By Sam Youngman
LOUISVILLE — Hal Heiner and his wife Sheila call their stately home and the 170 acres surrounding it Dovelyn, a reference to its large dove population and the peace he says those birds bring them.
Heiner’s peaceful days are probably about to end.
With about a year and half to go until the primary elections for Kentucky governor in May 2015, Heiner is nearing an announcement that he will run, looking to make it official early in the new year.
“I’m a firm believer in marathon campaigns where people get to know the actual candidates and don’t have to rely on a 30-second TV spot produced by some group out of Washington, DC to decide who to vote for,” said Heiner, a Republican.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader on a wooded bluff just a short ATV trek from his house, Heiner said it will take “most of 2014 and 2015″ for Kentuckians to get to know him.
A multimillionaire and former Louisville metro councilman, Heiner said he plans to spend some of his own money at the beginning of his campaign to offset his lack of name identification outside of Louisville and Kentucky’s “strict” campaign finance laws.
Heiner, a soft-spoken man clad in jeans, a flannel shirt and barn coat, said he thinks early jockeying for the Republican nomination will die down over the next year. That behind-the-scenes maneuvering exploded into public view after likely gubernatorial candidate James Comer, the state’s agriculture commissioner, declared his independence from GOP “party bosses” during an October speech.
“I think what you might be seeing is a candidate who assumed it would maybe be an easy path to the nomination, that the policy issues and talking about where Kentucky needs to go wouldn’t show up until after 2015,” Heiner said. “I think we might just be hearing the aftershocks of a second candidate entering the race.”
When asked specifically about Comer’s comments that he “cannot be controlled,” Heiner said at first he “really had no clue what he meant.”
“The idea of somebody controlling somebody else in public office is so foreign to me in my experience in government service,” he said. “I’ve certainly never seen that in my time in government and would never stand for it for a minute.”
The implications in Comer’s remarks sparked a heated controversy within Republican circles, the suggestion being that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell or U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers was interfering in the race.
Heiner said he has not spoken to Rogers, but has informed McConnell of his interest in the race. McConnell didn’t try to persuade him either way, Heiner said.
“If the question is did Sen. McConnell call me and suggest that I run or say ‘Hal, I want you to run so I can control [you]’ … I called Sen. McConnell and told him about my interest. It was a pleasant conversation but not beyond that.”
The task of pushing back on Comer, who said he won’t make any formal announcement until after the November 2014 election, fell to state Sen. Chris Girdler, who was in the audience at Comer’s Somerset speech and has been known to introduce Heiner at events. (Heiner said he counts Girdler as a friend but declined to say whether he will ask the state senator to join him on his ticket.)
In an op-ed that ran in several newspapers throughout the state, Girdler blasted Comer for injecting politics into his remarks and violating President Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment of not attacking other Republicans.
“I agree with his comments that we need to get away from the politics of personal destruction,” Heiner said. “So many times these campaigns can end up going straight for the gutter, and if I run, we will not run that kind of campaign.”
Heiner said he does think his candidacy will present a “stark contrast” to opponents, given the years he spent in the private sector focused on economic development.
Pointing to former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Heiner said he thinks Kentucky needs a governor who brings a background in business to the table to reform the state and make it a place that businesses find attractive.
“I followed Mitch Daniels time in office very closely. He was willing to tackle very difficult issues, and that would be my hope for the next governor of Kentucky,” Heiner said.
Heiner is planning a platform largely based on two issues — jobs and education.
“They’re certainly the problems that have gone unnoticed, unheeded, unaddressed in this state,” Heiner said.
The first issue, he said, is about reforming the state’s laws — everything from its tax code to pension liability to “Right to Work” legislation — so companies will want to locate in Kentucky instead of neighboring states.
The second issue was central to Heiner’s narrow loss in the 2010 Louisville mayoral race, when he became identified as one of the state’s biggest proponents of charter schools.
Heiner said he will make his push for school choice a major part of his campaign and anticipates an “intense discussion” with teachers’ unions, which he called the “primary defenders of the status quo.”
“The status quo in education is as powerful as any area of government, and it’s simply time to take the best models we see in other states and bring them to Kentucky,” Heiner said.
When asked how a wealthy businessman from Louisville can connect with the state’s many rural, relatively poor voters, Heiner said he would ask them to look at the path he has traveled.
Through most of his youth and college, Heiner said, he worked two jobs at minimum wage and has labored around the state doing everything from cleaning up spoil heaps left from coal mining to fixing the water and sewage treatment facilities at the Kentucky State Prison in Eddyville.
“I know what it’s like to work for minimum wage and at hard jobs,” Heiner said. “I understand what it is to work hard. I understand that people in Kentucky who are working their way up the ladder, that this ladder in Kentucky needs more rungs.”