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KET Election Coverage  

A Conversation with Ben Chandler

Watch the Video This interview with Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler, Democratic candidate for governor, was taped in October 2003. The interviewer is Bill Goodman, host of KET’s election coverage.

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Goodman: Welcome.

Chandler: Thank you, Bill. Good to be with you.

Goodman: Tell me why you want to be governor and when you decided to run.

Chandler: Well, Bill, I have always been around public service throughout my life—my family has been involved in it—and I have just been of the belief throughout my life that public service is the best way to make a contribution, to make a difference in the lives of your fellow man. And that’s why I’m interested in running for governor: because I truly want to make a contribution, to move this state forward. This state where I was born, where I live by choice, [is] a state that I care a great deal about, and the people of this state I care a great deal about. I want to see it do well; I want it to prosper. I want our young people to have opportunities here. I just really, really want to be a part of moving this state forward.

Goodman: Is this something that—the office of governor—that you’ve sought for years because of this political background that you have? Or is this something that you really got serious about in the last, say, decade or so?

Chandler: Well, yes, the latter. It’s not something that I sought all my life by any means. In fact, I wanted to be a baseball player when I was coming up, but I ran into this thing called a curve ball and, uh, I went another path. But I got a law degree at the University of Kentucky, and I have been involved in a number of other things. I also wanted at one point to be a history professor, and I still may someday go after that goal. But only in the last several years have I really felt like this was an area that I wanted to proceed to. And I’ve come to that conclusion because when I got elected to public office, I really did enjoy public service. It was something that gave me a great deal of fulfillment. And I hope I get the chance to continue.

Goodman: Talk to me about your fundamental political philosophy and the role of state government.

Chandler: Well, as far as the role of state government is concerned, I fundamentally believe that government has a very important role. It has a very important role in the lives of our people; it is how we as a society get together to do the things that are beneficial to all of us. You know, it’s how we provide the services that people need and want. It’s obviously how we educate ourselves. It’s the main tool that we use to educate our people, to build our roads, to have a criminal justice system, and I believe that government is very important. Now, obviously it has to be run properly. It has to be run with integrity, with accountability, and we want to elect people, I think, that can cause the citizens of our state to have faith in their government. That’s a critical element of it, in my judgment, is that people have faith in their government so it can do—so it can be effective and do those things that we want it to do.

Goodman: You’ve named some services, but name for me, in some priority order, three important functions of state government.

Chandler: Well, there’s so many functions of government that are important ... Again, the criminal justice function, the housing of prisoners, is one of the critical functions, but I think education is truly critical. We’ve got to educate our people. It’s what moves our society forward: how well our people are educated and prepared for the future and prepared for the jobs of the future. Creating jobs is another function of the government that I think has increasingly become important in the last several years. There are other kinds of programs, too, that are absolutely critical, like Medicaid—programs for the least fortunate of our citizens. I would put that up near the top also, as we have got to use government to take care of those citizens in our society who are most vulnerable. It says a great deal of us as a people how we treat and take care of our most vulnerable citizens.

Goodman: We know that there are policies and practices in state government that you would probably do away with, but the question is, are there some of those services that you think should be eliminated? I guess in other words, is state government in the business of providing some services that the state government should not be in the business of doing?

Chandler: Well, I mean certainly government ought not be in the business of doing everything. We need to be careful about making government not be too large. We don’t want it to give the people of our state the notion that it will cure every ill, because certainly it will not cure every ill. What it needs to be is a catalyst; it needs to push people, push them forward to do the things that they need to do in their lives, to the extent that it can. I just believe that government is ... It is extremely important. We ought not be demonizing it all the time. You know, you hear about all these scandals, all these folks in government who’ve done things that are not appropriate or right—that’s a shame because that causes people to lose faith in government, and it ultimately causes us as citizens to demonize our government. But the government is extremely important. The public sector is extremely important, and it’s a very important complement to the private sector, to the people who are out there creating jobs, working in their own businesses.

Goodman: State government, of course, needs revenue to function, and that leads us to the conversation about taxation. Give me, if you can, your fundamental philosophy on taxation.

Chandler: Well, obviously you have to have taxes in order to run a government. And we do have a number of taxes on the books. We have sales taxes, we have property taxes, we have ... A variety of local governments have occupational taxes. There are just a whole variety of taxes. I believe that we never should tax more than is absolutely necessary. And I believe the first goal of any leader of any governmental entity is to be run efficiently. You’ve got to run a government efficiently. And only when you do that and demonstrate that you are running the entity efficiently are you ultimately even able to go to the public and ask for more revenue in the form of taxes. But I think that’s the last place that you go is to raise people’s taxes, because I’m not sure that it helps the economy, either. The more money you’ve got in private enterprise ... That really is sort of the basis of our system. The more money you have got in private enterprise, the better. But you’ve still got to have enough to fund those important pieces of government that, you know, help your vulnerable citizens do the things that you want to do.

Goodman: And you may have already partially answered this, but I’m interested in what you think makes a system of taxation fair or adequate or appropriate, for example.

Chandler: Well, I mean that’s a matter of opinion, of course, and it always will be a matter of opinion. But I believe that the burden, the heavier burden, ought to be on those people who can afford it—those people who can pay the most. And the lightest burden ought to be on those people who have all they can do to make it. And that’s one of the problems we have with our Kentucky tax system right now. I believe that we tax our poorer citizens at a rate that is beyond where we ought to have it. And when you look at us compared to other states, you will see that that’s the case.

Goodman: How should state government address that problem of taxation of the poor?

Chandler: Well, I believe we’ve got to have a a complete review of it very soon. I’d like to see it happen in the next session or in a special session, but I believe that we’ve got to have a complete review of and a complete overhaul and modernization of our tax system. I think it’s very important that we do that, with an eye toward addressing this problem of our least wealthy citizens paying too much. And another problem we need to address is making sure that we’ve got the kind of business environment, the kind of tax system, that, uh, incentivizes our businesses to produce more.

Goodman: Would you say, or can you name, the taxes that are good, taxes that are bad? Is it that simple?

Chandler: Well, it’s not that simple. I generally believe that the better taxes are the taxes that are non-regressive—the taxes that fall more heavily, again, on the wealthy segment of our society because they can afford to pay. They ... And we’ve got to ... The more people that you can have that of in our society, who have money in their pockets and can be consumers in our type of system, the better off you are and the better off, ultimately, your economy will be. We’ve got to have everybody ... Everybody must contribute and be a part of this consumer economy. And to the extent that we tax our poorer people higher, they have less ability to participate.

Goodman: Back to your political philosophy: Talk to me a little bit about what you think the basic differences are between Democrats and Republicans.

Chandler: Well, I’ve always believed that Democrats are ... I really talked about that a little bit, to tell you the truth. I think Democrats really do believe that everybody ought to have the ability to participate in society, in the economy, in a meaningful way. And Democrats believe that the economy works better when more people are participating. I think you are seeing now with some of the Republican policies that they favor policies that end up causing more of a gap between the wealthiest folks in our society and the poorer folks in our society. And you see, you tend, when Republicans are in power, you tend to have a lessening of the middle class, a smaller middle class. And I believe the general Democratic philosophy moves toward widening the participation in the middle class.

Goodman: What about the differences when it comes to the so-called social issues? Differences there between Democrats and Republicans?

Chandler: Well, I think that really is ... It depends on the individual. It depends on the individual, how they are raised, what their views are personally.

Goodman: Well, what about, for example, let’s just say pro-life/pro-choice, the Ten Commandments and separation of church and state, the Ten Commandments in classrooms and courtrooms, or the death penalty, for example. Do you see ...

Chandler: Where do you want me to start with all that?

Goodman: Either one of those. Choose one.

Chandler: Well, I am ... Let’s start out with the death penalty. I am pro-death penalty, but I do think it needs to be done in a just fashion. And I think we need to do everything that we can to be just. On abortion: I am very ... Now I am pro-choice on abortion, only because that’s a label that is placed up on me. How I really feel about it, and I’ve always felt this way, is that we ought to, and I think it’s very appropriate for us as a society, to do what we can to reduce the number of abortions in our society. I think that is a good policy. There is nothing about an abortion that is good, and we ought to have as few of them as we possibly can. And I’m a strong advocate of making adoption more available. I’m a strong advocate of education to make sure that people who find themselves in those circumstances have all of the options available to them; they are aware of the options. But at the same time, I don’t think you get to the ultimate goal of reducing abortions by simply outlawing them and keeping—preventing a woman from having the ability to make a choice.

Goodman: Along those lines of social issues ... I’m sure you’ve heard this during the campaign—you’ve read this, as I have—that in Kentucky the two parties are closer than they ever have been as far as philosophy is concerned, and even the candidates at times have sounded like they are speaking from the same voice. Do you think this confuses voters to some degree?

Chandler: I don’t know that it confuses voters. I ... You know, we have always, I think, had a situation where Democrats in Kentucky have been rather conservative. We are generally a conservative state, and Democrats in Kentucky have tended to be much more conservative than many Democrats in the rest of the country. And that’s not just the case in Kentucky; it’s the case generally in the Southern part, Southeastern part of the United States. And I think that just reflects the values of the people that we represent as much as anything, and the system and society that we’ve grown up in in these Southern states.

Goodman: Who in political life, either past or present, do you most closely identify with when it comes to political philosophy?

Chandler: Well, oddly enough ... I tell you, what’s interesting about that ... I think that maybe my, the figure that I admire as much as any other political figure in history is a Republican. And that’s Theodore Roosevelt. I just think that Teddy Roosevelt was one of the greatest figures: He was a man of action, he was a man of courage, he had no fear, yet he was a great family man. He had incredible energy; he did so many different things. He was a Renaissance man, he was a man of letters, he wrote books, histories. He was very very well educated, and yet he was a conservationist—he started our national parks system, really—and he was a man of heart. He had a great heart about him, a great compassion. You don’t ... Frankly, I don’t think you see too many Teddy Roosevelt Republicans these days, and I’m of the belief that if Teddy Roosevelt were around today, he’d just about have to be a Democrat.

Goodman: Along those same lines, who do you most admire, either past or present, not politically, but just ... Name me another person in political life that you like; that you feel some kinship with.

Chandler: Well, I like the people who promote the idea of tolerance—the idea of bringing people together, the idea of peace instead ... The people I don’t like are the people who are particularly divisive, particularly on social issues, and try to separate groups of people. I like the people who try to bring society together, and the kinds of people that come to mind to me are people like Martin Luther King Jr., people like Mahatma Gandhi in India. Those types of people I think are to be greatly admired.

Goodman: Now, you mentioned Roosevelt, and I know you’ve read quite a lot about him and studied him. But other than Roosevelt, a member of the opposite party that you also admire?

Chandler: Well now, that’s not fair, because I already picked somebody of the opposite party [laughs]. I’ll tell you, somebody in this state who I admired from the opposite party is John Sherman Cooper. And I think John Sherman Cooper had a lot of those same attributes that Theodore Roosevelt had: He was much more of a moderate Republican, he was a man of peace, and just a very, very decent man. Everything I knew about him, and I knew him fairly well ... I just think he was a wonderful, very admirable man.

Goodman: A university business professor might want me to ask you about your management style.

Chandler: Well, my management style is one of, I guess you could say, picking good people. I think that’s the critical thing. You choose good people and then you let them do their jobs. I believe in giving an overall tone, an overall leadership tone. I believe in working very hard, leading by example, giving the kind of moral tone, energetic tone, to an administration. But I think it’s absolutely critical that you pick people of integrity, people of competence, who really have the ability to get the job done, and then you let them do their job. You don’t get in and interfere with them on a daily basis. You use wide parameters but you let them do their jobs.

Goodman: Are there other qualities—or experience, for that matter—that you would look for in the people that you would surround yourself with in your administration? Backgrounds that you would have studied?

Chandler: Well, again, I think that competence is critical, and you want to look at the particular roles that you would have in mind for somebody. For instance, if you wanted to put somebody in charge of the Families and Children Cabinet, I think you would want somebody with a great deal of compassion, somebody who really wanted to make sure that the services were being provided to our most vulnerable citizens and that that was being done adequately, fairly. That’s the kind of attribute, but ultimately it depends on which particular role that you are talking about. I think that in the Finance Cabinet, for instance, you want somebody who knows a little bit about budget, a whole lot about finances, you know. It just ...

Goodman: You would look outside of the current administration, or persons who have been there for a number of years? You would look for new faces?

Chandler: Well, certainly. Certainly I would look for new faces.

Goodman: As well as old faces.

Chandler: I would put everything on the table. I’m not going to knock anything out. I just believe that you need ... I think you need a good blend. I think you need some enthusiasm: You need to mix in some folks who really want to come in and shake things up, change things around, and it needs to be tempered with people who have had some experience. You’ve got to have ... Everything in life, I believe, to be effective, has to be balanced. You ... I would look for balance, because I just think that if you are not moderate in what you do, you end up getting in trouble one way or the other.

Goodman: Now, outside of work and family and politics, I think people would like to know what you do for fun, leisure activities.

Chandler: Well, I read a lot. I read a lot, I hike, I love to spend time walking around the farm. We have two border collies, and my wife, Jennifer, and I have three children—they are 10, 8, and 5—and anytime that I can find some spare time, the dogs and the kids and I, we take off around the farm and have a great time doing it. It relaxes us tremendously. I play a lot of tennis, although I haven’t been able to lately; I’ll tell you that. And I read; I read history a great deal. And I love to travel: Any chance that I get to travel, I do so. And when I travel, I don’t go on vacation, so to speak—I go on trips. You know, that’s what I tend to do. I tend to travel to places where I can learn, where I can see things. I am much more of a tourist than I am a vacationer, if you understand what I mean.

Goodman: Certainly. Tell me something about yourself that might surprise people.

Chandler: Let’s see ... I know the capitals of every country in the world [laughs]. That might surprise people.

Goodman: I wish I knew them well enough to quiz you on those. How about Moldavia?

Chandler: Well now, that doesn’t count, because that’s a new country.

Goodman: [laughs]

Chandler: That’s a new country.

Goodman: It’s just because we had a group of journalists here visiting with us; that’s the only reason I said that.

Chandler: I can tell you the country right next to it: Romania.

Goodman: Uh huh.

Chandler: Bucharest.

Goodman: Good.

Chandler: Uh ...

Goodman: You pass.

Chandler: And it ...

Goodman: No more of that.

Chandler: [laughs] At any rate, that’s something that people probably don’t know about me, is that my head is filled with all sorts of little facts and figures that are not terribly important. Trivia, I think you would call it.

Goodman: Do you have a favorite quotation or credo or even fable that you could share with us?

Chandler: Well, the ... And this may sound a little trite, because I have already talked about him quite a bit, but the quotation of Teddy Roosevelt that “the credit belongs to the person who’s in the arena and all marred with dust and sweat.” I love that quotation; I just think it’s a ... Life is about participation. I believe in being a participator rather than an—no offense to you, because I’m sure that you participate a lot—but I would rather be a participator and get in and slug it out and try to make things happen than to stay on the sidelines and watch.

Goodman: Describe for me, if you will, the Kentucky that you see and want to see a decade or two from now.

Chandler: This is, in my judgment, one of the most special places on this Earth. I think it’s gorgeous; I think it’s a ... The people here are special: They are friendlier, I think, than most people that I have run across in the world. I want to see us take care of our natural resources. I want to see us have a state that will attract all kinds of tourists to it because it’s a special place, because it has been well taken care of, well maintained. And the people will want to come here because of the great beauty of it. And of course, the benefit that we get out of that is a tremendous environment in which to live. And I think we have got those possibilities here in Kentucky.

I also think that we need to balance that with new jobs, with prosperity, with the [economy] here in Kentucky. My granddad ... And it’s a balancing act to do those two things: to take care [of] and maintain those things that we cherish in Kentucky and at the same time grow and prosper. There is a real challenge, and it requires a great deal of planning. But I think we can do it. I think that we want a place where our people can stay here, can have the opportunity. My granddaddy [Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler], who served in public office for quite some time, used to say that he could go all around the country and he never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t coming home. And that’s how Kentuckians feel about this state: We are all fiercely loyal to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. We love it devotedly. I think most of us want to stay here. I really do. And those that have to leave have left because—they didn’t want to—because they didn’t have the opportunity to stay here, and they’d love to come back. And I’d like to have helped create that kind of environment where that opportunity exists, yet we have a wonderful environment, a wonderful quality of life here.

Goodman: If elected, and after you’ve served in office, how would you like to be remembered?

Chandler: I would like to be remembered in a number of ways. I’d like to be remembered as somebody who had courage, who did not care whether everybody liked him, but somebody who did what he thought was right. Every time he faced a decision, he made the decision that he thought was right for all of the people of Kentucky. And ultimately I want everybody to look on me as somebody who believed in the notion of stewardship, the notion of leaving something behind for those who come after me—bettering this place because I have traveled this way. I want to make a mark on the Commonwealth of Kentucky that people in the future would look back and say, “You know, it was a good thing that we had him as our governor, because he did some things that made our lives better, that improved our life.”

Goodman: We just have a few seconds left and a final question. A lot of people have tried this; a lot of people have run for office. Why do you think you are the right person at the right time to achieve the goal that you have set out to achieve?

Chandler: I just believe that I have such a desire in my heart to affect this wonderful Commonwealth and these wonderful people who live here. I want so badly to make a difference for the people in this state that I love deeply, and I ... That desire, coupled with a courage that I have shown as state auditor and as attorney general—I believe you put that together and you have got somebody who really wants to do the right thing and has the courage, the nerve, to go about the business of doing it.

Goodman: Thank you for talking with us.

Chandler: Thank you for having me, Bill.

Goodman: And thank you for watching. For KET, I’m Bill Goodman.

Election 2003: A Conversation with Ben Chandler is a KET production, produced by Bill Goodman and directed by Carl Babcock. The executive producer for KET’s election coverage and other public affairs programs is Donna Moore.

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