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GOP's Thayer says he'll accept 'political risk' for sake of gambling vote

by Joe Arnold


Posted on February 1, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 2 at 10:23 AM

(WHAS11) -- With a constitutional amendment for expanded gambling expected soon, the Republican senator crossing party lines to advance it is in the crossfire of the debate.

"It may be a political risk," acknowledged Sen. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown),  "I don't know, but I was elected to lead not to follow.  And on this issue, I am going to lead."

A former Turfway Park communications director and Breeders Cup executive, Thayer is now the point man for casinos in Kentucky.

"I'm not really an expanded gambling proponent myself.  I love horse racing," Thayer said in an interview at his Senate Annex office.

Once the Vice-Chairman of Kentucky's Republican Party, the marketing and public relations consultant is raising eyebrows by partnering with Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat.

"I don't think a difference in political party should stand in between him and me working together," Thayer said.

It's Thayer's ties to the horse industry that have stirred controversy this week.  A Frankfort minister, Rev. Hershael York, a friend of top Republican David Williams, is threatening an ethics complaint against Thayer, alleging a conflict of interest if Thayer files the gambling measure.

"I do think it was an attempt by (gambling opponents) into intimidating me into not filing the bill," Thayer said, "That will not work.

 "It's a bit insulting to have my integrity questioned by a fellow Christian like that," Thayer continued.  "But politics is a tough business and it's not for people in short pants.  So, I've got my big boy pants on and I'm ready to enter the fray."

York, the pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church, said the ethics complaint would center on Thayer's own resume and his work on behalf of the equine industry.

"I don't work for any Kentucky racetrack," Thayer said.  "I do some advertising for a couple of small to medium size horse farms."

In a legal opinion requested by Thayer, the Legislative Ethics Commission advised him that a legislator may legally "sponsor, discuss, and vote for or against a proposed constitutional amendment relating to casino gaming, even if that legislator "has business clients such as thoroughbred horse farms."

Thayer said York's comments are a threat to a citizen legislature as envisioned by the founding fathers, with lawmakers from all walks of life.

"Every time somebody has a disagreement with a legislator on an issue, it's really unfair and a disservice to the people of the Commonwealth and of the General Assembly to bring up what we do for a living," Thayer said.

Beshear has jumped to Thayer's defense, accusing Williams of being involved.

"I admire Sen. Thayer for standing up to this kind of intimidation and pressure from a member of his own party," Beshear said on Tuesday.

Both Williams and York deny any coordination.

Williams and Thayer both say they take each other at their word. 

"I've been one of President Williams strongest allies in the Senate," Thayer said.  "I supported him in the primary and in the general election in the governor's race and I helped him keep his job as Senate president."

"And as far as this issue goes," Thayer continued, "I take him at his word.  He's always said that he believes the votes are there in the Senate and wouldn't stand in its way.  And so I think I have to take him at his word."

"I trust him enough to self-identify that problem," Williams said, "And he told the (Republican Senate) caucus that he does not represent any racetrack or does not represent any entity that would benefit if the constitutional amendment passed.  And I believe him."

Williams said the amendment will be assigned to the Senate State Government Committee of which Thayer is chairman.

And, while Williams insists that Thayer faces no repercussions from him on the issue, it's still a sore subject.

"I've always had a good relationship with Sen. Thayer," Williams said at a Tuesday news conference, "But if Sen. Thayer becomes displeased because someone is criticizing him because of his position on gambling, I welcome him to the club."

"Obviously, the intimidation that continues just like you've seen with Senator Thayer here will continue," Beshear said.  "I'm sure of it.   And whether that affects people on the final vote or not is yet to be seen."

"If there are repercussions, if there are consequences because of this, I'll deal with them at that time," Thayer said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Thayer told WHAS11 that he did not expect the bill to be filed by the end of this week.

"We've still got two or three months left in this session," Beshear said, "So if the bill is going to pass, I think it will pass regardless of when we introduce it as long as it's not down in the last month."

Thayer said expects the governor to do the heavy lifting and lobby Kentucky's senators once the measure is introduced.