Kentucky Attorney General and Democratic nominee for governor Jack Conway
Kentucky Attorney General and Democratic nominee for governor Jack Conway | Photo by Joe Sonka

While the high-bidding auction of the Kentucky State Fair’s prize-winning ham is the main feature of the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s annual Ham Breakfast, another tradition is the red carpet of sorts that political candidates and officials walk to enter the event, taking questions from throngs of reporters.

Insider Louisville asked candidates for governor and attorney general questions about the death penalty, gun control, and a statewide fairness law barring discrimination against LGBT individuals — with proponents of the latter showing up in large numbers to protest Farm Bureau policies.

Death Penalty

Democratic attorney general candidate Andy Beshear told IL at Fancy Farm that he is a strong supporter of the death penalty, while state senator and Republican attorney general candidate Whitney Westerfield told IL at Thursday’s Ham Breakfast that he is “torn” by the issue because of his Christian faith.

“As a prosecutor I never had a capital case, and I would have taken one, I think, and carried it out without any concern,” said Westerfield. “And I’m still not prepared to abolish it, but I can’t deny that I have my own faith-based reasons for why I’m torn. I think you can find references in Scripture that tend to support both sides of the argument.”

State Senator and current Republican candidate for attorney general Whitney Westerfield
State senator and Republican candidate for attorney general Whitney Westerfield

Westerfield noted a 2011 American Bar Association report recommending a moratorium on the death penalty in Kentucky in order to correct serious flaws in the system, adding “I think there are some things in the ABA report from a couple of years ago that we could probably use in the books. And Sen. (Robin) Webb and I have talked back and forth about her version of that bill – some of which I don’t think is necessary, but some of which I could be behind. That’s still under debate in my own mind.”

Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd halted executions in Kentucky in 2010 due to concerns over the state’s three-drug lethal injection method. Death penalty inmates currently have a case before the same judge — facing off against current attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway’s office — challenging the constitutionality Kentucky’s protocol that cites botched executions in other states using lethal injections.

Asked if he has concerns about lethal injection, Westerfield said that “not being a chemist or a pharmacist, I can’t speak to the cocktail that they use. … Obviously, we’ll see how the legal action plays out, and the various arguments that are being fought there.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin refused to respond to a question asking if he supports the death penalty.

Gun Control

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in America on Wednesday, each of the candidates was peppered with questions asking if additional gun control legislation is needed to prevent guns from entering the hands of dangerously mentally ill individuals. In uniform, each candidate said additional background checks for the purchasing of guns is not necessary, saying the problem that needs to be addressed is mental illness.

“I’ve been very clear that we need to do a better job of tracking who’s mentally ill and who’s not,” said Conway. “But I don’t think there’s anything we need to do to change the laws to deal with that particular situation.”

Bevin also said he would not change any gun laws at this point, “because there’s no law that’s ever been proposed that would preclude what happened yesterday. Evil exists in the world, sadly. There is evil and we will never be able to put that in a box, we just won’t. This guy passed every background check, he went through every protocol that has been required. And unfortunately evil still prevails, and that will continue to be the case.”

Bevin added that he is a concealed carry gun owner and wishes someone like him had been at the site of the Virginia shooting to stop it.

Andy Beshear — the son of two-term Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear — concurred that “what we’re seeing isn’t a gun issue, it’s a mental health issue. And we have not addressed our mental health crisis in a meaningful way in the commonwealth.”

Andy Beshear, Democratic attorney general candidate and son of the governor
Andy Beshear, Democratic attorney general candidate and son of the governor

Asked if the state needed additional background checks for the purchase of guns online and at gun shows to weed out violent felons and those with serious mental illness, Beshear said that was not necessary.

“Well, I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” said Beshear. “There are already some laws in place as they relate to mental illness that are not necessarily either being enforced, or people are missing. I think the first thing we’ve got to do is make sure that all of those laws that are on the books that are designed to offer the maximums protections are being used and are being enforced.”

Westerfield concurred that such additional background checks are unnecessary.

“I think the mental health field in Kentucky has got to have more resources, because there are a lot of gaps,” said Westerfield. “I can’t think of a background check as something that I would add to Kentucky law right now.”

LGBT Fairness Law

Andy Beshear previously told IL he is undecided on a statewide fairness law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations due to gender identity and sexual orientation, and opponent Westerfield also said he is personally weighing the issue. He said he met with Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman — who was later one of three activists arrested at the Ham Breakfast for silently standing in protest of the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s anti-LGBT policies — to discuss the issue, and tried to give such a bill its first-ever Senate hearing this year.

“I think there are some valid arguments on both sides,” said Westerfield. “And I have some conflicts and questions myself, as a legislator, but as attorney general, if the legislature were to pass it, I’d enforce it, because that’s the job.”

Asked if enforcing such a law would violate people’s religious freedom to discriminate against LGBT individuals, Westerfield that was “too broad a question” and “it would just depend on what exactly (the bill) looks like.”

After defending the right of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs, IL asked Westerfield if he also would have the right to not enforce certain laws as attorney general if they violated his religious beliefs.

“I do,” said Westerfield, who added that he would enforce laws if even they went against his personal beliefs. “And I guess if I thought the state didn’t use its least restrictive means to meet a compelling interest, I suppose that right exists for everybody. But for the clerks we haven’t yet met the state’s part of that burden. We’ve got to show we’ve used the least restrictive means to issue marriage licenses, and we’re not.”

Though Westerfield criticized Conway for declining to appeal a judicial ruling striking down Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage, Beshear refused to say whether the attorney general made the right decision, adding “I don’t believe in Monday morning quarterbacking anyone.”

Asked by IL if voters deserve to know how he would have handled such an important decision, Beshear replied, “I don’t think it’s fair when you know what the final answer was by the Supreme Court to go back and criticize how anyone did their job. You had people who came at it from different ways. I do think we needed a final answer by the Supreme Court that had punted up until that point.”

Conway said Thursday that his decision not to pursue a costly and doomed-to-fail appeal “was born out in the end, but I’m not going to brag about it.”

Conway also reaffirmed his support for a statewide fairness law, saying “I don’t think we should allow any kind of discrimination in public accommodations. Fairness laws have worked well in Louisville, for example.”

Asked if he supported a statewide fairness law, Bevin replied “I’m at the state fair and I think it’s fantastic. I’m going to go eat some ham,” then walked away.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]