Home alone

While his delegation wonders where he is, a Kentucky congressman stays home to protest Al Gore.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 15, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

On Monday morning, Kentucky delegates at this week's Democratic National Convention were excited to hear from Gov. Paul Patton. When Patton -- a convention co-chair and chair of the Democratic Governors' Association -- was introduced, the delegates stood and whooped and hollered.

That is, except for Rep. Kenneth Lucas, the state's one Democratic member of Congress. Lucas didn't clap or stand at all. Lucas ain't here. He's back in Kentucky.

See, Lucas doesn't know if he's even going to vote for Al Gore. On Thursday, he told a Reuters reporter he wasn't going to vote for Gore at the convention, and that he might not even vote for him come November. It has been the rare note of dissension in a tightly choreographed show of Democratic team spirit this week in Los Angeles.

The news came as a shock to the Kentucky delegation. Bill Londrigan, president of the state's AFL-CIO and the delegation's chair, was sitting with a bunch of other union guys, getting ready for a meeting, when one from their number brought out a Louisville Courier-Journal. In the paper, Lucas was quoted as saying that he wouldn't vote for Vice President Al Gore because they differ on issues near and dear to his heart -- tobacco, gun control and abortion.

"Personally I like Al Gore and I think he made an excellent choice in Joe Lieberman as his running mate, but these are issues I feel very strongly about," Lucas, 66, told Reuters. "I am very comfortable in the Democratic Party, but I will not go against my conscience and be a blind partisan."

Lucas, first elected in 1998, was the first Democrat to be elected to that Kentucky congressional seat since 1966. In 1996, Bob Dole won the congressional district over Bill Clinton by 50 percent to 41 percent.

But regardless of the Republican tilt of Lucas' district, Londrigan was incensed to hear that Lucas wasn't being "a team player." But the AFL-CIO's state president didn't have time to act, since the next day he flew to Los Angeles.

But on Sunday, he ran into Lucas' chief of staff, John Lapp, at the delegation's hotel at the Ramada Inn in West Hollywood.

"I told him we were very disappointed," Londrigan says. "I told him that Lucas only got elected because of the efforts of the Democratic Party. He [Lapp] said that he understood our disappointment. But he didn't give an answer that was any more definitive than that."

Londrigan guessed that Lucas "maybe got some bad advice."

Many of the Kentucky delegates interviewed on the floor Monday were unsure of what to make of Lucas' action.

Some met his remarks with disbelief. Like Bobbie Powell, a Louisville union rep from the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees, International, who said that "until I hear it from his lips, I will not believe it." Powell thinks that the quote was "made up to sell papers."

Others hadn't yet heard of the flap. "I can't believe that," said Ray McLennan, an IRS agent from Paducah, when I tell him the news. "They back most of the same things; Lucas supports most of the Democratic program. He must have been snubbed or something. When push comes to shove, I'm sure that he'll vote for Gore."

Others were more understanding. Delegate Shirley Hulsmann isn't just a constituent, but a personal friend of the blue-dog Democrat. So when she heard the news, the housewife and Kenton County Democratic chairwoman called him up.

"Ken, you're a Democrat, you vote Democrat and you're going to support the Democratic ticket," she says she told him.

"Yes, I'm a Democrat, and I support the Democrats on a lot of things," he replied, according to Hulsmann. "But I also support the Republicans on a lot of things."

Hulsmann says that she knows "in her heart, Ken would never vote for Bush. There's no way. There's just too much of a difference there. Bush isn't going to support education or the environment, which Ken supports."

Lucas, who grew up on a tobacco farm, is one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, but he opposes school vouchers.

"It's just tough in our area right now," Hulsmann says of the congressional district's Republicanism.

Londrigan calls Lucas' no-show "a little misguided," but insists that, no matter how disappointed he is in Lucas, there will be no retaliation. "We need as many Democrats in Congress as possible," he says. "I may not agree with all his stances, but he needs to be reelected."

Hulsmann, who, with her husband Marty, frequently hangs with Lucas and his wife Mary, was a little more charitable about Lucas' absence.

"I think it was probably a good idea," she said. "He didn't want to be the focus of the convention."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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