COVID-19 is still testing Kentucky’s political leaders Skip to content

COVID-19 is still testing Kentucky’s political leaders

The Kentucky Lantern did a pandemic retrospective, since it is one of the key issues in the gubernatorial race. Jamie Lucke looks back at those days, and then at today’s campaigns.

4 min read

At some point during the COVID-19 pandemic it dawned on me: We were living in a time of no good options. 

The “reward” for doing the right thing was isolation and unemployment. 

Opportunists in politics and media inflamed distrust between already hostile camps. And people suffered and died because of crazy stuff they believed from social media.

In Kentucky, our candidates for governor played leading roles in the state’s response and have been critical of each other’s record on COVID. 

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron has made Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s management of the pandemic a centerpiece of his campaign. Cameron criticizes Beshear for inmate releases and school closings, while touting his own record of filing legal challenges to state and federal pandemic orders.

Cameron ad screenshot.

So, we at the Lantern thought voters might find it helpful to revisit some of those decisions in a pandemic retrospective that was published Wednesday. 

It’s an ambitious piece of journalism by Sarah Ladd, who covered COVID-19 in real time and now reports on a wide range of health and policy issues for the Lantern. She set out to learn if Beshear’s efforts saved lives. I’ll let you read  and be the judge.

Working with Sarah on the story took me back to those unsettling days when public health fell prey to pre-existing political fissures and we couldn’t even gather to properly mourn the dead for fear of causing more deaths.

Kids probably got the worst of it in the form of disruptions that can set a person back for life. We owe them supports now to recover emotionally and educationally. 

COVID-19 exacted a lot of suffering in Kentucky. The state’s case and death rates exceeded those of the nation as a whole. More than 19,000 died. 

But Kentuckians weathered COVID with fewer deaths than should have been expected, given our population’s age and high rates of chronic disease and obesity, according to a study published in The Lancet.

Inmates in Kentucky prisons got no such break. Tracking by the Marshall Project and the Associated Press found that Kentucky had the third-highest rates of COVID deaths and cases among state prison inmates. Eight prison staff died.

To slow the virus’s spread Beshear granted commutations to 1,870 prisoners out of a pre-pandemic population of 23,000-plus. Many prisoners who got out went on to commit new crimes, just as the anti-Beshear ads say.

But let’s be real. The revolving prison door never stops, commutations or not. High recidivism is a feature of our criminal justice system not a bug. And mass incarceration is a discussion that most politicians would rather not have.

A masked Gov. Andy Beshear (right) and Dr. Steven Stack, the state’s public health commissioner (left) at a news conference in Frankfort in May 2020. (Photo by Sarah Ladd).

One of the biggest disappointments of this election season has been Kentucky Republicans’ re-embrace of their old lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key rhetoric.

We already lock up so many Kentuckians that if the state were a country, it would have the world’s seventh highest rate of imprisonment. 

Cameron and Republican lawmakers are calling for longer sentences and creating new crimes even as they bemoan Kentucky’s relatively low workforce participation rate. Cameron wants voters to believe that Kentuckians are underemployed not because it’s hard to get a job when you have a record or can’t pass a drug test, but because Medicaid is giving them access to free health care.

Cameron knows better, or should. He was once a spokesman for the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition which started working in 2016 to address what it has called Kentucky’s “over-reliance on incarceration.” The coalition’s members span the political spectrum from the ACLU to Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Bluegrass Institute to Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

One of their main messages is that Kentucky cannot afford to keep sidelining so many potentially productive people by filling up every inch of cell space. 

The root causes of crime and underemployment don’t lend themselves to 30-second political spots. I get that. We seldom if ever hear candidates talk about the systemic conditions that derail lives, poverty, mental illness, racism, school-to-prison pipelines, the omnipresence of firearms, or inequality in education and opportunity. We’re not hearing it now. Not when political hot buttons are so handy.

I don’t know how COVID will play at the polls, whether the coveted undecided voters will be measuring Beshear and Cameron on their pandemic records. (If you are, click here, for more info.)

I do know the winner will be leading a state that has complex challenges and potential. Lingering legacies of COVID-19 will be among those challenges for a long while.

I’m also pretty sure that the reward for doing the right thing during the pandemic was surviving it. Knowing that you protected others is worth something too.


Written by Jamie Lucke. Cross-posted from the Kentucky Lantern.

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Kentucky Lantern

The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service. We’re based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat.