This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
The candidate strode into the boardroom on the top floor of the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s Louisville headquarters at exactly 10 a.m., which was the forum’s scheduled start time. Rand Paul, his opponent this fall for a Kentucky U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jim Bunning, came in at the same time and occupied a cushioned chair next to the moderator up front. But before the candidate took his spot he decided to shuffle around the room, shaking hands with each of the 33 KFB members — “farmers in suits,” one of them said — who were seated around the cherry wood table. “Hello, sir, how are you?” he said, grinning and grasping one of 33 palms. “Jack Conway, thanks for having me.”
On that late-July morning, John William “Jack” Conway, Kentucky’s attorney general and a Democrat, wore a dark, form-fitting suit and a blue necktie dimpled near its knot like his jutting chin. His sandy locks, as always, were carefully parted to the side, a fresh-from-the-salon look. Though the 41-year-old Louisville native’s hair did not glisten with gel, it seemed obvious some sort of product was making sure each fiber played its part. As he made his way to a place on the other side of the moderator, Conway did not acknowledge Paul. The media, including writers from GQ and the New York Times, sat along the walls or stood in the back, where video cameras and photographers’ telephoto lenses, rapid-firing like Uzis, captured an early moment in what is sure to be one of the nation’s most-watched November races.
Paul, who had earlier won a coin flip, chose to give his opening remarks before Conway, using the time to make the first of many statements comparing Conway to “Jack’s president, Obama.” As Conway listened to Paul’s jabs, he clenched his molars, sending tension coursing throughout his jaw line. His face would twist into a pained smile, but almost immediately it was like he recognized what he was doing and shifted to neutral, stone-faced. Paul stood near his chair while speaking, and Conway, after taking the tiniest sip of ice water from a Styrofoam cup, preferred to bring his yellow legal pad of notes to the podium. (A microphone issue eventually forced Paul to do the same.)
Throughout the morning, the pitch of Conway’s voice rarely shifted, like a monotone drama student line-reading. He said that he was a “fiscally responsible Democrat” who would “put Kentucky first” so many times that he occasionally came off as if he were programmed and a loose wire was making him blurt out political-speak. After almost every posed question, Conway stepped to the podium and said, “Thank you, Mr. [insert last name here], I appreciate that question very much.”
Among the noteworthy things he mentioned: reauthorizing the state’s Farm Bill in 2012 to ensure Kentucky’s “85,000 farms” are “taken care of”; prolonging the Bush tax cuts because a recession “is not any time to be raising taxes”; supporting “all the things that can take us to a new-energy economy”; introducing a bill in the Senate “to allow the Medicare program to engage in in-bulk negotiations for lowering prices.” When the discussion turned to healthcare (or “Obamacare,” according to Paul), Conway said, “Had I been in the United States Senate this spring, I would have voted for the healthcare-reform bill. That’s not to say I don’t have some misgivings about it.” Said Paul: “When Jack says he’ll give you whatever you want, that’s the easy thing to do….The problem is, where does the money come from?” It is a question Paul is sure to keep asking until Election Day.
The other time Conway ran for Congress was in 2002, when Anne Northup, who described Conway over the phone to me as “out of central casting,” beat Conway for Kentucky’s 3rd District congressional seat, now John Yarmuth’s. “I think Jack is trying to straddle the line, trying to pretend to be a conservative but also a good Democrat,” said Northup, who now works with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “It just doesn’t mean anything to people.”
During a press conference in the lobby following the forum, Conway, a bit of perspiration on his brow, faced the media throng and pointed at me to pose the opening question. I asked if he worried that voters would associate him with the president. “I think it was apparent in there, (Paul) is going to try to change my last name from Conway and make it either Obama, Reid or Pelosi,” he said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “One thing he’s not going to be able to change is when the county clerks certify those ballots and put them in front of the voters, it’s going to be Jack Conway versus Rand Paul.”
Once Conway’s handlers led him down a corridor away from the reporters, I introduced myself to his press secretary, Allison Haley, and told her it was difficult to get a good read on the candidate in this type of setting. Naively, I asked if a 45-minute interview with him would be possible.
“Forty-five minutes?” she asked, shocked. “That’s a long time.”
Over the summer, Conway’s strategy seemed to be this: remain dormant. Meanwhile, Paul made the occasional controversial remark that garnered national exposure, the most-publicized comments being those about the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act. “As long as Rand Paul puts his foot in his mouth, you have to step back and let him,” said Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear when I interviewed him the Friday before the annual picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., which kicks off the state’s political season. Jim Higdon, who runs a Marion County political blog, has been following the race and said that, at times, Conway could be described as a “third-party candidate.” “I think it’s accurate that from the conclusion of the primary to Fancy Farm, the race could be categorized as Rand Paul against himself,” he told me during a phone interview.
Throughout July and into August, near-daily phone messages and e-mails to Conway’s communications team often went unreturned. The question I wanted to ask: What had Conway been doing during the summer? The only coverage he seemed to get had to do with the state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Mongiardo, the Hazard, Ky., physician whom he beat in May’s primary by less than one percentage point. Mongiardo, who did eventually endorse Conway, was upset that the Conway camp had not helped him pay off his campaign debt from the primary, an issue that was still unresolved when this story was published.
According to polling data, Paul’s message to shrink government and reduce spending has resonated with voters. One local, late-July poll had Paul ahead by eight points, while another suggested the lead was slightly greater than that. Alec Gerlach, a Democratic National Committee regional press secretary, said the organization is “very focused” on the Kentucky Senate race. In the past 17 midterm elections, he pointed out, the president’s party has lost an average of 28 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and four in the U.S. Senate. “This year, we’re going to be working to defend many seats,” Gerlach said. “In Kentucky, we have an excellent opportunity to pick one up.” He added that the DNC had not yet decided where it would be investing its $50 million dedicated to the midterms and said he “certainly wouldn’t rule out” the possibility of national Democrats traveling to Kentucky to stump for Conway.
The Conway campaign has 20 paid employees and plans to set up eight field offices throughout the state. Since Conway entered the race in early 2009, he has raised about $4 million, including the $525,000 he himself has loaned the operation. Danny Briscoe, a local Democratic consultant, said during an interview at his home that Conway will need to take his hometown of Louisville by 50,000 to 60,000 votes — he won Jefferson County by about 30,000 in the primary — if he wants a shot at a general election victory. Conway staffers (who asked not to be quoted) said there are also a lot of undecided voters in Northern Kentucky, which tends to be conservative.
The Conway camp can expect to do well with those who “fear” what Paul would bring to Washington. “I don’t know what would happen to the Department of Education if Paul were elected,” said Sharron Oxendine, the Kentucky Education Association’s president. And with the statewide unemployment rate at more than 10 percent, one of the best ways to attract undecided voters is by convincing them Conway can create jobs. Kim Geveden, Mongiardo’s spokesman, said he was not sure if Mongiardo would campaign for Conway out in the state. During an interview at Fancy Farm, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican who lost to Paul in the primary, said, “Dr. Mongiardo had a strong pull in rural areas, which is where we (Republicans) find independents who cross over and give us the majority.” Added Briscoe: “In the rural parts of the state, Conway has to show people he’ll put them back to work. There’s just so much economic anxiety right now.
“Conway’s got too many consultants giving him too much advice. I wish he would act on his own instincts. People want you to take a position and not BS them,” Briscoe said. “What he wants to do and what he’s allowed to do are two different things.”
Jack Conway’s father, Tom Conway, is 72 years old, a practicing attorney who works on the 18th floor of the Kentucky Home Life Building in downtown Louisville, which is where he agreed to do an interview two days before Fancy Farm. Jack, who lives in a $1.7 million Glenview home, is the oldest of four. Family photographs decorate his father’s office, including one of a young, shirtless Jack atop an Idaho mountain flexing his biceps. Another shows Jack kissing Stately Victor, the Thoroughbred he owns with his father that finished eighth in the most recent Kentucky Derby.
There’s also a picture of father and son, who played together at a Pebble Beach golf tournament. “Jack shot in the 70s, and I shot in the 170s,” the elder Conway said with a laugh, adding that his son is still a scratch golfer. When asked if he’d ever heard his son express interest in becoming president one day — something more than one Conway acquaintance I interviewed had heard — he said, “I don’t know if he ever told me that, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
“Jack was a very gifted child. I expected him to excel, pushed him hard,” he said, dabbing the tears forming in his eyes with a tissue. “I just let him know that we expected a lot out of him.”
Toward the end of the interview, he pulled out a recent Details magazine Paul profile, which he had printed off his computer. He flipped through the story and highlighted two paragraphs, then stuck red tabs to those pages. One section was about how Paul’s libertarian view of the federal government is a “dismembered” one; the other was about a former Paul staffer who resigned after posting racist remarks on his MySpace page. “Jack’s got a pretty clean record, so people make personal insults,” said Tom Conway, who spent his childhood on a 400-acre Union County farm. “The Conway family doesn’t have dirty linens to air in public. It doesn’t make good reading, but it’s a fact.”
A quick flip through the ’87 volume of The Tiger, St. Xavier High School’s yearbook, proved that Conway was an involved student: National Honor Society, yearbook editor, ski club, basketball, cheerleading, golf, awards for being an “outstanding” leader, several college scholarships. “He was always mature for his years,” said family friend Ambrose Ethington. Conway’s senior quote was, “Whenever I choose between two evils, I choose the one I’ve never tried.” Following St. X it was on to Duke, then law school at George Washington University. Eventually, he landed a spot in former Gov. Paul Patton’s cabinet. In the years after the Northup loss, Conway was a trial lawyer who had considered running for governor, lieutenant governor and Louisville’s mayor before deciding on attorney general, which he has been since 2007. (If you have heard him speak in public, it seems like his proudest accomplishment as attorney general was taking “70,000 child-porn images off the Internet.”)
Another picture in the elder Conway’s office is of Jack and two buddies the day they graduated from St. X. I called one of the friends, Paul Oberst, the Friday morning before Fancy Farm, and he said he was with Conway the night he lost to Northup. “That was his first major political battle,” Oberst said. “If you’re asking me if there were tears, yeah, there were tears.”
“Did you guys party in high school?” I asked.
“We were normal high school kids,” Oberst said. “Jack liked to have fun but knew his limits.”
“What’s something most people don’t know about him?”
Oberst paused. “He does a great President Clinton impression.”
The Friday evening before the Fancy Farm picnic, Jack Conway had his year-old daughter, Eva, in his arms as he walked up a gradual slope in front of the convention center at Kentucky Dam Village State Park, in Gilbertsville, Ky. About 400 people had shown up for a Democratic fund-raiser, an annual “bean supper.” He was wearing a blue-and-white-striped button-up, Nike-brand khakis and brown cowboy boots. Before he went inside, press secretary Haley whispered into his ear and he agreed to answer a few questions. Though more reporters would eventually swarm the candidate, in the beginning a Lexington Herald-Leader writer and I were the only two with recorders rolling.
“Do you feel like you’re the underdog in this race?” I asked.
“I’ll take the label if you want to give that to me,” Conway said. “Our internal polling has a dead heat. I don’t buy that Louisville poll” — which had him down by eight points — “which had only five to six percent of the electorate undecided. I think there’s a bigger chunk undecided than that.”
In Western Kentucky throughout the week, he had been on what the campaign called a “job creation tour.” I asked him how he could put Kentuckians back to work.
“There’s tremendous promise for a coal-to-liquids plant, actually liquefying coal, and you could create thousands of jobs. The I-69 corridor, which is going to link the Great Lakes down to Texas, needs to be brought to the western part of the state, and that could be a tremendous jobs-creation opportunity,” he said. “Growing switchgrass and using it for energy generation in the future, that’s another job-creation opportunity.”
The Herald-Leader reporter asked Conway about his stance on “cap and trade” legislation — basically a market-based strategy to reduce pollution emissions, including those produced by the coal industry, which powers 90 percent of the state’s electricity. Paul has accused Conway of flip-flopping on the issue many times because a 2009 Courier-Journal article said Conway favored cap and trade “as long as there are provisions that protect American consumers and businesses.” “I’m against cap and trade,” Conway said once again before heading into the bean supper. He has taken this stance, in part, because he said cap and trade in its current form would ultimately raise Kentucky’s low electricity rates. When asked over the phone if he believed Conway, Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association (which is against cap and trade), said, “We’ll have to make that determination when we meet with Attorney General Conway; we’ll have to address the validity of his statements.”
Inside, Conway took a seat next to his wife Elizabeth, a Brown-Forman employee whom he met while they were working for Gov. Patton. Powerful Kentucky Democrats — Beshear, Patton, Crit Luallen, the state’s auditor who worked with Conway in Patton’s office — took turns behind a podium on a stage decorated with flag bunting. When Conway spoke at the fund-raiser, he said the general election would be like the Rocky sequel that starred Mr. T because he was prepared to knock out Paul, “Mr. Tea Party.”
In retrospect, the one time Conway seemed most himself during my reporting of this piece was before the bean supper, when I used my first question to ask him to do his Clinton impersonation. “I’ll tell you a story; you want to hear it?” Conway asked. He described a day last spring when he was down in Little Rock, Ark., for a conference of Democratic attorneys general. Clinton was a guest speaker, and Conway’s friend, Arkansas’ attorney general, took him to meet the former president. “When he talks,” Conway said of Clinton, “he grabs you and pulls you about six inches from his face.” He grasped my shoulder, brought me in close. Then he spoke in his Saturday Night Live-worthy Clinton voice…but asked that we not quote him. When I asked him again the following afternoon to let me use the anecdote, he said I could describe it if I did not include the hilarious Clinton quip he’d recited. Conway at his most natural would remain off the record.
The annual picnic in Fancy Farm takes place on the grounds of St. Jerome Parish, and it is the site of great political theater. For the 130th event, black pairs of flip-flops — with “cap” written on one, “trade” on the other — hung from Paul’s booth. Conway’s camp set up a “Rand Paul’s Waffle House.” On the fake menu: Rand’s “balanced budget biscuit.” “Don’t ask for the secret recipe — Rand won’t tell you,” it read.
By early afternoon that August day, the politicians had taken the stage — Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other. The thick crowd, in lawn chairs, divided itself by political party, too, and had gathered before the covered stage hours earlier, anticipating the stump speeches. Conway, sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, sat between his wife, who cooled herself with a stars-and-stripes pocket fan, and Gov. Beshear. Twelve ceiling fans swirled overhead and the sweat that bled through the belly of Conway’s shirt resembled a Rorschach test. It was here last year that Conway, still in a race against Mongiardo, generated the line most identify with him: “You’re looking at one-tough-son-of-a-bitch.” It spawned some YouTube parodies and made the picnic establish a no-cussing policy, which some dubbed the “Conway Rule.”
Conway approached the podium after winning the coin flip and electing to go before Paul. Trying to drown out the booing hecklers, the Conway supporters — the Kentucky Education Association, the Kentucky Young Democrats and others — chanted, “We back Jack! We back Jack!” Then Conway appeared to find his voice. Some of his arm movements were rigid, but as he punched exclamation points into the humid air and called Paul a “waffling pessimist who wants to be the prince of cable TV,” it was clear this was a different man than who attended the Farm Bureau forum.
“What does Rand Paul say to the widows of Kentucky coal miners?” Conway asked the people.
“Accidents happen!” his supporters hollered, under the candidate’s direction.
“What would Rand Paul say to the thousands of Americans who lost their life savings because of Wall Street’s greed?”
“And what did Mitch McConnell” — the Senate minority leader from Kentucky who supported Grayson in the primary — “say to the Republican National Committee the morning after the primary?”
Afterwards, a smiling Conway shook the governor’s hand, hugged his wife. The Democrats on stage and throughout the grounds were cheering, which made it impossible to hear what Elizabeth Conway told her husband. But reading her lips was easy. “That was awesome,” she said. She was giving her opinion about the speech. Another take could be that Jack Conway had finally shown signs of life.
Photo: John Nation