FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A feud at the top of Kentucky’s government escalated into an extraordinary legal battle Thursday when the governor was sued by his hand-picked lieutenant governor over a bitter staffing dispute.
The fight erupted deep into Gov. Matt Bevin’s reelection efforts and muddied his campaign’s efforts to put the focus on his ties to President Donald Trump and his anti-abortion stand.
Democrats were quick to pounce, pointing to Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton’s lawsuit as another example of what they called a “dysfunctional mess” caused by the combative Republican governor. Bevin’s office said it would move to dismiss the complaint.
Bevin is being challenged in November by Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat who has sued Bevin repeatedly for the governor’s use of executive powers. Beshear is the son of Bevin’s predecessor, former Gov. Steve Beshear.
Bevin dropped Hampton from his ticket early in the year. Four years ago, Hampton was a political trailblazer as the first black person elected to statewide office in Kentucky.
Hampton’s lawsuit, filed in state court, seeks to restore two of her dismissed staff members to their jobs in the lieutenant governor’s office. They were removed by Bevin’s administration this year without her consent.
The dispute threatens to complicate Bevin’s efforts to win a second term in a state that has tilted heavily toward the GOP. Bevin has cultivated close ties with Trump, who won big in Kentucky in 2016. The president is scheduled to headline a Bevin fundraiser next week in Louisville.
Beshear looked to capitalize on the infighting, saying on Twitter: “Matt Bevin is already the most unpopular governor in the country. Now, he has the additional distinction of being the only one to be sued by his own hand-picked lieutenant governor.”
The governor has built his campaign around the alliance with Trump, emphasizing job growth and low unemployment during his tenure and his strong stand against abortion. The state on Thursday reported a preliminary, seasonally adjusted jobless rate of 4.3% in July.
But the Hampton dispute threatens to hit Bevin where he’s potentially most vulnerable.
“I think Bevin’s contentious personality is his biggest drawback, and this just feeds into that narrative,” said longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross.
The infighting comes when Bevin is looking to make inroads with a campaign message geared toward winning back Republicans who abandoned him in the May primary. Bevin barely surpassed 50% of the vote in the four-way primary.
Hampton’s lawsuit seeks a court order declaring that the lieutenant governor, as a constitutionally elected official, is empowered under law to hire and fire staff members in the office. A hearing is set next week in Franklin County Circuit Court in Kentucky’s capital city.
Her suit names Bevin and the state Personnel Cabinet as defendants. It claims Hampton’s rights as the lieutenant governor have been violated.
In a statement, Bevin spokeswoman Elizabeth Kuhn said the state Personnel Board is reviewing the dismissals of Hampton’s aides. Kuhn said it’s “inappropriate for a lawsuit to be filed before the board issues its decision. We will move for immediate dismissal of the complaint.”
The dispute stems from the dismissals of Steve Knipper, Hampton’s chief of staff, and Adrienne Southworth, her deputy chief of staff. Hampton never consented to the firings.
The dispute with Hampton is just the latest for Bevin, whose approval ratings have slumped since his failed attempt to change the state’s struggling public pension systems. A pension law signed by Bevin was struck down by Kentucky’s Supreme Court. Beshear filed the lawsuit that led to the ruling.
Bevin also is trying to overcome his self-inflicted political wounds from feuding with public education groups who said the pension changes would discourage people from entering the profession. Thousands of teachers and other public workers swarmed the state Capitol in Frankfort last year to oppose the pension plan, closing schools in more than 30 districts statewide.
Despite overwhelming Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, the governor has had spats with members of his own party while struggling to pass a comprehensive fix for the pension system.