recalled to me recently, “She said ‘E.R.’ And when I said I didn’t know she was an ‘E.R.’ fan, Mom said ‘Sure. That’s the show with Nick Clooney’s boy.”

“Nick Clooney’s boy?” Only in northern Kentucky, along which the Ohio River flows, would handsome matinee idol George Clooney-formerly a doctor on “E.R.” and Batman on the big screen, and now star of “K Street”-ever be referred to in that manner. At 69, after decades as a top-rated TV anchorman in nearby Cincinnati and now a Cincinnati Post newspaper columnist and emcee of films on the national American Movie Classics TV network, Nick Clooney is an institution in Northern Kentucky. So when three-term Rep. Ken Lucas (D.-Ky.) announced his retirement two weeks ago and endorsed longtime friend and fellow Democrat Clooney to succeed him, the immediate reaction from many pundits and pols was that it was no longer a cinch that the Bluegrass State’s 4th District would revert to the Republican hands it had been in from 1966 until Lucas won the open district five years ago.

But to call Clooney a favorite for Congress-his name recognition and personal popularity notwithstanding-is to deny recent political history. Three years ago, the 4th District gave George W. Bush a handsome 61%-to-37% victory over Al Gore and this year was easily carried the victorious Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Ernie Fletcher. Lucas (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 64%), the lone Democrat left in Kentucky’s six-member U.S. House delegation, frequently broke with his national party by taking decidedly conservative stands on such issues as gun control, abortion, and tobacco. In 2000, he ducked his party’s national convention in Los Angeles and announced he would not vote for Al Gore that fall because of the Democratic nominee’s criticism of the tobacco industry. Such stands were pivotal in Lucas’s three close elections to Congress.

But Nick Clooney is no Ken Lucas. The anchorman-emcee has taken many very liberal positions in his columns and son George has been unusually shrill in his attacks on President Bush and his Iraqi policy-criticism that is not exactly helpful to his father in a district that is clearly “Bush country.” True, since late Rep. (1959-64, 1966-72) John Kyl (R.-Iowa), father of present Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.), became the first TV anchorman to serve in Congress, there have been numerous candidates in both parties who have made the jump from anchor desk to congressional desk. At one point, Washington State alone boasted three former TV newscasters as House members. However, the political graveyards are also littered with the corpses of anchors brought down mainly by attack spots charging that they merely read the news rather than made it. Republicans Vic Caputo of Detroit in 1980, Glenn Rinker of Miami in 1982, and Frank Venner of Toledo, Ohio, in ’84, are just three candidates who were regarded as superstars of the airwaves, but fell short to more predictable political types when they ran for Congress.

Perhaps aware of this history, Businessman Geoff Davis, who lost a tight race to Lucas last year, and lawyer Kevin Murphy are actively vying for the Republican nomination in Kentucky’s 4th and show no sign of being intimidated by Nick Clooney.

The Other Race in Kentucky: With the inauguration last week of Rep. Fletcher as Kentucky’s first Republican governor since 1967, the “snap election” to replace him in Congress is already underway in the 6th District. On December 13, a special Republican Party committee was to tap the GOP nominee for a special election, which is likely to be held before the end of January. All signs point to the nomination of conservative State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, sister of 1995 GOP gubernatorial nominee Larry Forgy and endorsed favorite of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), over three fellow state legislators.

Democrats last week began to express hopes of retaking the 6th (Lexington) for the first time since 1996, as former State Atty. Gen. A.B. (Ben) Chandler began dropping hints that he would run for Congress. Although Chandler, who lost the gubernatorial race to Fletcher, is widely known in the area, he did not run any better in the 6th District than he did in the rest of the state.


In the end, it really was no surprise: after less than five hours of deliberation, the Moody County (S.D.) jury found Rep. William Janklow (R.-S.D.) guilty on one felony charge of manslaughter and three related misdemeanor charges, all stemming from an August incident that has since haunted the former four-term governor. The Cadillac driven by the 64-year-old Janklow went through a stop sign and struck a motorcyclist, killing him instantly. An hour after the verdict, South Dakota’s most durable politician for nearly three decades announced he would resign from the at-large House seat he first won a year ago.

Possibly the most mercurial politician in the nation this side of former California Gov. Jerry Brown and the most resilient this side of Bill Clinton, “Wild Bill” Janklow is leaving the political arena as he faces up to 11 years in prison. The onetime juvenile delinquent and U.S. Marine talked his way into the University of South Dakota without a high school degree, and went on to its law school. He went from being a legal aid lawyer on an Indian reservation to become the gun-toting attorney general of his state, in which capacity he clashed with American Indian Movement leader Russell Means at Wounded Knee. Janklow parlayed his “tough guy” image into 16 years in the governor’s office, where his innovative conservatism and tough-talking style made him the dominant political figure in South Dakota. Observed longtime South Dakota Republican National Committeeman Ron Schmidt after the verdict and Janklow’s resignation announcement: “I still can’t believe this is all happening.”

But it is happening, and, with Janklow’s resignation taking effect January 20, present Republican Gov. Michael Rounds is expected to call a special election to fill his seat for the same day as the June 1 primaries. Attorney Stephanie Herseth is a cinch to again carry the Democratic standard. With help from national left-wing groups such as EMILY’s List, Herseth, whose father Lars was the 1986 Democratic nominee for governor and grandfather Ralph was governor from 1958-60, drew a handsome 44% of the vote against political colossus Janklow last year.

Among Republicans, the big question is: “What will John do?” John is John Thune, the conservative Republican who held the at-large seat in Congress from 1996 until 2002, when decided to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and went on to lose the closest, most-disputed Senate race in the nation. For months, it has been widely assumed that the 41-year-old Thune would take another crack at the Senate next year by running for the state’s other Senate seat against Minority Leader Tom Daschle. But Janklow’s downfall has caused Thune to consider a return bid for his old House seat.

Less than 24 hours after Janklow’s announcement, I ran into Thune at the Irish Times restaurant in Washington. The former lawmaker, who was in town on business, told me: “This changes the landscape and there is a different set of circumstances.” Thune (lifetime ACU rating: 87%) added that he had formerly planned to make an announcement of his plans “by the end of the year” but will now decide which office to run for “in a shorter period.”

A special conclave of the three top party officials-chairman, state committeeman and state committeewoman-from each of South Dakota’s 64 counties will choose the Republican nominee in the by-election. By all accounts, the nomination is Thune’s for the asking. Should he opt for the Senate race, however, the nominee is likely to be one of two equally conservative but lesser known candidates: State Sen. Larry Dietrich of Brookings and former Thune staffer Larry Russell of Hot Springs.