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KET Election Coverage  

A Conversation with Ernie Fletcher

Watch the Video This interview with U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher, Republican 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. And just to start off with, tell me why you want to be governor and when you decided to run.

Fletcher: You know, people, Bill, had encouraged me for several years to take a look at this race because I ... There are a lot of people, both Republicans and Democrats, that felt like we needed new leadership. They had seen how I serve constituents in the 6th District in Congress and they liked that leadership, and they encouraged me to take a look at it.

And the real reason: When you begin to look at Kentucky, we have some of the finest people in the world, Bill, and a lot of resources and beautiful state, and yet we languish behind so many states when we shouldn’t. [We’re] still the sixth-poorest state, 49th in education level of residents, 49th in the education level of women with bachelor’s degree, 42nd in attracting New Economy jobs. And as Glenna, my wife, and I started traveling around this state in our exploratory, we started looking. People are hungering and thirsting for new leadership. We have great people with a great spirit, strong worth ethic, and we felt like they deserve better—that we can actually do better and make a bigger difference than what I’m doing in Congress to help people improve lives of Kentuckians. I tell you, the more we traveled, the more we get out, the more passionate we get about the changes that we can make in Frankfort to improve the lives of every Kentuckian.

Goodman: Well, talk to me about fundamental political philosophy and the role of state government.

Fletcher: Well, what I believe is that government should be there to serve the people. You know, when I first got into this, in the political career, I didn’t plan on it. I was practicing medicine, and I saw a young lady, a single mom, and I talked to her about getting out, improving her education—getting out into the workplace and getting a job where she could begin to look and focus on her life and what she wanted to do in the future. And she said, “You know, Dr. Fletcher, if I go out and do that, I lose health care; I will lose my welfare benefits.” This was back in the early ’90s. And I said, “What kind of government captures people in the cycle of dependency?” Government should create an environment that empowers people, that gives people the possibility to be all they can be. It needs to be run efficiently so that we don’t waste tax dollars. And state government, I think, is critical for making sure we provide opportunities for Kentuckians. That means education, that means more affordable health care, and that means more jobs and economic opportunity. And it should be a government that we can be proud of and trust.

Goodman: Well, along those lines ... Name for me, if you will, in priority order, three important functions that state government should provide for citizens.

Fletcher: Well, you know, first and foremost, you ought to have people there that provide the kind of integrity and transparency so that the people of Kentucky know they can trust their state government. We have the responsibility of security, clearly, government does, and that is a primary responsibility. But when you look at what government should be doing ... Government doesn’t, in the sense, give a life to an individual; but what it does is create an environment, jobs, opportunity, attract the kind of businesses, make sure that our young; talented folks can stay here and those that have left can come home. So I think that’s important. And then education, and that rolls right into economic opportunity because they’ve got to provide just a top-notch education. We made great improvements [but] we still have a long way to go, Bill, and that’s an area. And then affordable health care and accessible, available health care. We have ... You know, we are forcing seniors out of the nursing home; we shouldn’t be doing that. That’s poor policy and a lack of planning years ago that pushed us into a budgetary problem. We’ve made these kind of reflex reactions that shouldn’t have occurred. And where we’ve released prisoners early to balance the budget ... When we were free-spending during those years, we should have been growing the economy more, doing some things so that we wouldn’t have had to have those kinds of policies. So those are really the major priorities that I see state government needs to be doing and doing a much better job.

Goodman: We know that there are policies and practices in state government that you would change; you’ve talked about those. But are there services that should be eliminated? In other words, what in state government ... is state government not to be in the business of doing?

Fletcher: Well, you know, when you look at what state government is doing, I think it’s not the fact that we are probably providing services that we shouldn’t be. It’s how efficiently are we providing those services? Let me give you an illustration. We have Medicaid patients that are filling over 100 prescriptions a month. Now, that’s not good for the patient. As a physician, I can’t imagine any medical condition where that would happen. Secondly, we ... In that situation we’re just paying out reimbursements and we’re not providing disease management, so we are poorly managing that program. It doesn’t provide efficient—and I don’t think effective—health care. So that’s one of the areas I think that we need to improve.

The other is our achievement gap in education. We focused on the process; we’ve got to focus on the child—identifying the children. Even in our testing, we test in general, and we evaluate schools and teachers, but we don’t evaluate the students particularly. And what I want to do in our Read To Achieve program is identify the children that are having a problem reading and make sure that they get all the attention they can so that they can read on grade level by the end of the 3rd grade. So it’s not that we’re delivering, probably, too much in a lot of areas. We might be, and we are going to review every single program and see if there [are] some duplicate services, I’m sure. But the fact of the matter is, we have some glaring examples of inefficiency that need to be corrected.

Goodman: So after you would look at those programs, then you might decide which services might not be needed—might need to be eliminated?

Fletcher: Oh, I think there is no question: What we want to do is bring in new leadership and decentralize a little bit. I want to make sure that our cabinet secretaries have the authority to go in and review and know that we are going to listen and look to their leadership, because we want to bring in some of the top-notch people in the state—people that really can contribute in public service. Not people that need a job, but people that want to do a job to help Kentuckians. Redo every single program, all the expenditures, and make sure we deliver value for the taxpayers in Kentucky, because I think we can do better. Other states do better, and I believe, Bill, we need a real change to do better.

Goodman: State government needs revenue to function, and that always leads us to a discussion about taxes. Tell me about your fundamental tax philosophy.

Fletcher: Well, first off, [what] you have got to get back is that I don’t think we tax too little; I think we spend too much. We ... When you look at the surrounding states, we tax more than every surrounding state except West Virginia. And we don’t deliver the value of the tax dollar. So what we need to do is, first off, just reduce the bureaucracy and the spending and make our programs more efficient. I think we can do that. We can do it and increase our funding locally on education by stopping the waste, the fraud, the abuse that’s been going on. And you look at the Department of Transportation, what’s happening there, and make sure that we get more into the communities where it belongs.

I think we need tax modernization. Our tax system is based on the old economy; now we have a window of opportunity in the Office of New Economy talks about this with Bill Brundage. We have probably a few years. We have some advantages in biotechnology that we haven’t taken advantage of with our major universities. If we have a tax system that attracts human capital rather than looking at the old economy, then I think we can begin to grow that economy, get a federal research lab. So the tax system I want to look [at] is one that attracts human capital, that grows with the economy and has what we call elasticity—but it grows with the economy so we can provide the infrastructure. We can build the bridges and the roads and the airports and things that we need, and broadband. We haven’t done that sufficiently. So we’ve got to have a tax system that grows with the economy. And we also tax the poor higher than most states. And I think we need to reduce the burden on those low-income. That will free them to be able to afford more and to do more, and certainly that will go back into the economy as well.

Goodman: So overall, philosophically, talk a little bit more about your thoughts on taxation. For example, what taxes are fair, appropriate to levy?

Fletcher: Well, I think we have a tax system ... It’s just a matter that we have got to look and make sure it is a little more equitable—that it’s not so regressive, which we have. I think, you know, to be able to put together a tax modernization package is going to be extremely difficult. That’s why it hasn’t been done. But I think we have the opportunity now because of the budgetary concerns and because we are in such a position that people are saying we need to make some bold changes. But you know, to lay out specifically what you are going to do at this point, Bill, I think would impair, almost make it impossible, for us to be able to get it done, because you would have people immediately looking and targeting particular areas and special interests coming in. But here’s the way it needs to be done—and I have been very good at building coalitions and working with both Democrats and Republicans; I’ve done that—and that’s to bring them together. Get both, the leadership [of] both houses, vested in this thing, and say, “Let’s bring everything to the table and look.” And if it’s the cigarette tax you bring to the table, bring it to the table. If it’s some other taxes, bring that to the table. Bottom line, though: I’m not going to increase taxes overall. We want to make sure that it’s revenue-neutral and that we don’t increase taxes, because we don’t tax too little. Again I say, we spend too much in the state.

Goodman: You have said that you wouldn’t look at stand-alone taxes, either—that you would ... They would be all encompassed in a tax reform package of some sort. Can you name, again, taxes that are good or taxes that are bad?

Fletcher: Well, you know, the taxes that are good and taxes that are bad depend on what package it’s in. Let me say that. Taxes that increase the burden on low-income individuals I have some concerns about. And people have asked, well, you know, to improve health let’s increase [the] cigarette tax. Well, that’s a tax on the poor. Now if that’s going to be considered, we’ve got to make sure we reduce the tax on the poor to make sure that we’re not having an increase in regressivity of our taxes or that in fact we are not taxing the poor more. So I think taxes are fair, when you look at them [and see] that they create economic opportunity for every Kentuckian. And that’s the approach I want to take. It’s got to be an overall strategy. If you get bogged down in the little specific things, then you miss sight of the goal, and that’s to grow the economy and create an environment for job creation in this state.

Goodman: You mentioned the poor and the disadvantaged. How best can state government address the problems there? Is it in that overall look at taxation?

Fletcher: Well, I think taxation is important, because when you are going out to recruit jobs, you’ve got to have a tax system that, again, attracts the best and brightest, because they’re creating knowledge-based economy jobs. The other thing ... There are two other things that are critical—actually three, but two that are very essential. One, you know with our community colleges now, we’ve had some great gains in post-secondary education, or higher education. We want an educated workforce, and we have got to make sure we have got individuals prepared for that. So our Read To Achieve helps tremendously, because that will reduce the dropouts substantially. Then you have several tracks that you allow students to go into, and some of the technical areas ... Students find that that’s where they want to go, but they are often given the impression that if they don’t go into a four-year college, there is no future for them, and that's wrong. We can prepare a workforce by making sure that they know there are other avenues. Start back with making sure everyone can learn to read. Doing that, then you’ve got a prepared workforce. Then when we provide our incentives for jobs that offer 125 percent of the average county wage, those jobs are available. That’s worked very well in Iowa. So it’s a combination of that and bringing down our health insurance premiums through competition as well so we can attract business.

Goodman: You mentioned the Republicans and Democrats a minute ago. What are your fundamental thoughts on the differences between Republicans and Democrats?

Fletcher: Well, you know it’s in transition. I think Reagan, you know, was a Democrat at one time, but he said they kind of left him. And I think there is no question, when you look at the leadership, the difference between Ted Kennedy and Al Gore vs. President Bush and myself and even our federal delegation now, all of which have supported the president tremendously. You see a difference between, I think, a philosophy of saying, “Let’s empower people; let’s give them the opportunities” versus the old social welfare system that failed. Now I think there is a transition in the Democratic Party, there is no question, coming on, but the leadership still looks at those liberal ideas, Bill, that have largely proven to be not very effective in delivering. I mean, look at welfare reform that came out of the new Republican leadership in the Congress. It was passed three times before it was signed, eventually, but it’s reduced the poverty tremendously in this country. It’s got more people back [to] having the pride of being able to work for themselves. So those, I think, are the real philosophies. And I think we believe that if we can govern on less and more efficiently and get more dollars into an individual’s pocket, they are going to grow the economy and create jobs. So I think that’s probably a major difference there.

Goodman: And then there are the so-called social issues.

Fletcher: Well, there is no question ... I mean, I’m pro-life. My opponent is not. He, you know, supports abortion; I don’t. I think that there’s a difference there. Additionally, if you look on the national level, there was a big push on gun control. Well, I’m strongly supporting Second Amendment rights. And I think those are some differences there as well.

Goodman: Do you think that—sometimes I hear this; I’m sure you’ve heard this, too—that, at least in the Commonwealth, that a lot of people think that the two parties are very much alike? [That] the two candidates on a lot of issues are very much alike? Does this create some confusion there that ...

Fletcher: I don’t think so. I mean, we have gotten a lot of supporters, and there was, you know, an article recently showing that we reached out to a lot of Democrats. And here’s ... The reason is because ... Let me take the 1st District for example, Western Kentucky. They have elected Ed Whitfield by 65% against a Democratic opponent, and they are looking more at the individuals. They are looking at somebody that supports their values. They are looking at somebody that wants to support the farmers, and we’ve done a tremendous amount, doing that in our farm bill and our T-lap payments for, or their payments back to tobacco farmers. Now, I think people, even on the governor’s level, for this office, they are beginning to look and say, “Hey, there is a big difference here.” We’re not tied to the same old faces. Ben Chandler has been there for 12 years; he’s been there for eight years as chief law enforcement, and things have only gotten worse. And I think people see that and they understand that. So given that, we, I think, have got an overwhelming support in a lot of these areas that are typically Democrat, because they find that we share their values; we share their concerns. And I think they are typically conservative, they know I’m conservative, and, you know, I’m not just putting on a veil of conservativism for an election. I have been there, am there, and have a a voting record to prove it.

Goodman: Who in political life, either past or present, do you most closely identify with in terms of political philosophy?

Fletcher: Well, I guess, you know, Ronald Reagan is someone that brought back the spirit of America to restore our confidence in who we are as Americans. I ... We need that in Kentucky, and I think the overlying leadership of being able to inspire people, I think is extremely important in a leader. Yeah, we got the details of where do you stand on taxes, where do you stand on this, but you’ve got to have somebody that’s saying, “We are going to come in and we are going to inspire people, bring the kind of people in to change the culture.” And that’s why I look to an individual like that. Now somebody else, oddly enough, I really respect and admire was Harry Truman, because Harry Truman was willing to take some stands and said, “The buck stops here.” And you have to admire him, and I always have. I’ve read a lot on Harry Truman, and he’s just somebody who inspired me, even though he is a Democrat [laughs], as far as that goes. I think he is an individual that had some very good leadership qualities.

Goodman: Well, let me ask you again: Who in, again, in political life, either past or present, do you most admire? You mentioned Harry Truman. Is there another, of either party, that you would name?

Fletcher: You know, I would have to say that Ronald Reagan is probably one that I most admire, because he did turn this country around. I was in the military during the Jimmy Carter days, and I saw—and my wife was selling real estate at that time; we were just talking about it the other night. She said, “You know, it was pretty tough selling real estate when interest rates are 20%.” We saw military cutbacks. I mean, I taxied out once and three struts went flat because we had problems getting parts and everything else because ... And we were cutting back on flight time, the morale in the military was low. And Ronald Reagan came in and changed all that. I mean, he invested in our military; he gave us a new sense of purpose and a new sense of pride as a nation. That’s why I think he’s one that I’ll look up to that made a real difference in this century.

Goodman: And you would look at some of his principles, some of his philosophy while he was in office, as a guide to the way you would govern if elected?

Fletcher: You know, he went into California as governor, Ronald Reagan did, and was able to cut. He cut the waste, fraud, and eventually gave some tax relief out there. As president, he came in and empowered people. He wasn’t able to, let me say, cut the spending as much as he wanted to: He was dealing with a Democratic Congress and Tip O’Neill, who was very tough as a speaker; you recall those days. But he was able to empower the people, got the economy going back up, he got the investment. I think much of our economy and success came from those years where we actually changed the culture, if you will—the atmosphere in America. We need that in Kentucky. We’ve got to have restored confidence in our ability to do things. And I think Kentucky is a wonderful Commonwealth, but there is a lot that can be done to make sure that we make this state a happening place and to attract the kind of people that are going to build the kind of jobs that we need for our children.

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

Fletcher: Well, that’s important, and my management style is [that] I’m not as centralized. I work in a team approach. I think one of the differences I have with the current administration here in the state is the fact that there has been a lot of centralization. What I want to do is to identify and work with people all across this state. But we are going to bring some of the best and brightest people—not, as I mentioned, not people that need a job, but people that want to do a job.

Goodman: What are some of those qualities that you would look for in the people that you would bring on?

Fletcher: Well, first off, somebody who has a history of getting things done. I want people who get results. Then I want people that I can trust and people that I know that have a long history of integrity, and this is what I call rock-solid values, Bill. And then we are going to bring them, and we are going to give them—delegate the power for them to go through their cabinets and make the changes that are needed, look at the programs that are working or not. We’ll have regular cabinet meetings where we sit down with the cabinet secretaries—they will have a very, real important role—and we will discuss it. And I don’t want somebody that just tells me what I want to hear. OK. I mean, Sam Rayborn said, you know, if two people agree on everything, you don’t need one of them. We want people that challenge you, and I think that’s important, you know. And President Bush, George W. Bush, has done a good job of this. And he’s brought Colin Powell there. They don’t always agree on everything; that’s healthy. Donald Rumsfeld brings a tremendous amount of experience, Dick Cheney did. Condaleeza Rice, Elaine Chao—you go look at the folks. Don Evans, who I’ve gotten to know. Spencer Abrams. He brought some wonderful people there.

Goodman: So you don’t mind being challenged on some of your own thoughts?

Fletcher: Absolutely. You know, if we are not growing all the time, then we are missing the opportunity, and we are not going to provide as good a leadership. So I think education is something that goes on no matter who you are and where you are. You have got to continue to grow, and you need to be challenged on everything. And I don’t mind bringing people around me that are smarter and more capable than me, because that just empowers the office of the governor if you do that, and that’s the kind of leadership I have. We will expect things, and if people fail, or they don’t provide the integrity and that sort of thing, they will know from the outset that they will be gone. Because we have high expectations, we give a lot of responsibility to people. And I think in return they need to use that and keep that trust that’s there.

Goodman: Now, outside of hard work and family and campaigning and politics, what do you do for fun? Talk about your leisure activities.

Fletcher: I enjoy reading, enjoy golf—I used to enjoy golf. I set my clubs out almost a year ago and I have only played once, because I am really passionate about being the next governor, Bill. But I do enjoy golf; it’s an opportunity to get outside, it’s challenging—it’s something I’ll probably never master, and it’s as unpredictable as life. So it is something we do. We used to snow ski; we haven’t done as much of that. And we used to hike, fish ... I spent three years in Alaska; we were out hiking and fishing every opportunity we got.

Goodman: Tell me something that might surprise people about you.

Fletcher: Well, I like roses, but I’m not very good at growing them, Bill [laughs]. And we have got a little patio that I put some roses out on, and they are not looking very good right now because they haven’t gotten much attention. But that might surprise people.

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

Fletcher: I see a federal research lab here somewhere in Kentucky. And with satellite offices, I see companies like large-scale biology that’s taking DNA fragments [and] putting [them] into tobacco plants and creating vaccines for cervical cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I see that we combine this effort with our major universities and work collaboratively, and they are starting to do that. But in a very strong way. I see us having a consortium for homeland securities so that we can work with Vanderbilt and some of the other surrounding states to do that. The real thing I see is that, you know, we begin to look around and say, “Hey, our young folks are not leaving anymore. Our population is getting younger in Kentucky; we’re attracting companies from other states in here because they know this is a great place to live—it’s a great tradition and a great history.” And that kind of legacy is what I’d like to leave and I think every Kentuckian would like to see.

Goodman: If Kentuckians could only know one thing about you, in a short phrase, what would that be?

Fletcher: I guess it probably would ... Boy, that’s a tough question: one phrase of what Kentuckians would know about me. Probably if you look at the way we were raised, not only hard-working and that sort of thing, but it was to love your neighbor as yourself. And that’s whenever you are doing anything, make sure that you look and you see that you’re doing it to serve others. And I ... That’s a guiding principle that we were always raised under. It’s part of our faith, and that probably is one of the things that I come back to, whenever we try to do something, is that: How is this going to treat ... And I had ... There was a family physician I worked with, and we used to see patients come in the emergency room [who] didn’t have any insurance, and some of them were not the most sterling characters, either; they were off the streets and had had hard, hard times, hard luck. We never know what their life is like. And we called them the least of these my brethren. LOMBs [laughs]. OK. And how you treat those people when nobody is looking, when nobody is watching and nobody is going to give you credit for it, I think, really gives the tell-tale evidence of the character of the individual. And we were always raised to make sure we treat those people fine. In our office, with constituent calls, we don’t ask who they are or what they are; we just try to serve them the best we can. And that’s what Kentucky needs.

Goodman: If elected, and after service to the state, how would you like to be remembered?

Fletcher: I’d like to be remembered as someone that really brought a cultural change in Frankfort and that inspired us to be a better Commonwealth in the sense that we are no longer viewed as a poor state. That we are viewed as a very progressive state; that we are known for biotechnology. That it’s a state where tourists want to come because they recognize the beauty of it. And there again, most importantly, it’s a state where, when our kids and grandkids complete their training, whatever it is, they find an opportunity here in Kentucky.

Goodman: In about 30 seconds: The road to success in Kentucky has been tried many times; it has good intentions alongside the roadside. What makes you think that you are the person at this point in time, in history, to turn that around?

Fletcher: Well, Bill, that’s one of the reasons I moved from, you know, the congressional direction into the governor’s direction: because I think the time is right. First off, we are at such a point where we have a budgetary crisis, where we’ve had so many scandals and things in this state—the Department of Transportation, election fraud, embezzlement in the Department of Education, and all the other things that have happened—that people are ready for a real change. There are some tough things that we need to do. We need to improve the efficiency. We are going to have to reduce the bureaucracy, and we can do that in a way that doesn’t hurt working families and our state workers’ positions. People are ready for change, and I think when you look at my diverse background, bringing a background of military experience, engineering, physician, we’ve had a business, we’ve created—I’ve created—jobs, we’ve been able to care for folks, we have experience nationally, become reasonably, well, recognized nationally on health care, which is a major issue ... So I think as I began to look, I felt like it was something that I could do for Kentuckians and give back to Kentuckians. The time was right, and I bring the experience. And I think we need somebody from outside Frankfort to come in, to bring new faces. We’ve had the same faces for decades over there. And somebody described insanity as doing the same thing over and over and over and trying to get, expecting to get the same result. If we don’t make a change and bring someone else ... Whatever party [has] been there for three decades or longer, and one party has really controlled this state almost, well, for 100 years or so. To bring real change, I think we’ve got to ... We’ve got to make a real change and bring new faces. And I think the people of Kentucky recognize the time is right, and I think I’m in a good position to do that for them.

Goodman: Thank you for talking with us.

Fletcher: Bill, thank you very much. We appreciate this opportunity. And we want to thank KET, too, for the wonderful service you provide all Kentuckians.

Election 2003: A Conversation with Ernie Fletcher 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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