Gov. Andy Beshear’s first months in office weren’t supposed to be like this.
He was supposed to spend more time advocating in Frankfort for his campaign priorities — investing more in public education and trying to persuade Kentucky’s Republican-run legislature to generate money for the state by legalizing casino gambling.
But when the global COVID-19 pandemic breached Kentucky’s borders, Beshear’s focus had to shift to protecting the public from a deadly, fast-spreading virus.
He has taken aggressive steps to limit the spread of the virus, issuing orders that prompted thousands of Kentuckians to lose their jobs.
Shortly after taking office in December, Beshear said he was “committed to building a commonwealth that is focused on the common good” and pledged to “work to address the anxieties that people worry about at the end of the day. …”
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No one could have envisioned how quickly that commitment would be put to the test.
“I want to start the way we always start, and that’s reaffirming that we will get through this, and we will get through it together,” Gov. Andy Beshear said Sunday as he began another of his daily, widely viewed press conferences about the coronavirus situation. “It’s not easy and it’s not going to be easy, and it’s probably going to get tougher before it gets easier, but we are resilient people, and we can and we will do this together.”
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Beshear showed a calm, even-keeled demeanor during last year’s elections, making the case to voters that he was a more polite and better choice for governor than Matt Bevin, the bombastic, confrontational conservative who then led the state’s executive branch.
Nowadays, Beshear continues with his disciplined, soft-spoken message, even as he makes hard-line choices.
Kentuckians see what he’s doing, and many of them are praising him for it.
The internet is full of good-natured memes riffing on his efforts to not only reassure people, but also admonish those who aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously enough.
He’s being compared to Mister Rogers, and some people are even joking about how they’ve developed a crush on him because of how he’s handling this crisis. Others are such big Beshear fans, they’re buying socks dotted with images of his smiling face.
The decisions Beshear has been making haven’t been universally supported, though. He has repeatedly referenced reports he’s received of people and businesses who are ignoring his orders.
The comments on his Facebook page include a ton of pro-Beshear posts, but there’s also some criticism about how his decisions can hurt Kentuckians economically.
“So let’s crash our state economy. That makes sense,” one person wrote.
Another commented: “Some of us will be homeless soon, glad the weather outside is nice.”
Other posts aren’t critical but do voice concerns about how people will be affected.
“We need to know what’s going to happen to the people who are losing their jobs and still have to pay rent,” one person said in a recent comment.
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Leveling with people
In his daily press conferences, which are broadcast online and on TV, Beshear describes the latest data on the coronavirus cases that have been confirmed across the state and announces his latest recommendations and orders.
He takes questions from reporters, as well as ones people submit online. And he often talks directly to the viewers, including kids watching with their parents.
He offers tips on how to manage the anxiety he knows people are feeling and tells them he’s feeling it, too.
He’s been doing these press conferences for a few weeks now. He wore a suit jacket and tie at first, but lately he’s worn a simple button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
And more and more folks are tuning in. One of his most recent appearances racked up 290,000 views on Facebook alone.
“He’s an extremely calming presence,” said Dawn Howard of Louisville, who listens to his press conferences most days.
Howard, a self-employed certified public accountant, is far from Beshear’s biggest fan.
She said she didn’t vote for him in last year’s Democratic primary (although she did support him when he faced off against Bevin in November).
“I found him to be kind of wooden and not super-engaging,” she said of Beshear. “But I’ve been really impressed with his warmth and his obvious empathy and his willingness to make tough calls and be strong on this stuff.”
She thinks Beshear is striking a balance in making sure Kentuckians take the pandemic seriously without talking about it in a way that terrifies them.
“He’s like a cult of personality right now, which is very funny,” she said. “But I think people are just really responding to that. They’re responding to the comfort and the steadiness, and they have a lot of affection for it because we’re all really scared.”
Howard finds the memes about Beshear kind of ridiculous, and she’s sure he does, too. “But I think it’s important to keep things light whenever we can,” she noted.
“I actually feel really proud to be from Kentucky right now,” she said. “… We have somebody leading Kentucky that is setting a standard that other people are taking notice of and admiring.”
‘Rising to the occasion’
The praise for Beshear isn’t just coming from liberal circles.
State Rep. Jason Nemes, a Louisville Republican, said he trusts Beshear, even though they fundamentally disagree on a lot of things.
“People are tried by the moment, by circumstances,” Nemes said. “Gov. Beshear is being tried by some very difficult circumstances, and I think he’s rising to the occasion. It doesn’t surprise me.
“When you have character, when you have heart, you can stand up when the going gets tough, and that’s what the governor’s doing right now. He’s meeting the occasion.”
Nemes said Beshear is to be commended for surrounding himself with experts and following their evidence-based suggestions, in addition to communicating openly with the broader public about what his administration is doing.
That doesn’t mean the governor’s decisions haven’t been controversial.
Nemes has heard from a lot of his constituents, many of whom are afraid of the coronavirus and support Beshear’s efforts to contain it and many of whom are upset Beshear has gone further than some other governors in his response to the pandemic, issuing orders that have restricted business and endangered their livelihoods.
“There’s true fear on both sides, and there’s a lot of people on both sides,” Nemes said.
He understands the concerns of people who worry Beshear may be going overboard.
“If I had worked my entire life, and I’ve got a little something because I’ve created a business, and now I’m losing it all, you want to know: ‘Are these steps legit?'” Nemes said. “But at the same time, this is the unknown. We don’t know what is to come, and we’ve seen from some other places like Italy that our health care system can be overrun very quickly. And we’re trying to stop that.”
Here’s what Nemes is trying to tell the concerned constituents he’s hearing from: “‘Listen … I trust our governor, and I trust the people around him.’
“I know Andy Beshear the man more than I know Andy Beshear the governor. Andy Beshear is a good man,” Nemes told The Courier Journal. “And Andy Beshear the man is trying to do right by the people that he is the governor of.”
Beshear, 42, has been an elected official for less than five years, and he’s been governor for less than four months.
But he has deep roots in the commonwealth and in its politics. Born and raised in the Bluegrass State, he is the son of Steve Beshear, a former governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general of Kentucky.
The elder Beshear was hit with a national crisis, too, when the U.S. economy took a nosedive soon after he became governor in 2007, forcing massive state budget cuts.
Andy Beshear followed in his father’s footsteps in 2015, when he was elected attorney general. Then, in November 2019, he won the gubernatorial election in an increasingly red state by a thin margin and was sworn into office the following month — four years, almost to the day, since his father left the Governor’s Mansion in December 2015.
During his term as attorney general, Beshear generally came off as mild-mannered and often took a measured approach when making public appearances and statements.
However, that doesn’t mean Beshear avoided conflict.
During his stint as attorney general, he regularly butted heads with Bevin.
Beshear challenged some of Bevin’s governing decisions in court, with mixed results. And when Bevin and GOP lawmakers clashed with public school teachers over pensions and other issues, Beshear aligned himself with educators and sued to block a controversial pension reform law many of them opposed. (He won that case.)
Teachers were credited with returning the favor by helping him beat Bevin last year.
With this pandemic, Howard — the Louisville CPA — said she has been pleasantly surprised by Beshear’s willingness to make tough, sometimes unpopular calls.
Looking back, though, she indicated that it’s clear he has a track record of being willing to fight for things he thinks are necessary.
“We knew that he was strong because he did a great job of standing up against Bevin on things that he thought were important as attorney general,” she said. “I knew that he had a backbone.”
High hopes dashed
Beshear entered the governor’s office with big goals.
The lone Kentucky Democrat with actual power in Frankfort, he planned to advocate hard for legalizing casinos to bring in more tax revenue — an admittedly hard sell, but something he felt could help the state’s severely struggling public pension system.
And he wanted to work on getting the state to pour more money into public education, including enough support to give teachers a $2,000 raise and fully fund their pensions.
Then came the pandemic.
He ordered bars, restaurants, gyms, hair and nail salons, “nonessential” retail stores and other businesses to indefinitely close their doors to in-person customers.
He told senior and childcare centers to close temporarily, asked medical professionals to stop doing elective procedures and recommended the state’s public school districts stay closed until at least April 20.
“You know, I have put my dreams as governor on hold. And in fact, I’ve had to make decisions that — listen I know they’ve impacted you watching a lot more than they have impacted me,” he told the people tuned in to one of his press conferences last week.
“I’m a governor that ran to create opportunity, both for everyone and their small business, and a governor that wanted to make sure that we had more educational opportunities for our kids. And what have I had to do?” Beshear asked.
“I have had to close more businesses out there than maybe any governor has ever had to, and I’ve had to ask our superintendents — which all agreed — to call off school,” he said. “Why? Because it’s what we have to do to beat the coronavirus.”
Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, president and CEO of Greater Louisville Inc., said her organization is appreciative of Beshear, even though he has issued orders that have hurt businesses and their employees.
“The drastic measures that are being put into place are meant to mitigate the impact of COVID-19’s spread, and we think that’s very important,” she said. “The more we enact short-term pain, the more longer-term gain we will see.”
GLI, which is the Louisville region’s chamber of commerce, is trying to help employers and out-of-work individuals through a job-matching program it’s running with KentuckianaWorks, according to Davasher-Wisdom.
“I think everyone is very much in shock right now, but I have not really heard many businesses that are expressing anger about the orders…,” she said.
Davasher-Wisdom said she feels the Beshear administration is taking the business community’s concerns into account. But there are still a lot of unknowns out there.
“People are most in need of certainty, and unfortunately, that’s just the one thing that we can’t obtain right now,” she said.
Listening to the experts
Doctors and nurses are on the front lines of this pandemic.
When asked to assess Beshear’s strategy, representatives from the Kentucky Nurses Association and the Kentucky Medical Association pointed to the same thing: He’s involving health care experts in his decision-making and paying attention to them.
“What that means is that the people who are at the table have knowledge to help him to make good decisions,” said Delanor Manson, a nurse who is also CEO of the Kentucky Nurses Association, which is a voice for Kentucky’s 90,000 nurses statewide. “Nobody works in a vacuum in a situation like this.”
Manson said she supports the hard-line calls Beshear has made to limit people’s exposure to the virus and said he isn’t pulling those choices out of thin air, but instead is listening to experienced medical professionals.
“That’s called leadership,” she said of Beshear’s approach to the pandemic. “And that has nothing to do with being mild-mannered or aggressive or assertive. It has to do with what needs to be done to protect and save Kentuckians.”
Beshear’s decisions haven’t only affected people who work in places like restaurants, bars, stores and day cares. He also told hospitals and health care professionals to stop performing elective procedures, but left room for doctors’ discretion on individual cases.
Dr. Brent Wright, president of the Kentucky Medical Association, said that guidance acknowledges the importance of letting health care professionals use their own judgment on whether a procedure is necessary.
Wright also noted the governor is working closely with Dr. Steven Stack, the commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, and said Stack has stressed the importance of physicians’ leadership and innovation during this crisis.
“We have felt very respected by this administration through this process and through this response to COVID19,” Wright said of the physicians the KMA represents.
“We’re looking at this as … reason and caution over revenue and convenience,” he said. “We don’t have a chance given the nature of this virus — the aggressiveness of its spread and its ability to affect vulnerable populations, as well as all ages — to choose a response that’s not geared toward maximizing human life.”
Wright said he met briefly with the governor recently in Frankfort. They were headed to a press conference at the Capitol when they passed by the rotunda, where another event would soon be held.
“And I think what impressed me was the governor looked to his left, in the rotunda, and made the comment that he thought the chairs were too close together — that we needed to space the chairs out more to protect people,” Wright said.
Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; [email protected]; Twitter: @morganwatkins26. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/morganw.
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