Democratic sources are alleging Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s office pressured the Lexington Herald-Leader to stop a reporter from addressing a political club, but the newspaper’s editor denies any such demands were made.
Journalist John Cheves was invited to speak before the Louisville Metropolitan Democratic Club this week to talk about an investigative series he wrote on Kentucky’s senior Senator in 2006.
The event caught the attention of McConnell’s office after being promoted by Progress Kentucky, a liberal super PAC that was denounced by Democrats and Republicans over racially insensitive Tweets about the senator’s wife.
A source tells WFPL McConnell’s office questioned the newspaper’s “journalistic integrity” and requested Cheves not appear.
Herald-Leader editor Peter Baniak says a McConnell spokesman did ask about the event, but no political pressure was applied.
“I gather they had seen something on social media mentioning the meeting and they just asked the simple question of whether it was accurate that John was the speaker. They didn’t make any demands of any kind,” he says. “It was from that point the editors at the Herald-Leader did not know this meeting had been scheduled.”
The Louisville Metropolitan Democratic Club is considered an “activist wing” of the party. It has hosted several primary debates and events featuring high-profile Democratic candidates and office holders, and Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell is on the group’s board.
The club’s current vice president is Democratic activist Shawn Reilly, who is the founder and executive director of Progress Kentucky.
“I didn’t realize the Metro Democratic Club would have been on Sen. McConnell’s radar,” says Lauren Ingram, who is president of the Democratic club. “We’re relatively small. I will say that Metro Democratic Club is not in any way affiliated with Progress Kentucky, but there is some overlap in our membership.”
But other Democratic sources say several individuals who volunteer with Progress come from the club, and that the super PAC’s recent controversy has made it toxic for other groups seeking to defeat McConnell in the early stages of the U.S. Senate race.
In many ways, the McConnell campaign’s chief opponent is the liberal super PAC. In the first TV ad of the 2014 Senate race, McConnell’s wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, slammed the group’s Twitter messages.
Cheves told WFPL he routinely accepts invitations to address various business, civic and politics groups, and it shouldn’t be taken an endorsement.
“But I understand that some people may perceive these speaking events in a less sanguine manner, and in matters of perception of fairness, it’s best that we err on the side of caution,” he says.
The newspaper’s editor adds the decision to pull Cheves from the meeting had little to do with the controversial super PAC and reiterated McConnell’s office simply inquired if the event schedule was accurate.
“And it was my decision that having a reporter who covers government and political issues speak to a group affiliated with either party frankly just as a new campaign is getting underway would not have been wise,” says Baniak.