By H.B. ELKINS
Every January, a professional organization of which I’m a member hosts a meeting at which the biggest public relations blunders of the previous year are discussed. One of the sources of those blunder lists tends to include as many goofs by conservative political figures as possible. Most of the events referenced are from elsewhere other than Kentucky, but there’s a very good chance that will change when the lists for 2015 are compiled.
Had Agriculture Secretary and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Jamie Comer better handled the brouhaha over allegations that he was in an abusive relationship with a college girlfriend, he might be planning how to push his winning primary campaign forward into this fall’s general election. Instead, he’s licking his wounds after his narrow primary defeat three weeks ago and is most likely staring at the end of his political career.
The story is well-known by now. A Lexington resident named Michael Adams heard rumors of the incident and started a concerted anti-Comer movement, establishing a blog and a Facebook page to spread the story. Once the mainstream press picked up on the subject, months after the blogger began his efforts, the woman in question felt compelled to speak out. A number of reporters had been trying to contact her about the matter, but she chose to send a letter to The Courier-Journal’s Joe Gerth in which she confirmed she’d been in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with Comer.
That led Comer to issue a blanket denial, which in turn led others to come forward to confirm the ex-girlfriend’s account. Comer also lashed out at election rival Hal Heiner, accusing his campaign of being behind the blogger’s actions and claiming Heiner had paid the ex-girlfriend to fabricate her story. Comer’s wife penned a column in his defense for the C-J which was riddled with factual inaccuracies. Comer’s supporters began mirroring his statements and accusations on social media and on comment sections of news stories about the matter. The ex-girlfriend even began getting messages from strangers, accusing her of selling her soul for politics.
Heiner had led in most polling prior to the election, but Comer had been considered the frontrunner since he was sworn in as agriculture commissioner four years ago. Political observers didn’t give Matt Bevin much of a chance of winning until the battle between Comer and Heiner got ugly. The acrimony between Comer and Heiner allowed Bevin, previously known for his failed attempt to “primary” Mitch McConnell last year, to claim an 83-vote victory over Comer. The outcome didn’t change after a recanvass, Comer opted not to proceed with a formal recount, and Bevin became the nominee.
If Comer hadn’t acted so angrily, it’s entirely possible that he could have persuaded a few dozen more people to vote for him, and he could have won the gubernatorial primary.
What if Comer had stated that he had sometimes acted in an immature and ungentlemanly fashion in his youth? (Didn’t we all, at one time or another?) What if he had said that he regretted the way he may have treated her at times? What if he had apologized to her for any pain he may have caused her, and said he was sorry that she had been pulled into the middle of the election by a blogger operating on his own agenda? What if he had directed more of his ire toward blogger Adams, who started the whole thing, and less of it toward Heiner or Gerth? It’s quite likely that enough of the electorate would have accepted his statement to give him the victory, even if he didn’t directly answer questions about whether or not he’d been physically abusive to her.
Comer’s position toward his ex-girlfriend changed during the process, which didn’t endear him to a lot of people. He originally said he thought she was a good person and wouldn’t have been involved in Adams’ campaign against him. But when she finally spoke out under duress, he claimed that she had been paid to make up the stories. His lawyer also was hostile to her in comments he made to the media. The lawyer also threatened to sue the C-J over the story, but no libel suit has yet been filed as of this writing.
The public values sincerity and honors honesty. We’re a forgiving bunch. A little admission and contrition from Comer would have gone a long way. Instead, he remained defiant, choosing instead to blame others for the situation instead of taking some responsibility for his own role in it. And that, more than anything he may have done two decades ago as a college student, is what led to his downfall.
“It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.” How many times have we heard that statement since Watergate? Something similar applies here. “It’s not what you did, it’s how you respond to it.” Comer responded improperly, and paid a price for it. His blunder should be a cautionary tale for politicians on how not to handle such a situation.
(H.B. Elkins is an award-winning former editor of the Clay City Times who now works in public relations. All opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the views of his current or any former employer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at kentuckyvalleyviews.blogspot.com.)