FRANKFORT — Matt Bevin’s administration is less than a week old, so it has produced no fruits. But the new governor has planted some seeds that give clues about where he will take the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The clues are more important than usual, because we may know less about Matthew Griswold Bevin than about anyone who has been elected governor since Republican Simeon Willis rose from relative obscurity in 1943, when public attention was focused on World War II. Bevin was the surprise winner of the GOP primary, and was elected at a time when Donald Trump was dominating political talk and news media were less able than before to examine candidates’ backgrounds.
Bevin’s 32½-minute inaugural address, delivered with no prepared text Tuesday, repeated most of his conservative campaign themes: changing pensions and the Medicaid expansion, modernizing and simplifying the tax code, offering “school choice,” doing battle with federal regulators and changing the state’s political culture.
We knew all that. What we don’t know is how Matt Bevin studies issues, renders judgments, makes decisions and manages people – all indicators of how he will govern. But many of the early indications are encouraging, primarily because of who he’s appointed to key positions. In general, they are not ideologues (which Bevin has seemed to be at times) or partisans (something he has avoided seeming to be), but talented pragmatists.
The latest example of that is Bevin’s appointment of state Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, as justice secretary. The news coverage of that move focused on the possibility that a special election to fill Tilley’s seat would add another Republican to the state House, which Democrats are in danger of losing. That’s the political upshot, but the choice is first-class.
Tilley is one of the best legislators ever in Frankfort, passing landmark laws, and he is a nationally recognized expert on the criminal-justice system. And his account of how he came to be appointed adds to our understanding of Bevin.
Tilley told me that he found Bevin “to be a very engaging, incredibly bright, focused, intelligent person. He asked questions I had never been asked in my decades-long service in criminal-justice policy. … He asked very probing questions about drug policy, about criminal-justice policy, that showed an understanding most folks who haven’t been judges or prosecutors or public defenders wouldn’t have.”
For example, he said, Bevin asked him the greatest successes, failures and weaknesses of the criminal-justice reform bill that Tilley shepherded to passage in 2011. And beyond policy, Bevin “was very challenging on specifics within the cabinet,” Tilley said. “It was almost as if we were beginning to solve problems in an interview. … His recall on things within that cabinet really kind of stunned me.”
Tilley was a surprise partly because former state Supreme Court justice Will T. Scott (his last-place primary foe) and former chief justice Joseph Lambert were mentioned as possible justice secretaries. Tilley said about 15 people were interviewed for top positions in the cabinet, and “I don’t believe they would have interviewed that many people” if the politics of the House were an influence on Bevin’s decision.
“I firmly believe that he hired me on the merits, for the right reasons, without any political consideration,” Tilley said. “He took an enormous amount of time analyzing my qualifications and testing my knowledge, my vision and my philosophy,” and listened intensely as Tilley spoke. “He’s extremely analytical and a problem solver, much like we think of great CEOs,” Tilley said. “He probably operates in that stratosphere.”
Tilley’s account contrasts with the experience of some of us in the news media who have clashed with Bevin and found him short-tempered and occasionally arrogant. You’ve read in this space that he sometimes seems to think he is the smartest person in the room, but those who have talked with him in private say he’s up front about what he doesn’t know and is trying to learn.
Still, he pops off, as in his churlish, inaugural-eve criticism of outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear for appointing his wife, Jane Beshear, to an unpaid post on the Horse Park Commission, on which she had previously served and for which she is clearly qualified. Bevin and the folks who came into government with him from his campaign need to remember that, as he said in his speech, “There’s a big difference between campaigning and governing.”
Despite that statement, his speech sometimes had too much campaign-style rhetoric, as in his declaration that winning all but 14 counties showed voters had issued “a cry for help.” He needs to remember that voter turnout was only 30 percent and that he had the political winds at his back.
Other pitfalls await. Bevin has repeatedly said that he owes no one anything because he largely financed his own campaign, but if he owes anyone it’s probably the state’s leading coal operator, Joe Craft, who raised money for the campaign and the inauguration, served as inaugural chair, and may raise money to pay off the $4.1 million that Bevin loaned the campaign.
Such a fundraising effort, like those of some other millionaire governors, would run contrary to Bevin’s professed independence, and he would be wise to shun it – if he can afford to. One of his greatest assets is the sizable bloc of voters who don’t think he can be bought.
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.