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The Nation

Collective Shrug Greets Kentucky Mea Culpa

Politics: Gov. Paul E. Patton may have a shot in a Senate race despite infidelity, experts say. Some voters are inured after the Clinton era.

September 22, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LEXINGTON, Ky. — There she stood, newspaperless and a tad sheepish about it, behind the News & Gifts counter at Blue Grass Airport.

"I tell them every time: 'When there's news, you've got to bring me more papers," ' said the bespectacled, gray-haired clerk. "They were gone in no time. Pffft, right out the door. All 50 gone by 9 a.m."

Little wonder. On the front page of the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal were enormous close-up photographs of Gov. Paul E. Patton, crying so hard his nose was running.

The news, of course, was that the second-term Democrat--a father of four, married to wife Judi for 25 years and head of the National Governors Assn.--had admitted having an affair with a Kentucky businesswoman.

The pictures accurately portrayed the most emotional confession by a politician almost anyone could recall, from the mea culpa by former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart that scuttled his chances of becoming president in 1988, to that of former President Clinton, whose fling with intern Monica S. Lewinsky nearly cost him the Oval Office.

The rub is, in the post-Clinton era, most people here just are not that worked up about a sex scandal in the governor's mansion. Sure, they're interested. Of course they are buying the papers and watching the news.

"Did you see him on TV last night?" one man asked another downtown on Saturday. "Pathetic."

"Ah, the governor," a waitress at the Glass Garden restaurant said to a customer reading the newspaper. "The governor," she said again, as if that was all there was to say.

But on a sunny post-Labor Day Saturday, with the United States contemplating war with Iraq and the University of Kentucky Wildcats hosting the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders at Commonwealth Stadium, people here were giving the 65-year-old Patton a respite after a long, hard week. For the time being, they also were giving him the benefit of the doubt.

If it turns out the governor granted nursing-home owner Tina Conner business favors, and then sicced state regulators on her when she ended their affair, as the 40-year-old Conner contends in a lawsuit, that's a serious issue, people here agree.

If it's just about sex....

"Who cares!" blurted Christina Condra, the feisty 26-year-old manager of Fayette Cigar Store in downtown Lexington.

"Not me," sighed a passing co-worker.

"Everybody does it," said Condra, who is due to have her first child, a boy, in three weeks. "The only reason anybody cares is because he's the mayor, or the governor, or whatever it is. They make a big front-page deal of it because he's a politician. So what? He's human.

"But you know," she added, "if you play, you gotta pay."

Two days after Conner filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, Patton on Friday held the emotional news conference, conceding he had engaged in an "improper personal relationship" with Conner, who was divorced this summer.

Patton was surrounded by several family members when he spoke, but his wife--who two days prior had stood beside her husband as he denied any affair with Conner--was conspicuously absent.

She had gone to stay with sisters in Appalachia, where both she and her husband were born.

Conner alleges that, after she began seeing Patton romantically in 1997, he helped smooth the way with state regulators for her Western Kentucky nursing home, Birchtree Healthcare. She also contends Patton helped ST Construction, a company she owns with her former husband, secure status as a female-owned business, which makes it easier to garner state contracts.

After she broke off the relationship, Conner contends that regulators began hounding the nursing home to the point that Medicare and Medicaid halted payments to the facility in July and she was forced to file for bankruptcy protection earlier this month.

Conner's attorney, Fred Radolovich of Louisville, said he was planning to meet Monday with lawyers representing the governor to discuss a possible settlement. The state Executive Branch Ethics Committee, meanwhile, announced it will launch an investigation into the case.

What case? organic farmer Pete Cashel asked by raising one eyebrow Saturday at the Lexington Farmers Market. When told of the governor's confession to an affair, Cashel, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and dirty work boots, nodded and said: "Well, good! We need a little of that in government."

Cashel then became more serious, saying that he thought Patton had done a better-than-average job during his six-plus years in office, especially when it came to shaping Kentucky's novel system of using tobacco settlement money to help onetime tobacco farmers begin harvesting new crops.

Patton's politics and policies, Cashel said, are what's important. As for an affair, "that's between him and his wife. He's going to be in enough trouble."

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