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James Comer’s Quest To ‘Pass A Bold Agenda’ Gets Bumpy

Jonathan Meador, Kentucky Public Radio

Two weeks ago, the Comer-McDaniel campaign saw nothing but fair skies as the candidates flew to four Kentucky cities in one day, rolling out the final planks of their “Plan For All Kentuckians.”

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, was still riding on the good news that his campaign had out-fundraised his opponents in the race for governor last quarter—more than $1 million dollars, three times what the three other Republicans raised combined.

At a stop at a charter flight company in Paducah, Comer addressed a small, packed room of supporters, and took a moment to recognize the attacks that had begun to cloud his campaign.

“I’m getting hit by a Republican because they said we’re a Frankfort insider,” Comer said after the press conference.

“We’re not running TV commercials blasting everybody in Frankfort right now, which is what the wealthiest of my four opponents is doing.”

At the time, TV commercials produced by the super PAC Citizens for a Sound Government—which supports former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner’s gubernatorial bid—highlighted a vote Comer made as a state legislator to raise pensions for lawmakers.

Comer has accused Heiner of coordinating with the super PAC, which Heiner has repeatedly denied.

Comer publicly regretted voting for the so-called “greed bill” and said he’d work to change the law if elected governor.

But the real turbulence hadn’t begun yet.

That came last week when The Courier-Journal published excerpts of a letter from Comer’s college girlfriend, who alleged that he mentally and physically abused her when they dated years ago.

Comer flatly denied the allegations and the dispute intensified as his accuser doubled down, challenging him to a polygraph test.

It’s unlikely that that a lie detector test will take place by the primary election, which is May 19.

Until last week, Comer had been able to defend himself by making the connection between Heiner and the super PAC airing the attack ads—Heiner’s former campaign manager Joe Burgan is an adviser for Citizens for a Sound Government.

So far, the connection between the abuse allegations and the Heiner campaign are tenuous at best. Heiner has admitted that members of his campaign had been in touch with a blogger who has been pushing the Comer abuse allegations.

‘Walked the Walk’

In his campaign to be the next Republican candidate for governor, Comer has repeatedly brought up his ticket’s “ability to pass a bold agenda.”

Comer spent 11 years as a representative in the state legislature for the district that includes Monroe County in south-central Kentucky. He said good relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will allow him to promote legislation as the state’s chief executive.

He was named freshman state lawmaker of the year by the National Republican Legislators Association in 2002 after he passed five bills in the Democrat-led House.

His running mate, Sen. Chris McDaniel of Covington, was instrumental in pushing the Republican-led Senate’s priorities in this legislative session’s heroin bill, though a version of the bill he authored was gutted by the House.

“Anybody can talk the talk, we’ve walked the walk,” Comer said in Paducah. “I have reduced the number of state employees, I have reduced wasteful government spending, I have fought corruption, I have stood up to Obama and sued the federal government and won.”

Last year, Comer sued the federal government  when the DEA seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds headed for industrial hemp pilot programs championed by the agriculture commissioner. The DEA quickly relented and issued a permit for the state Agriculture Department.

When Comer took office as commissioner of agriculture, he requested that Democrat Adam Edelen audit the office, which was previously held by former Kentucky Wildcats basketball star Richie Farmer, also a Republican.

The audit uncovered multiple misuses of funds and staff including an event in which Farmer had state employees build a basketball court in his backyard using state-bought concrete. Farmer, who in 2011 ran for lieutenant governor on a Republican slate with then-Senate President David Williams, is serving a prison term related to the scandal.

Comer’s Plans

If he’s elected, Comer said he wants to reduce the number of Kentuckians on Medicaid by moving poor Kentuckians onto private insurance.

That shift, Comer said, will come from improving the business climate “to where we can create good paying jobs that pay benefits to where these people on Medicaid can turn around and get a job with private healthcare.”

Comer said it’s important to get Kentuckians off of Medicaid rolls because the state will begin paying a greater share of the costs of the program starting in 2017.

About 400,000 Kentuckians have signed up for Medicaid coverage since eligibility was expanded in 2013. About 25 percent of Kentuckians are now eligible for Medicaid coverage.

Comer also says he wants to cut in half the cost of a four-year degree at University of Louisville or University of Kentucky from about $40,000 to $20,000 and provide tuition tax credits for college graduates who stay to work in state.

In the final planks of his platform, Comer said he’ll reduce government spending by 10 percent, provide an earned 10 percent income tax credit for families that make $100,000 or less and decrease Kentucky’s debt ratio to less than 6 percent in four years.

When asked how he’d pass his agenda through the Democratic-led state House, Comer said his experience in Frankfort would help him reach across the aisle.

“We can pass that plan through the General Assembly because we’ll get like-minded Democrats to vote with us on a proposal to move Kentucky forward and make Kentucky competitive again,” Comer said.

Comer was born and raised Tompkinsville in Monroe County, along the Tennessee border.

He owns a James Comer Jr. Farms and Comer Land & Cattle Co. in Tompkinsville, as well as farmland in Tompkinsville and northern Tennessee, according to his 2014 financial disclosure.

Comer was a director of South Central Bank in Tompkinsville for 12 years as well as the president of the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce from 1999-2000.

He graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1993 with a degree in agriculture. Comer is married to Tamara Jo Comer, who also grew up in Tompkinsville. They have three children.

This week, we’re profiling the Republican candidates for governor ahead of the May 19 primary election. Other profiles can be found here. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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