In the summer of 1995, Jack Conway was at loose ends.
He had just finished his law degree at George Washington University in the nation’s capital and was scheduled to start a federal clerkship the next January. But until then, the new attorney wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
“There was very hotly contested gubernatorial race here in Kentucky between Paul Patton and Larry Forgy, and I came back and volunteered on that campaign,” Conway recalls.
That decision became a turning point in the young Democrat’s life. When Patton was elected that fall, he rewarded Conway with a job as legal counsel in his administration. From there, Conway would meet his political mentor as well as his future wife.
And he didn’t return to work in Washington.
Now Conway is making his own gubernatorial bid as the Democratic nominee. He appeared on KET’s One to One to discuss his upbringing, his career in politics, and his views on the governor’s office.
Sports, Family, and Law
Conway’s childhood was filled with athletics and family.
When he wasn’t playing Little League Baseball, football, basketball, or golf at home in Louisville, he was likely visiting his father’s family in western Kentucky. Tom Conway was raised on a farm in Union County, where his father and uncle ran an agricultural seed company. Jack Conway says his youthful visits to Morganfield meant picking sweet corn with his grandfather, roughhousing with his cousins, and listening to the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio at night.
Although his father was Baptist, Conway’s mother was a Catholic from southern Jefferson County. So, back in Louisville, Conway attended mass and parochial schools.
“I often joke that between those two religions I have enough guilt to last three lifetimes,” Conway says.
With an attorney for a father, a paralegal for a mother, and a county attorney for an uncle, Conway developed a love for civics and government. He got a degree in public policy from Duke University and then moved to Washington to pursue a law degree. While there, Conway worked with the U.S. Attorney’s office on criminal justice issues and for the House Banking Committee, according to his official biography.
Political Ups and Downs
But it was time spent volunteering on Paul Patton’s gubernatorial campaign and then working with his administration that changed Conway’s life. Still in his late 20s, Conway got first-hand experience with Kentucky politics and in shaping public policy. He also met Elizabeth Davenport, a deputy press secretary for the governor, and Crit Luallen, a Frankfort veteran who was secretary of Patton’s executive cabinet. Conway would later marry Davenport, while Luallen would become his political mentor.
“He immediately struck me as a young man with tremendous promise because of his intellect, because of his quick grasp of very complex issues, and because of his passion for public service,” says Luallen, who is now Kentucky’s lieutenant governor.
After six years in the Patton administration, Conway left to go into private practice in Louisville. He failed in his first bid for elective office, a 2002 campaign to unseat 3rd district Congresswoman Anne Northup. Five years later, Conway won election as Kentucky’s attorney general, defeating state Rep. Stan Lee of Lexington.
Conway tried another run for federal office in 2010 when he campaigned for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Jim Bunning. The Democrat lost that race to Bowling Green ophthalmologist and political newcomer Rand Paul.
Despite that bruising campaign, Conway handily won reelection as attorney general in 2011.
The Democrat sees the job of attorney general as being very different from the role of governor. As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Conway says that he’s an advocate for citizens who have been wronged, and that he’s a prosecutor who must act without fear or favor. But as governor, Conway says he would be able to set the state’s political agenda with lawmakers.
“So I think I would exercise a different side of my personality and a different side of my management style when I become governor,” Conway says.
Lt. Gov. Luallen says Conway’s time in Frankfort has given him the experience he needs to be the state’s chief executive.
“He has an incredible depth of knowledge and understanding about government,” Luallen says. “He has proven himself as attorney general to have the leadership capacity to take on tough issues and stand up for the people that he represents.”
Conway says Luallen taught him that you don’t have to have all the answers as governor, but that you do need to surround yourself with individuals who can help you quickly find the right answer. One of those people would be his running mate, state Rep. Sannie Overly. The Bourbon County legislator says she and Conway bonded around their shared vision for quality public education and economic prosperity for Kentucky.
“Jack has a record of bringing people together to get real results,” says Overly. “He thinks very long and hard about trying to make sure he’s doing the very best for the people here in the commonwealth.”
A Vision for Public Education
Although Conway has a reputation of being a political wonk who’s not entirely comfortable with the back-slapping nature of old fashioned politics, Elizabeth Conway says her husband is a very different person when he’s at home with their two daughters.
“Our Jack is a pretty goofy guy whose favorite thing to do is grill out on a Saturday afternoon,” she says. “I think Jack would make a great governor because he has the experience to lead Kentucky forward combined with innovative ideas [and] a fresh approach to government.”
As a Catholic, Conway says that his religion informs how he raises his children and how he treats others, but as governor he says the law would come first. He says he wants his legacy to be that he fundamentally changed the state’s educational system.
“I would hope that people would look back at my time as governor and say that he set the state on a course to be the leader in early childhood education amongst all the states,” Conway says. “That he did more to make it possible for 3-and 4-year olds in a historically poor state like Kentucky to get early childhood education opportunities.”