Fletcher pledges support for new governor

By Juliann Vachon

Although his days in office “did not end as he would have liked,” a gracious Gov. Ernie Fletcher stood before supporters yesterday and thanked them for their unfailing faith throughout his campaign.

“The voters have made up their mind,” he said. “I accept their decision. And I’ll leave this office grateful for the privilege to have served, comforted with the knowledge that every decision I made, I made with a clear conscience with the best interest of the commonwealth at heart.”

Democratic challenger Steve Beshear defeated the Republican governor by about 17 percentage points, according to unofficial results from the Kentucky State Board of Elections.

Saying that now is the time to push partisan differences aside, the Mt. Sterling, Ky., native said he would help make Beshear’s transition into office smooth and offer assistance if called upon.

“I’d like to ask those who supported me one more thing — to get behind my opponent and support him as your governor. He’ll need it in the days ahead,” Fletcher said in his concession speech at the Griffin Gate Marriott in Lexington.

“As someone once said, high office brings distinction, but also trouble,” he continued. “I wish I’d have seen that more clearly when I sat here four years ago flushed with victory.”

A politically weak Fletcher faced an uphill battle throughout the campaign, starting with the Republican gubernatorial primary in May, because of his role in a merit-hiring scandal.

He and at least 14 members of his administration were indicted in 2005 and 2006 on charges of improperly hiring state employees for partisan reasons, and Fletcher pardoned nine administration officials. The charges against Fletcher were dropped in August 2006.

Fletcher won the contested primary, but he never recuperated politically. He trailed Beshear through most of the campaign, consistently staying more than 15 percentage points behind in the statewide SurveyUSA poll.

Beshear’s campaign seized on the hiring scandal, saying a new administration was needed to “clean up Frankfort.”

Looking to build support, Fletcher responded to Beshear’s call for expanded gambling in Kentucky with a “No Casinos” slogan, saying additional gambling would compromise the state’s culture and morality. Fletcher also raised questions about Beshear’s role in the liquidation of Kentucky Central Life Insurance Co., after an unreleased ethics investigation came to light late in the campaign.

Last night, a supportive crowd applauded after Fletcher spoke on his accomplishments while in office, such as restructuring the Medicaid program, increasing the number of jobs and securing high-quality facilities for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. He also thanked his wife, Glenna, for her work with Kentucky’s Read to Achieve program. Before becoming governor, Fletcher was elected to three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

State Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said he and other GOP members who questioned Fletcher’s electability in this race were being honest. But Williams said Fletcher did a great deal for the state, especially in the metropolitan areas of Louisville and Lexington.

“The areas where he took a big beating tonight will reflect and wish that they had re-elected Governor Ernie Fletcher tonight,” Williams said.

UK fared especially well under Fletcher’s leadership, Williams said.

UK College Republicans President Thomas Roberts agreed, saying Fletcher worked hard to get the university critical funding to push forward with capital projects and its Top 20 Business Plan.

“If you look at last year’s budget, the University of Kentucky had more funding than any other higher education institution,” Roberts said. “I think that speaks tremendously of his support of UK.”

In a news conference before the polls closed, Fletcher said Kentucky was facing an important crossroads with the prospect of expanded gambling in Kentucky on Beshear’s platform.

Williams said he “wouldn’t like to lay odds” on if the state would approve casino gambling.

Larry Forgy, a Fletcher supporter and former Republican gubernatorial candidate, said gambling was a “strong issue to build around” for the GOP in the coming months.