Larry Forgy, who died Thursday, Jan. 13, at age 82, will be remembered by fellow Republicans as the one-time whiz kid who blew three races for governor. Kentuckians at large should honor him as one of the few politicians who put his own future on the line to limit the influence of money in politics.
Forgy had a standout political pedigree: budget director for Gov. Louie Nunn, partner in the law firm headed by former Democratic Gov. Bert Combs and manager of Ronald Reagan’s successful Kentucky campaigns in 1980 and 1984.
All of that set Forgy up as the presumptive Republican nominee for governor in 1987, but on Jan. 2 he stunned the state by backing out, saying that being a candidate for governor “requires personal sacrifices and compromises I am unwilling to make.”
Without being explicit, he made clear that he didn’t like a trade where every check could be a chit to be called in if you won.
Less than eight weeks remained until the filing deadline, so Republicans were caught with their pants down and fielded a weak nominee against Wallace Wilkinson, who had upset fellow millionaire businessman John Y. Brown Jr. in a crowded primary. But Wilkinson’s aggressive fund-raising as governor for his political causes – capped by his wife Martha’s campaign to succeed him – made political money a bigger issue than ever in Kentucky.
Forgy saw an opportunity. After most state Republican leaders backed 6th District U.S. Rep. Larry Hopkins of Lexington for governor, Forgy entered the race late as a reform candidate, limiting campaign contributions to $300. The limit was $2,000, and contributors often gave $4,000, designating half for the general election.
A lot of politicians talk campaign-finance reform, but few have been willing to put their money (or lack of it) where their mouth is. Forgy didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. And he wasn’t doing it to just to make a statement; he and campaign manager Ted Jackson thought Hopkins was vulnerable. But Jackson said Friday that he worried about the $300 limit.
“I said, ‘Can we make it five?’,” he recalled. “There was no reasoning to get to 300, just something he came up with.”
It was almost enough. Due to Hopkins’ missteps, Forgy nearly beat him, losing by 1,945 votes, 1.2% of the total. I think if he had followed Jackson’s advice he would have won and had a decent chance against Lt. Gov. Brereton Jones, who was highly adverse to the Wilkinsons and hadn’t moved in polls during the primary.
Forgy’s strong showing and Jones’s career-ending defeat of Hopkins made Forgy the GOP nominee in 1995, the only time the election has had spending limits, enacted in reaction to Wilkinson’s abuses. Forgy and Democratic Lt. Gov. Paul Patton embraced the limits and the public financing that went with them, but state Democratic Chairman Terry McBrayer circumvented them with a campaign that ran ads saying congressional Republicans would sell federal lakes and inflict other neoconservative fantasies on the state.
The party campaign was only theoretically separate from Patton’s. Patton attended fundraisers for it, and his final-week campaign stops prominently featured the party’s commercials, played on a huge TV in the back of a pickup. The ads struck a chord with Democrats who came of age in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Kentucky’s Alben Barkley, and boosted Democratic voter turnout.
Meanwhile, Forgy had cozied up to right-wing activist Frank Simon, and The Courier-Journal’s reporting of it prompted Forgy to call the paper “that rancid silo of intellectual arrogance,” an example of his fabled rhetorical skills. But the alliance alienated moderate Republicans in Louisville.
“The lakes and Simon – without either one of those, we would have won,” Jackson said. He said the alliance with Simon may have turned out enough evangelical voters to overcome the losses among moderates, but “Larry, at the end of the day, was a rural politician . . . He was insecure and uncomfortable in Louisville.”
Forgy lost by 21,378 votes, 2.2% of the total, and groused that the Democrats stole the race. Almost three years later, two Patton aides and two Teamsters leaders were indicted on charges of running an illegally coordinated parallel campaign. Court challenges delayed the case, and after Patton was politically debilitated by a sex scandal, he pardoned them all. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the leading foe of public campaign financing, saluted the pardon.
In 1999, McConnell had actively discouraged Republicans from running for governor, saying the finance system was rigged against them because spending limits would make it impossible to defeat an incumbent governor. Then Republicans took over the state Senate, and in 2002 held the state budget hostage for repeal of public financing (“welfare for politicians,” they said), and Democrats caved. Kentucky’s decade of campaign-finance reform was over. But Forgy tried.
Al Cross, a former Courier Journal political writer, is professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He writes this column for the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. Reach him on Twitter @ruralj.
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This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Larry Forgy showed the promise and pitfalls of campaign finance reform