There was a time when protocol dictated that the governor of Kentucky be addressed, “His Excellency.”
Jane Beshear can only laugh at the thought of that. She says she never would’ve called her husband Steve Beshear that during the eight years he served as the state’s chief executive. She says governor and first lady were sufficient for them.
“Those are just titles,” Jane Beshear says. “What they do bring is opportunities – opportunities to do good for the people in this state, to work to improve the lives of people.”
The former first lady appeared on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw to discuss her experiences in the governor’s mansion and the issues she pursued during her time in public life.
An Active First Lady
Beshear was an effective and tenacious advocate for causes that were important to her. A key example is the five years she spent lobbying lawmakers to raise the high school dropout age from 16 to 18 years old.
“I think the legislature is going to be glad to see me gone,” Beshear jokes.
As a former schoolteacher, Beshear says she knows how important it is for Kentucky children to graduate from high school. So she worked to build consensus for legislation to require students to either obtain a diploma or stay in school until their 18th birthday. She hosted summits around the state to garner input from local officials, educators, and students. After promoting the idea in multiple legislative sessions, Beshear ultimately fostered a compromise that would allow adoption of the new dropout age to be optional until just over half of the state’s public schools agreed to the policy. The Kentucky Graduate Bill finally became law in 2013.
“It was amazing how many school districts immediately passed it,” Beshear recalls. “It surprised the commissioner of education, it surprised the governor, it surprised me, but I think it told that people were ready for this.”
Her persistence also helped lead to the passage of a 2015 bill to provide protections from violence against individuals in dating relationships. That legislation took two sessions to finally become law.
The former first lady also proved to be an effective fundraiser. She helped to raise $1 million to equip a van that will travel the state to do mobile cancer screenings. She also secured more than $1 million in private donations for an endowment to pay for upkeep on the executive mansion. She says the 101-year old residence is unique among state capitols around the country, but she says the expense of maintaining it has been a challenge for the commonwealth.
“It’s very difficult when we have so many other budget demands in this state to spend taxpayers’ money on decorating this mansion,” Beshear says. “But it does need to be beautiful because it is the face of us in Kentucky.”
Health Care Reforms
Times were not always easy for the Beshears. Jane Beshear says the hardest thing her husband had to do was decide what programs to cut to balance the state budget during the financial crisis.
And there was the struggle to maintain the health reforms Gov. Beshear enacted during his tenure. She calls the health exchange Kynect and the expansion of Medicaid to cover more of the state’s working poor “game-changers” for Kentuckians and the commonwealth’s economy. As a result, Beshear says, some 500,000 people gained health insurance, many for the first time in their lives.
“For people to be able to have insurance, to be able to go to a doctor – not an emergency room but to a doctor – for early screenings [and] preventive care will make a huge difference in the long run for this state,” Beshear says.
The ‘Fishbowl’ of Public Life
In all, Jane Beshear says she’s proud of the legacy she and her husband are leaving the state.
“We truly took to heart the responsibility that we were given,” Beshear says. “We wanted to move the needle on education, on health, on job creation, and I feel like we’ve been able to do that.”
She says she doesn’t think her husband will run for any other office. Instead, Beshear says she and Steve are happy to focus on the political career of their son Andy, who was elected in November to be state attorney general.
Given what she calls the “fishbowl” nature of public life, Beshear says she hopes new First Lady Glenna Bevin will have the freedom to chart her own course for herself and her nine children during their time in Frankfort.
“I would encourage her to not get caught up in having to do things that I did or that another administration has done,” Beshear says. “It needs to be what she’s about… and if that’s raising her family, all power to her because I don’t think there’s a job more important than being a mother.”