by Jeff Neal
James R. Comer, the commissioner of Kentucky Department of Agriculture, gave an impassioned, positive speech earlier this month to the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce.
At least he thought he did.
In an Opinion piece submitted to the Commonwealth Journal by State Sen. Chris Girdler, Comer is accused of “opening wounds” and widening the division within the State GOP with his remarks.
Comer is befuddled. And two bright young stars within the Republican Party are at odds.
“I’m shocked, disappointed and confused by Girdler’s manifesto,” Comer said yesterday. “I really don’t know what he’s talking about.
“At the conclusion of the speech, about 250 people gave me a standing ovation — including Girdler,” Comer added. “Afterwards, I had local politicians, state lawmakers, farmers and citizens congratulate me. I felt pretty good about the response we got from Pulaski County. This is just bizarre.”
Comer’s speech centered around the work he has done mopping up Richie Farmer’s mess within the Department of Agriculture.
When a possible run at the governor’s office was mentioned, Comer said he would make an announcement on his candidacy on his own timetable and added that he “wouldn’t be controlled by anyone.”
"The days of party bosses hand-picking elected officials in smoke-filled rooms must end," said Comer during his speech. "No more scenarios where party bosses send some guy from, say, Louisville, who has never been to Somerset before and order you to support him because (they) can control him."
Sources within the GOP believe Comer was talking about Louisville’s Hal Heiner, who once made an unsuccessful run for the mayor’s office in Louisville. There is a feeling among some people within the Republican Party that Congressman Hal Rogers backs Heiner and that Girdler may be trying to position himself to be on Heiner’s ticket.
“I have a very good relationship with Congressman Rogers and I appreciate everything he has done for eastern Kentucky,” Comer said. “I don’t believe for a minute he would approve of what Girdler wrote.”
A spokesperson for Rogers’ office said he declined comment on the rift at this time.
“I thought (Comer’s) speech was very positive,” said State Rep. Tommy Turner yesterday. “He talked about what the Department of Agriculture is doing for Kentucky ... what it’s doing for farmers right here in Pulaski County. I thought it was well-received.”
House Republican floor leader Jeff Hoover introduced Comer that night as "the next governor in the state of Kentucky."
Mike Chandler of Somerset, general manager of a dairy farm that Comer helped connect with Wal-Mart, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Comer was "truly for the people."
"The guy's integrity is unbelievable," Chandler said. "I thought that might change, and it hasn't. This is a guy who should be, and I hope will be, the next governor."
“Chris Girdler may think he’s an important guy, but he’s no more important than Jeff Hoover or Tommy Turner or any of the farmers and businessmen who appreciated what we had to say,” Comer said.
During the speech, Comer praised Udderly Kentucky and its milk entirely from Kentucky dairy farms and processed in Somerset. A 7-cent-per-gallon premium is returned directly to every participating Kentucky dairy farmer.
Production at Prairie Farms (formerly Southern Belle Dairy) has grown from under 150 gallons per day to a current volume of about 80,000 gallons per day, or 21 million gallons annually. The milk is sold in Wal-Mart stores.
“I thought the speech was very positive and basically focused on what we’ve done in our first two years here,” said Comer. “I feel like we have a new vision for Kentucky and especially eastern Kentucky. We’re trying very hard to replace jobs we’ve lost due to the war on coal. Our message was positive.”
Girdler accused Comer of using the forum “to jump start the 2015 race for Governor.”
Comer said he did no such thing.
“I said it’s too early for me to make that kind of announcement,” Comer said. “That’s what I said about my possible candidacy.”
Girdler said in his letter that Comer “ignored President Reagan’s 11th commandment ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican,’ and blistered some of the leaders of our party.”
“I expected to hear about the work he completed while in office as our state’s Agriculture Commissioner. Unfortunately, the Commissioner used a decidedly non-political event to jump start the 2015 race for Governor,” Girdler wrote. “This was neither the time nor place for such petty and paranoid comments.
“Our chamber has hosted several statewide elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, to have a civil discourse about ideas and each official’s work in office. Each time Pulaski County leaders spoke positively about the visits, regardless of their political views,” Girdler added. “This wasn’t the case after Commissioner Comer spoke. At best, the course James Comer took has been curious and strange. The majority of members to whom I spoke were disappointed in the lack of political maturity to recognize this wasn’t the place for divisive statements. It especially wasn’t appropriate when the divisive statements were aimed at not just fellow Republicans, not just elected officials, but at Pulaski County’s own.”
Comer said Girdler’s comments bore a certain irony.
“I think Girdler’s manifesto broke that 11th commandment,” Comer said. “You know we need young professional people, like Girdler, in our party. But it’s disturbing when they start behaving badly and acting like old back-stabbing politicians.
“I didn’t take any shots at anyone,” the Tompkinsville native added. “To say I did is paranoid and ridiculous.”
Girdler’s complete piece can be seen on Page A4 of today’s Commonwealth Journal.
Comer has been invited to submit a rebuttal.