I’m a union-card carrying, Hubert Humphrey Democrat. So Ronald Reagan is not one of my favorite presidents, not by a long shot.
But I’ve got to hand it to the Gipper for coming up with what was called the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
I’d like to see our party modify it to read, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Democrat.”
Of course, Republicans trash each other. But in my native Kentucky, Democrats seem more inclined toward internecine strife than Republicans do. So far, that’s mainly been the case in the race for Jim Bunning’s senate seat.
Bunning is retiring. Polls and pundits suggest a Democratic pickup is possible.
Hence, Secretary of State Trey Grayson and Dr. Rand Paul – the top 2010 GOP primary contenders – are mostly practicing what Reagan preached. They are focusing their fire on one or the other of the two Democratic primary heavy hitters: Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo – a physician dubbed “Dr. Dan” — and Attorney Gen. Jack Conway.
But Mongiardo came out swinging at Conway, who has had to hit back.
Dr. Dan’s campaign is spinning Conway, who is from Louisville, as a “a silver spoon Democrat” and a fancy-pants elitist because his family is well-heeled and because he went to Duke instead of the University of Kentucky as Dr. Dan did.
Pandering to pseudo-populism is nothing new in Kentucky politics. Fifty years ago, Gov. Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler gave us “Old Ankle Blankets.”
Kentucky governors couldn’t succeed themselves in 1959. Chandler, a Democrat, was backing a rival ticket against the Bert Combs-Wilson Wyatt team in the party’s gubernatorial primary.
Chandler found a 1920s-vintage photo of Wyatt, also a Louisvillian, sporting spats, supposedly footgear favored by rich city slickers. He dissed Wyatt as “Old Ankle Blankets.”
Combs and Wyatt swept the primary and the general election anyway. (Chandler’s grandson, U.S. Rep. Albert Benjamin Chandler III, a Lexington Democrat, is for Conway.)
In the old days, the Democrats were so strong in Kentucky that they won most elections even when they were feuding. But the era of almost total Democratic dominance is gone, maybe forever.
Kentucky is one of the reddest of the Republican Red States.
True, the Democrats have the governorship and the state House. The Republicans have just about everything else – the state Senate, both U.S. senators and four of our six members of Congress.
While President Barack Obama won big last year, Sen. John McCain, his Republican foe, claimed more than 57 percent of the Kentucky vote. He carried all but 8 of the state’s 120 counties.
Thus, it would seem that party unity could hardly be more critical for the Democrats going into 2010. Yet Mongiardo is pounding Conway as if it’s the 1950s when the winner of a Democratic primary almost always triumphed in a general election.
Mongiardo is a genuine American success story. He was born over his Italian immigrant family’s little store in Hazard, deep in hardscrabble eastern Kentucky coal country.
But history – the subject I teach – shows that the circumstances of a politician’s birth don’t necessarily shape his or her politics. That’s likewise for where one earned a college degree.
No president did more for working stiffs like Susie and Diehl Vest, my Kentucky grandparents, than Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Bobo was in the old Amalgamated Clothing Workers; Granddadden belonged to the Painters union.)
The Roosevelts were New York patricians. FDR was a millionaire, a prep school grad and a Harvard alum. Yet it was on his watch that Congress passed the Wagner Act, which guaranteed workers like the Vests — devout Democrats who voted for Roosevelt four times — the fundamental right to unionize.
Like her husband, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was to the manor born. She went to a posh girls’ school in England. Even more than the president, she championed the poor and powerless.
Like FDR, too, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was a prep schooler, a Harvard man and a Democrat from a rich family. But like Sen. Humphrey, Sen. Kennedy always fought the good fight for working people – especially for those of us in unions.
Organized labor also endorsed Kennedy’s fellow Bay State senator for president in 2004 – John Kerry, yet another pro-union and pro-working class Democrat and a son of a wealthy family. Kerry is a Yalie.
On the other hand, few presidents were more anti-union than Reagan, whose birth could hardly have been more humble. He came into the world in his parents’ apartment above the local bank in Tampico, Ill. Jack Reagan sold shoes. His kid sold out the working class.
Anyway, I live in the same working class neighborhood where I grew up. I went to a public high school and to a public regional university. I teach at a public community college. My wife teaches at my old high school.
Calling Conway “a silver spoon Democrat,” doesn’t cut it with me (or my spouse of going on 31 years). When I size up candidates, I don’t look at their bank accounts or their family pedigrees. I don’t care where – or if – they went to college.
I look at how candidates stand on issues important to me as a trade unionist, a teacher and a member of the working class.
Conway and Mongiardo are good on my issues. Grayson and Paul are not.
I like Mongiardo, but I like Conway better. Some of my union brothers and sisters are Conway fans. Others are behind Mongiardo, and that’s fine with me.
But if Dr. Dan wins, we union members in Conway’s corner will be quick to plaster Mongiardo-for-Senate bumper stickers on our vehicles. Likewise, if Conway triumphs, organized labor will close ranks behind him.
We know what’s at stake. With Grayson or Paul — the son of U.S. Rep Ron Paul, R-Tex. — we’d get more Bunning and Sen. Mitch McConnell-style union-busting. Grayson and Dr. Rand are disciples of the GOP gospel of greed.
Meanwhile, I hope Mongiardo – who is basically a nice guy – will lay off the the Richie Rich and la-de-dah private college stuff with Conway. (If my kid has the grades, the ACT scores – and the scholarship money — to go to hoity toity Duke, I’ll be shouting the good news from the top of our nearly 60-year-old, two-bedroom wooden-siding-clad house.)
“Dan Mongiardo and Jack Conway are bright, intelligent, outstanding candidates,” says a Democratic Party activist from Paducah, where I teach. “They are the future of our party. They are going to need each other in future races.”
I’ll add a Presbyterian “amen” to that.
— Berry Craig is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, a strictly non-partisan and mostly funny look at Bluegrass State hustings from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon.