Republican candidates square off in KSR debate

Published 2:34 pm Thursday, April 20, 2023

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Kentucky Lantern

An empty chair for Daniel Cameron was placed on stage during Wednesday’s Kentucky Sports Radio debate, highlighting the attorney general’s absence.

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While Cameron, the frontrunner in Kentucky’s Republican primary for governor, was elsewhere, he still got a good bit of attention after moderator Matt Jones asked the others if he had been a good attorney general.

According to a past tweet from Jones, a Democrat who once considered a run against U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Cameron had agreed to attend the debate in February. However, his campaign had since scheduled a meet-and-greet in Manchester during the debate and his office is hosting an Operation Fight Fentanyl forum in Hyden Wednesday afternoon.

Cameron told LEX18 earlier this week that he was attending the anti-fentanyl forum during the debate. “This is an issue that folks are talking about on the campaign (trail), but we’re actually taking action to fight this issue and go into communities and have this conversation,” he said.

The event was former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft’s first debate ahead of the primary election. Four Republican candidates attended Wednesday — Craft, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, State Auditor Mike Harmon and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

Craft, who polls show running second to Cameron, said she wants to impose the death penalty on drug traffickers or anyone who provides drugs that cause a death.

Craft, seated beside the empty chair, which has become synonymous with her campaign as a  symbol of one of her children who Craft says experienced and eventually overcame drug addiction, brought Rhonda Hatfield of Louisville as a guest to the debate, saying Hatfield was one of thousands of Kentuckians who have had an empty chair at their table. “What does Daniel have to say to Kentuckians around this state that are feeling the pain today of that empty chair, whether that individual is not with them, whether they’ve run away from home, whether they are incarcerated, whether in rehab?” Craft said before vowing to give the death penalty to drug traffickers or anyone who gives drugs to a Kentuckian who dies from drug use.

Craft called Cameron “a decent person” but said he is not the next governor of Kentucky.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said the attorney general and other candidates have done well in their respective roles.

“When you’re running for governor, I think you need to show up and be asked questions,” the agriculture commissioner said. “I think it’s important that we have public dialogue and we have debates and forums like this.”

Later in the debate, Jones gave candidates an opportunity to ask a question to another candidate. Both Quarles and Craft picked Cameron. Afterwards, Quarles told reporters he did that because it would have “been a more fun debate if he was here.”

“I think the people of Kentucky deserve a debate forum that includes the top tier candidates and so that we can exchange ideas, and I also think that it’s a very different campaign strategy than I would have employed,” Quarles said after the debate.

In response to Jones, Keck said that Cameron now “probably regrets that decision” of not attending the debate. The mayor estimated that his campaign has answered thousands of questions from voters and media outlets.

“Has Daniel been a good attorney general? I think he has but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he needs to be the next governor,” Keck said. Afterwards, he told reporters that Cameron’s absence was spotlighted because of his popularity but noted that Craft hasn’t attended past debates and said Quarles did not go to a small debate held recently in LaRue County.

“I wish he was here. I mean, I think it would be good. People need to show up, but at the same time when you ask if he’s done a good job, I think he’s done a very good job,” Harmon said, and praised Cameron for defending pro-life policies in court.

Among other topics raised during the debate, the candidates discussed how they believe “woke” agendas are present in Kentucky schools and discussed how they define that term.

Craft held up a book called “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which she said was available as an audiobook via Audible in Woodford County Schools. The young adult memoir by George M. Johnson has become one of the most banned books in the country and focuses on growing up Black and queer, NPR reported.

“This is woke,” Craft said, holding up the book. “What else is woke? We have teachers that have the passion to teach and they are being directed as to what to teach. They need to be teaching our children how to think, not what to think. They need to be teaching our children what their passion is, skills and knowledge to make certain that they are ready to reach their full potential.

Harmon responded by saying that he believes current Education Commissioner Jason Glass needs to be fired, as Craft and Cameron have said in the past. Jones asked him to clarify if he thought schools were not woke, but Glass was.

“They were pushing the agenda and he told the teachers that they don’t want to do this agenda … of addressing, making sure that if someone wants to be called something different than they were, then to actually address that,” Harmon answered, referring to a legislative committee meeting where Glass testified that teachers were expected to follow policies adopted by a school board as part of employment.

Quarles likened “woke” to “cancel culture” and that the Kentucky Department of Education via Glass is pushing “certain agendas” while having a negative relationship with the General Assembly.

“I think that the Kentucky that I know is one that’s very accepting culture,” Quarles said. “It’s one that values differences. I also think that the Kentucky that I know is one that focuses on basics.

In response, Keck referenced his answer given during the Louisville GOP debate to a similar question. On Wednesday, he said the term “woke” has “become a broad brush about the left.” He said that he agreed that he doesn’t think schools should teach about topics like transgender people or Critical Race Theory, but cautioned overly criticizing public schools.

“I think as a party, we consistently demonize public education then … we’re going to struggle in the general election,” Keck said. You saw what happened in the last race.”

All four present committed to doing another debate in the fall with Beshear.

Craft and Quarles, the two candidates recent polling has second and third in the race behind Cameron, quickly claimed victory in the debate via campaign press releases.