Doctors flex political muscle in governor's race

Associated Press Writer

Until this campaign season, Dr. Phillip Aaron had never given money in a governor’s race.

But the Adair County family physician said he would really like to see Gov. Ernie Fletcher re-elected. So much so that he contributed $250 to help with campaign costs.

Doctors have become a force in Kentucky politics, providing from their ranks two candidates for governor and one for lieutenant governor, and lavishing them with cash.

So far this campaign season, they have made some 350 contributions worth more than $200,000 to Kentucky gubernatorial candidates who will appear on the ballot in the May 22 primary, according to records from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Marty White, head of government relations for the Kentucky Medical Association, said physicians have traditionally been involved in the political process, and that their influence seems to be growing in the state.

“I think overall, physicians are becoming more in tune with just what impact public officials can have on the practice of medicine and the delivery of health care in Kentucky,” White said. “Health care is a major, major issue for all Kentuckians and all Americans, and physicians probably understand that more than most. It makes sense for physicians to be engaged in the process.”

Like Aaron, most of the physicians who have contributed during this gubernatorial election cycle have given to Fletcher. He has received some 200 contributions worth $108,000.

In the last governor’s race in 2003, Fletcher received more than 1,000 contributions totaling $580,000 from doctors for both the primary and general elections. His Democratic opponent at the time, current U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Lexington, received 146 contributions worth almost $85,000 from physicians.

Fletcher’s opponents this time around haven’t fared as well, at least not yet, according to campaign finance records.

Republican challenger Anne Northup received 63 contributions totaling $45,700, and the GOP’s Billy Harper received donations from three physicians totaling $1,500.

On the Democratic side, physicians split their contributions among five candidates. Former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, a Louisville physician, has received 34 contributions totaling $27,000 from doctors. Former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, who has a physician, Daniel Mongiardo of Hazard, as a running mate, received 37 contributions totaling $53,000.

Democratic contender Jonathan Miller, the current state treasurer, received 34 contributions totaling $16,800. Other non-doctor candidates didn’t fare as well when it came to campaign contributions from physicians. Speaker of the House Jody Richards got $3,900 from eight physicians. Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford had $3,000 in contributions from three physicians. Lexington attorney Gatewood Galbraith and Harlan County demolition contractor Otis Hensley received none.

Doctors support candidates who know the importance of improving health care, said Fletcher campaign manager Marty Ryall. Fletcher has used the governor’s office to push preventive care programs, to encourage sharing of medical records electronically, and to shore up the state’s financially troubled Medicaid program for the poor and elderly.

“Physicians from across the commonwealth are supporting his re-election campaign because they know that Gov. Fletcher, as a fellow physician, is making improving health care a top priority,” Ryall said.

Aaron said he wants to support a candidate who is concerned about the Medicaid patients he sees in his practice. “When I talk to Ernie Fletcher, he talks to me about the poor,” Aaron said. “We have to take care of our poor people.”

The governor also pushed unsuccessfully for a measure that would have appropriated money to provide vaccines against the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer. Aaron, a Republican, called that a bold move on Fletcher’s part, one that could have had political repercussions.

“We need leaders to be leaders,” Aaron said. “So many politicians won’t come out in support of anything.”

In Kentucky’s last legislative session, White said the state medical association monitored more than 300 bills that could have affected health care.

That, White said, is why physicians want to be part of the process, and that’s why they’re providing financial backing for doctors who enter politics.

“I think for the most part, physicians respect other physicians, and believe their brethren have a good understanding of the importance of a strong medical community in Kentucky.”
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