Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic challenger Andy Beshear clashed on education and health care policies while sharing the stage for a forum before Kentucky's most influential agricultural group that turned feisty Wednesday.
Speaking at Kentucky Farm Bureau headquarters, Beshear challenged Bevin's support for school-choice initiatives and the governor's efforts to impose work requirements for some low-income people on Medicaid. The Democratic challenger said those policies would hurt public schools and hospitals in rural Kentucky, which drew an aggressive response from the Republican incumbent in defending the initiatives.
Bevin kept up a theme of his campaign — pointing to his experience as a business executive as an advantage for the state that differentiates him from Beshear. In pushing back, Beshear said the person representing the state shouldn't be someone who has feuded with public education groups, as Bevin has done, or whose administration has been mired in a spat with his lieutenant governor.
The bitter rivals played up their rural roots while answering questions about budget, tax and rural development issues during the hourlong forum. Some of their sharpest disagreements came on charter schools and proposed changes to the state's Medicaid program.
Beshear, the state's attorney general, said both policies would hurt two pillars of rural Kentucky — public schools and hospitals. Beshear says charter schools would divert money away from public schools.
"We've got to make sure that we have a governor that's not supporting for-profit, charter schools that will run your systems of education out of town," he said.
Bevin countered that "this idea that somehow competition in education is bad for your communities — nonsense." The governor noted that a large percentage of black children in Louisville cannot read at grade level — an argument he's made repeatedly in advocating school choice.
"Don't tell me we're serving these kids well," he told reporters after Monday's forum. "We're failing them."
Staying on the attack, Beshear claimed that rural health care would be hurt by Bevin's efforts to require that some "able bodied" adults either get a job, go to school or volunteer to keep their Medicaid benefits.
"This administration's policies looking to eliminate or curtail expanded Medicaid will result in the closures of rural hospitals," Beshear said.
Bevin defended the Medicaid proposal, telling reporters afterward: "I can't believe he (Beshear) would stand here quite seriously and say that it's inappropriate to ask able-bodied men and women, who have no children, to do something in exchange for free health care."
A federal judge has blocked the Medicaid-related work requirements but Bevin's administration is appealing. Medicaid is a joint federal and state health care program for the poor and disabled.
Meanwhile, Bevin again stressed his business background as an asset that he said separates him from Beshear as the person best equipped to represent Kentucky in negotiations with company CEOs.
"It's a very clear, clear choice," he told reporters after the event. "You have a candidate who's never created a job in the private sector in his entire life in the form of Andy Beshear vs. somebody who's created hundreds and hundreds of jobs."
In pushing back, Beshear pointed to Bevin's feuds with education groups and his administration's public spats with Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton.
"What I've heard very often from the governor is, you should choose the person that you would want to leave in charge of your company," he said during the forum. "Would it be a person who would attack, bully, and demean your employees, because teachers are the most important employees here in Kentucky? ... Would it be someone that couldn't get along with the COO, which is the lieutenant governor here in Kentucky?"
Hampton sharply criticized Bevin's administration after its dismissal of one of her top aides.
Both candidates stressed their rural ties and religious faith in their pitches to farm bureau members.
Beshear said his first job was mucking stalls, adding: "Nothing prepares you for Frankfort like mucking stalls. It's just a little bit deeper there."
Bevin said he raised crops and farm animals while growing up, saying his rural upbringing is "my foundation."
The governor said his Christian faith "drives my entire decision-making process."
Beshear noted that the church sermon he heard last Sunday focused on treating others as you wish to be treated.
"And that's the type of governor you can expect me to be," he said. "One that respects everybody. There will never be bullying or name calling coming out of the governor's office."