FRANKFORT Confronting his first major crisis in office, Kentucky’s new Democratic governor has won bipartisan praise for the assertive but calm way he has gone to war against the new coronavirus.
Gov. Andy Beshear, who took office in December after unseating the Republican incumbent, has taken a buck-stops-here approach to an issue that wasn’t even a blip on his political radar when he took charge of the Bluegrass State. At the time, the virus was a problem half a world away in China — now an ever-present threat.
Beshear goes before the cameras for daily coronavirus updates, ordering disruptions to everyday life in an attempt to slow the spread in his state of the global pandemic. One day it’s his call for a statewide shutdown of K-12 schools. Other days, it’s decisions leading to the shuttering of dine-in services of bars and restaurants, closings of places like theaters, gyms and child care centers.
Early on, Beshear preached the need for people to practice social distancing and avoid community gatherings, even in church services. And while that has invited pushback, he says, “I am not going to be the governor who acts two weeks too late.”
Unflappable under pressure, he wins praise for his no-nonsense but empathetic approach.
“This nonpartisan crisis situation has been right in his wheelhouse and he’s knocked it out of the park so far,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings.
Beshear’s daily briefings are part pep talk to reassure people and part sermon on how to limit the spread of the virus that is further upending the American way of life with each passing day. Across the U.S., the death toll has reached at least 178 and known infections climbed past 11,000 Thursday.
Says Beshear: “We are going to be OK.”
“We have to stay calm,” he adds, “We have to understand that we’re all going to have to change our lifestyles in different, fundamental ways ... If we are going to protect our loved ones that are out there, we have to be willing to change our practices.”
With his state public health commissioner close by to answer technical questions, the governor has patiently fielded reporters’ queries. His sessions broadcast to Kentuckians statewide on educational television.
That aggressive approach to the crisis has contrasted with commentary from the sidelines by his predecessor, Republican former Gov. Matt Bevin, who was known for frequently antagonizing Democrats and others during his four years in power.
“Breaking news: Chicken Little has just confirmed that the sky is indeed falling,” Bevin tweeted recently. “Everyone is advised to take cover immediately and to bring lots of toilet paper with them when they do so.”
But Democratic strategist Mark Riddle said Beshear has handled the threat with “honesty, compassion and a command of the facts” at a time when leaders are “looked to for answers.”
“We are still in the early stages of the crises, however, Gov. Beshear’s handling of the national emergency is becoming a model for others to follow,” Riddle said.
On taking office last December, Beshear’s seemingly biggest challenge was getting his budget priorities through a GOP-dominated legislature.
But when the virus threatened, Beshear swiftly declared a state of emergency. With an executive order he waived virus-related copays, deductibles, and diagnostic testing fees for private insurance. He said the uninsured would be able to get tested. And he announced wage relief for emergency first responders who suddenly find themselves quarantined.
Now he’s the second Beshear to lead Kentucky through a crisis. His father, Steve Beshear, was governor during the last Great Recession that erupted in 2008, which forced painful budget cuts.
For the younger Beshear, even the legislature’s top Republican leaders hold out praise.
“We appreciate the work of the governor and his cabinet in their effort to keep the public informed during the ever-evolving COVID-19 outbreak,” Senate President Robert Stivers said.
Still, reaching decisions on priorities in a virus-curtailed legislative session were not devoid of partisan bickering over Medicaid, education and other matters. The biggest job still pending is passing a new state budget, and tensions still surfaced.
But his biggest task is guiding the state through the pandemic. It’s one fraught with political risks when he and other governors take steps to temporarily shut down businesses or disrupt daily life. Beshear acknowledges the hardships caused by some of his actions but promised: “I will work to do everything I can to make everybody as whole as we can once this is done.”
Jennings said people will be patient but may have limits.
“I think most folks will give latitude to leaders who take decisive action, so long as there is some sort of light at the end of the tunnel,” Jennings said. “At some point, people want to be able to see that just over the horizon there’s a return to normalcy.”