When I was covering Kentucky politics for a living, I started a file folder labeled “Gutless Wonders.” It was about legislators and their lack of courage, which usually stemmed from an unwillingness to do things that they knew were worthy but might cost them their seats in the next election. I didn’t keep up the file very long; there were too many examples, and most of them were petty.
A more edifying (and thinner) file would have been examples of courage, such as the bipartisan group of seven state representatives who lost their seats in the 1990 elections after voting for the Kentucky Education Reform Act and the taxes to finance it. Cynics would say that courage was forced, since the Supreme Court of Kentucky had ruled the state’s school system unconstitutional, effectively mandating a tax increase. But KERA was about a lot more than taxes; it remade the school system from the bottom up, and there was a backlash from some local politicians.
I thought about the gutless wonders, and those few with guts, this week as I watched the General Assembly decide that when it comes to fighting the increasingly deadly Covid-19 pandemic, it was not only going to leave the tough choices to others; it was going to keep Gov. Andy Beshear from stepping in when those other people failed to make tough choices, like imposing mask mandates in schools and businesses to thwart the spread of the virus.
KERA may have largely removed patronage politics from local school boards, but the nonpartisan board members still run for office every four years, and they have heard from plenty of ill-informed parents who don’t want their children to wear masks, so it was no surprise that almost two-thirds of the state’s school districts decided against requiring face coverings.
Beshear cited that reluctance Aug. 10 in ordering everyone in schools to cover their nose and mouth, under the state of emergency he had declared at the start of the pandemic. But 11 days later, the Supreme Court upheld the laws that the General Assembly had passed to limit the governor’s emergency powers, and Beshear had to call the legislature into special session to enact new policies into law.
The governor and the legislature’s Democratic minority wanted the ruling Republicans to at least give him the authority to order mask mandates in areas with the highest infection rates, and he gave them a long list of studies, expert advice, and national polling supporting mask-wearing as the best immediate way to control the pandemic.
That was not going to happen, it was clear even before the session convened Tuesday. As House members gathered in their chamber, most Democrats wore masks and most Republicans did not. It was almost as if they were voting with their faces.
Masks have become the country’s most visible political divide, partly due to a Republican president who disparaged them and tried to make villains of public-health officials who advocated them.
A national poll taken July 21-26, after the surge became clear, found that 85% of Democrats supported — at least “somewhat” — instituting or re-instituting face-mask and social-distancing guidelines in their state, while 73% of Republicans opposed the idea. Self-defined independents, many of whom have a libertarian outlook, were also opposed, 55% to 42%.
Kentucky’s voter registration is still marginally Democratic, but its recent voting history indicates that a majority of Kentuckians now think of themselves as Republicans, and mask mandates have become the third rail of Republican politics. The issue has energized the party’s libertarian wing, and some incumbent Republicans are already facing opposition from that formative faction.
But that’s politics. What about public health? We’re in a pandemic that’s killed 8,000 Kentuckians, so these legislative decisions are matters of life and death, and indirectly, legislators’ lack of courage will cause the death of some Kentuckians. And on top of that, some legislators are casting aspersions on the long-term solution to the pandemic: vaccination.
That happened in a House committee, where Rep. Nancy Tate, R-Brandenburg, claimed that coronavirus vaccines have caused as many as 7,000 deaths. She referred to the federal Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, where deaths following vaccinations must be reported “even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause,” and the reports “do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem,” and nothing has shown that the vaccines kill, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s one thing to lack courage. It’s very much another thing to make statements that are demonstrably false and discourage people from getting what they need to protect themselves from a deadly virus. It makes me recall a headline that the late Larry Stone put at the top of his Central City Times-Argus when the legislature was beginning to build its policy muscles some 40 years ago: “God save us from the Kentucky General Assembly.”