Is the Bluegrass Greener on the Other Side?

Who benefits from the hundreds of millions in federal spending that U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell likes to say he's brought Kentucky? Tobacco farmers have gotten more than $700 million in assistance

Who benefits from the hundreds of millions in federal spending that U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell likes to say he's brought Kentucky?

Tobacco farmers have gotten more than $700 million in assistance since 1999, according to McConnell. He also touts his record of bringing millions of dollars to Kentucky for military bases, colleges and law enforcement agencies.

But McConnell is best known for his steadfast opposition to campaign finance reform. The 60-year-old lawyer has sued to throw out federal campaign finance legislation.

Challenging McConnell's re-election is Lois Combs Weinberg, a 58-year-old Democrat. The mother of a dyslexic son, she developed a special education program for dyslexic students, served on a governor's education commission and the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees and ran a natural gas business. Now she wants a crack at the U.S. Senate.

"I just didn't believe the Kentucky I know and love is being represented," Weinberg says.

McConnell set the tone for his Senate career with the first bill he sponsored, the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, according to Weinberg.

The bill maintained U.S. diplomatic and business ties to Hong Kong as the province transferred from British to Chinese control.

"Clearly it relates to international business interests," Weinberg says. "McConnell is representing corporate America."

But Weinberg is no Robin Hood, according to McConnell.

"Ms. Weinberg has spent the past two years deploying Al Gore-style class warfare in attempt to convince voters that she is in touch with Kentucky families," says Hunter Bates, McConnell's campaign manager. "Her record, however, as a multimillionaire corporate executive who has charged some of the highest gas prices in Eastern Kentucky's poorest counties dramatically undercuts her class warfare rhetoric."

Weinberg wants Congress to increase funding for public schools and for Pell grants for graduate students. McConnell has steadily opposed additional funding for public schools, according to Weinberg.

McConnell has supported a plan to allow workers to invest part of their Social Security savings in the stock market. Weinberg favors a protected account with guaranteed returns.

Weinberg also favors a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients, an idea she says McConnell voted against 11 times.

McConnell has consistently opposed bills supported by the League of Conservation Voters, most bills supported by unions and everything supported by gay rights or pro-choice groups, according to Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan watchdog.

Curiously, even with all that material, Weinberg opened her TV ad campaign by making the classic modern Democratic mistake: trying to be more Republican than the Republican. Weinberg's ad criticized McConnell for not supporting a Constitutional amendment to make damaging the American flag a crime.

"It is a unique symbol, an embodiment of our democracy, that needs to be protected," she says.

Perhaps the most interesting issue is McConnell's failure to debate. Maybe it's because he enjoys a 7-to-1 advantage in campaign dollars, but McConnell's only offer was a debate in early September with no follow-ups. Weinberg refused to settle for that and has since offered a variety of times and formats.

McConnell characterizes his fight against campaign finance reform as something the Founding Fathers would support.

"This is a mission to preserve the fundamental constitutional freedom of all Americans to fully participate in our democracy," McConnell told the The New York Times in March.

But what's the likelihood you or an organization you contribute to would spend thousands of dollars on a last-minute attack ad? Are you hopping mad the law has ended your "right" to give unlimited campaign contributions to political parties?

McConnell filed suit the same day President Bush signed the law. Kenneth Starr — the Republican-leashed pit bull himself — is one of the lead attorneys. A recent Bush appointee is the federal judge who will hear the case.

Weinberg says the matter is another clear distinction between her and McConnell.

"I support the (campaign finance) legislation — period," Weinberg says.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.

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