FANCY FARM, Ky. (AP) — Agriculture Commissioner James Comer announced his candidacy for governor on Saturday, using the stage at Kentucky's premier political event to say he wants to uplift the state after leading the Agriculture Department "from worst to first" following his predecessor's scandal-plagued tenure.
Comer, a former state representative in his first term as agriculture commissioner, joins former Louisville councilman Hal Heiner as candidates in the GOP gubernatorial field that could grow in coming months. Next year's race to succeed Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear is wide open.
"I believe Kentucky can be better," Comer told a boisterous crowd divided between Republicans and Democrats at the annual Fancy Farm picnic in western Kentucky. "We proved at the Department of Agriculture that you can go from worst to first in a short period of time.
"We just need a governor who is humble enough to listen, tough enough to lead and strong enough to achieve."
Comer plans a formal campaign kickoff Sept. 9 in his hometown of Tompkinsville in southern Kentucky. He plans to introduce his running mate then.
Comer's announcement came right after Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, the state's attorney general, spoke to the same crowd.
Conway said he has fulfilled his promises to crack down on prescription drugs, protect children from Internet predators and go after those defrauding the state. Turning to the governor's race, Conway said he would make sure state government "does not do business the way they do in Washington."
Comer, 41, reiterated his support for Kentucky's coal interests, advocated lower taxes and spoke out for local decision-making for public education.
Comer said in an interview that he would push to revamp Kentucky's tax code in a bid to improve the state's economic competitiveness. Comer said he wants to eliminate the state's individual income tax and lower the corporate income tax rate as part of an overhaul.
Talk of redoing the tax system has gone on for years, but action has been limited to targeted changes in the tax code.
"I think we can do some things in this state, with bold leadership from the governor, to make Kentucky a more competitive state to attract good-paying jobs, and I think I'm the man that can do it," he said.
Comer said he also would promote right-to-work legislation and efforts to lower workers' compensation costs.
Comer, a farmer, was elected state agriculture commissioner in 2011 amid a Democratic wave for other statewide offices.
Comer inherited an Agriculture Department shaken by scandals involving the previous agriculture commissioner, Richie Farmer. Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball player, pleaded guilty to government corruption charges and is serving a 27-month sentence in federal prison.
During his tenure, Comer closed an agriculture department fuel lab that he called a waste of money. The lab's equipment was sold at auction and the money was returned to the state. Comer also has championed efforts to put Kentucky at the forefront of efforts to revive hemp as a crop.
Comer's department sued the federal government in May to force the release of imported hemp seeds that were held up by customs officials. The legal standoff ended when federal drug officials approved a permit allowing limited experimental plantings in the state to let researchers study the crop.
It didn't take long for Comer and Heiner to start taking shots at each other.
"Kentucky needs a governor with an outsider's perspective, someone who is concerned with growing and attracting high-quality jobs, not the political status quo," Heiner said in a statement following Comer's announcement.
In his speech, Comer said: "I predict your next governor will not be a millionaire from Louisville," a reference to Heiner.
Both political parties are bracing for a hard-fought race to succeed Beshear, who is in his second term. Governors are limited to two terms in Kentucky.
Another potential Republican candidate, Louisville businesswoman and former ambassador Cathy Bailey, said Saturday she is leaning toward entering the race, but doesn't plan to announce her decision until after the November election.
Bailey said she's not worried about waiting too late as other candidates try to line up donors and endorsements.
She said that "donor fatigue" has set in for many people amid this year's campaigns, she said.
"Once I make my final decision, you'll see a very, very aggressive campaign" if she enters the race, she said.
Other Republicans mentioned as possible gubernatorial candidates include Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott and Matt Bevin, who drew tea party support in losing to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in this year's GOP Senate primary.
Democrats considering running for governor include Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Lexington banker Luther Deaton.