Since Thursday’s failed vote on Beshear’s gambling amendment, many around the Bluegrass and the Commonwealth have noted the sacrifice Damon Thayer made. They have lauded him for taking a stand, for crossing party lines, putting his reputation at risk, to co-sponsor the bill that could — as the argument goes — save the thoroughbred industry.
But is Damon Thayer deserving of this praise?
Or did Damon Thayer outplay everyone, working both sides to achieve his own ends?
The Paulick Report pronounced Damon a “Winner” in the 2012 Gambling battle, writing:
Since the beginning of 2012, no one has laid it on the line politically like Sen. Thayer. The horse industry destroyed him just a few years ago for not going along with a statutory approach to expanded gaming. And yet, he stood up to immense pressure from his own Republican caucus and right-wing base of supporters to bring forth the constitutional amendment bill he promised the industry when he first ran for office.
Let’s take a closer look at what Damon Thayer has done — and how he’s done it — since the beginning of 2012.
Thayer hails from Georgetown, just across Fayette County’s border. He represents Scott, Owen, Grant and Kenton Counties. A Kentucky Colonel (who isn’t?), he is a member of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce, the NRA and Kentucky Right to Life.
He is the Chair of the Senate standing committee on State and Local Government and in that capacity he was in charge of the Senate’s redistricting process. The map Thayer drew, ruled unconstitutional on Friday by the Kentucky Supreme Court, removed Fayette County Senator Kathy Stein from office, relocating her 13th District seat to Northeastern Kentucky and replacing her with a Senator from a county three hours drive to the West.
After this plan was announced on January 18th, the Herald-Leader reported:
Senate State and Local Government Chairman Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said moving Stein out of Fayette County was not political retaliation. The move was necessary to redraw Senate district lines to reflect the state’s shifting population, he said.
….Thayer did not answer a reporter when asked if Williams had ordered that Stein’s district be moved because of a vendetta. Stein said she was glad that Thayer at least did not lie. Williams later said he did not direct Thayer to move Stein’s district.
Upon signing the unconstitutional Senate and House redistricting maps into short-lived law on January 20th, Governor Beshear expressed unguarded skepticism about Thayer/Williams’ claim of a lack of coordination:
Beshear blasted Williams, accusing him of personally ordering Stein’s district to be moved. “The action directed by the Senate president to move Senator Kathy Stein’s district in Lexington to northeast Kentucky in order to keep her from being able to run for re-election, and moving Western Kentucky Sen. Dorsey Ridley’s district to Lexington, goes beyond partisanship. It reflects a personal vindictiveness that should have no place in this process.”
Political observers across the spectrum recognized that Williams and Thayer had worked together to craft the Senate redistricting map, in part a retaliation for the Democrat-controlled House plan which disenfranchised several Republican representatives, in part to settle partisan grudges and flex political muscle.
Days after the Governor signed the Thayer/Williams redistricting map into law, the Herald reported that Thayer would cross party lines to sponsor the Casino Gambling Amendment:
Senate State and Local Government chairman Damon Thayer of Georgetown said Wednesday he was “strongly leaning” toward sponsoring Gov. Steve Beshear’s constitutional amendment to expand gambling.
….Thayer said Williams “has said publicly and told me privately that he will not stand in the way of a constitutional amendment coming to a vote in the Senate. I have no reason not to take him at his word.”
Indeed Thayer did support the amendment, appearing with Beshear to introduce it and then pushing it out of his own State and Local Government Senate Committee for the full, and failed, Senate vote.
After that Senate vote failed, Thayer explained to reporters his conflicted position on gambling:
Thayer, a horse industry proponent and former racing executive, said after the vote he believes a constitutional amendment is the only way to address the issue. He noted he opposed gaming-via-statute legislation a few years ago. “I paid the price for that but I was able to look myself in the mirror, and I can look myself in the mirror now,” Thayer said. “Other states have done (expanded gambling) by statute, but it is wrong. I’m not afraid to give people the opportunity to decide this issue. This is a democracy.”
Thayer was against casino gambling before he was for it but even when he was for it, Damon Thayer was never really in favor of it. He just wanted to let the voters decide.
That’s the Damon Thayer narrative this time around.
Just like last time, Thayer doesn’t actually support gambling but this time he professed to support the peoples’ vote.
That’s a nuanced position and any in the horse industry or in the state who wish to laud Thayer for trying should take a moment to fully consider Thayer’s actual purpose.
Thayer’s strategy allowed Damon Thayer to
- Represent the horse interests of Scott County.
- Represent the anti-gambling interests of the increasingly conservative voters of the rest of his Northern Kentucky district.
- Put forward the vote under veil of giving voters what they wanted.
- Coordinate the Senate vote’s timing with Senate Prez David Williams.
- Ultimately lead the Bill into Williams’ buzzsaw.
- Weaken the Governor.
- Strengthen his own political position with both sides.
This positioning creates political capital with both sides. For the far right religious voters who opposed gambling on a Biblical premise, Thayer delivers a CYA under guise of “letting people decide.” For anyone on the inside of the KY GOP, word is whispered out that Thayer is very much on their team — as he has always been in the past — and acted out of expediency to his horse constituency while strengthening his overall statewide position.
Thayer is not pro-gambling. Thayer saw polls from the horse industry and from the Republican Party which showed a wide majority of Kentucky voters wanted to vote directly on the initiative (regardless of their support or opposition to it). Thayer presents himself as someone who has opposed gambling in the past but wishes to let the people decide this time while simultaneously planning with Williams a way to kill the bill, keep people from ultimately voting and, in the process, weaken the Governor. No gambling, no problem. A win/win.
Thayer’s committee passed the bill on Wednesday. On Thursday, David Williams announced he would bring it to a vote even though he knew full-well three “Yes” votes (all Democrats) would not be in attendance.
Ultimately, two of those three hastily re-scheduled and made it to Frankfort but the third “Yes” remained unavailable.
The bill needed 23 votes to carry. Given the divisivness of the issue and the prolonged madness of the ultimately failed Thayer/Williams/Stumbo/Beshear redistricting mess, a handful of votes remained in the balance. Senators were hesitant to take a stand one way or another without knowing what district and which voters they would be voting to represent and down the road seeking re-election from (and in this way, Thayer could be given credit for killing the bill twice, if you’re willing to acknowledge it).
Beshear said he had 23 votes. Thayer said there were 23 votes. One of those is at worst wishful thinking while the other is at best being honest.
In the middle, perhaps, there is truth.
Still unsure of their ultimate electoral districts (thanks, again, to the T/W/S/B redistricting debacle) the swing Senators who could vote Yay or could vote Nay on casino gambling and thus could account for the needed 23 were further compromised by David Williams move to force the vote on Thursday, when three of the 23 needed Yes votes were unavailable.
Even after two of those Yesses showed up, one was still missing. While some have stressed the wide margin of the eventual vote — 16 to 21 — as evidence the votes were never there to begin with, another explanation is that the missing six voters were holding out for the assurance of victory.
If the Governor could guarantee 23 votes, perhaps he could have gotten 23 votes.
As it happened, David Williams scheduled the vote on a day he knew there would not be enough votes. Williams assured there would be at best 22 votes given one Senator’s pre-established absence. The six swing-Senators then would be voting for a failing amendment and putting their own chances for re-election on the line for a failing vote.
Thayer passed the bill out of Committee on Wednesday. Williams called it to the floor on Thursday knowing it couldn’t get 23 votes. After the bill was voted down, Thayer expressed regret and extended congratulations:
Soon after the proposed constitutional amendment to allow gambling failed in the Senate by a 16-21 votes, Republican Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown, who sponsored the casino bill, congratulated Senate President David Williams of Burkesville for “orchestrating” the measure’s defeat.
“I certainly thought that that was a cheap shot that was taken this morning in the newspapers about Senator Thayer,” Beshear, a Democrat, said during a news conference after an event in the Capitol Rotunda. “He’s a fellow of integrity, and he is doing what he thinks is right in sponsoring this amendment to let people vote on it.”He implied that Williams, R-Burkesville, was behind the story and said it is “certainly further evidence of intimidation by Senator Williams and others who are against this amendment. I think it’s very clear that that’s the case.”
Again, Thayer is not in favor of gambling but he is in favor of the horse industry. That’s a good place to be politically for someone with ambitions for even higher office.
In the Gubernatorial election of 2011, Beshear trounced Williams and the theory went the Governor was trying to run up the numbers (thus, his tax task force was not a policy platform but an afterthought) in order to not only defeat Williams at the polls but render him impotent and unelectable again as Senate President.
Beshear did defeat Williams but Williams retained control over the Senate Republicans:
Williams, a Burkesville Republican who has headed the Senate since 2000, said after a retreat Thursday for Senate Republicans that there would be no leadership changes in the Senate.
He said no Republican leader faced a challenge.
There was speculation that there might be a challenge to Williams’ leadership, given Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s resounding victory over Williams in the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election.
Some thought Williams could be a liability for Republican candidates in the 2012 elections, when half of the Senate’s 38 seats will be up for grabs.
The Republican Party of Kentucky is powerful and forward looking. On the national level, they have foisted the nation’s most powerful Senator, Mitch McConnell, the nation’s leading Tea Party voice, Rand Paul, the holder of the nation’s pursestrings, Hal Rogers, and a trio of powerful Congressmen who control the national policy on environment unprotection and “job creation” — Whitfield, Gutrhie and Davis.
With his backhanded support of the Democratic Governor’s gambling bill, Thayer is attempting to take that mantel.
The Senate Republican caucus’ decision to keep Williams as President was not an endorsement of Dave’s job performance but a recognition of reality: Governor Beshear has four (right?) more years in office, he can’t run again which makes 2015 a clean slate struggle between the two parties. Better to have an established villain perform the task of obfuscater than run, again, someone so easily lampooned as the reason nothing gets done in Frankfort.
So David Williams carries on as bad guy and the Republicans around him jostle for position.
Who can it be now?
Damon Thayer opposed gambling in the past.
This year, in 2012, he did David Williams’ bidding on the failed redistricting bill.
Then he took a “brave” stance across party lines by sponsoring not the idea of casino gambling but the idea Kentucky voters should be able to vote it down themselves.
He worked alongside Williams on the unconstitutional disenfranchisement map. Why would you think he didn’t do the same on gambling?
He passed it out of committee on Wednesday. Williams took it to a vote on Thursday when everyone knew there weren’t enough votes.
Gambling died. Will the thorougbred industry?
Will Damon Thayer get the credit he deserves?