The campaign to re-elect Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell barred a Kentucky reporter from covering a press conference Monday afternoon.
Louisville Metro Police were called to stop LEO Weekly’s Joe Sonka from entering a hotel conference room where McConnell was holding an event with fellow Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and a group of veterans.
“It seemed like the point of his event today was to show how tough Senator McConnell is going to be on (Russian President) Putin and the Ukraine issue. But it doesn’t speak to strength to be afraid of an alt-weekly reporter maybe asking him policy question,” he told WFPL. “That seems pretty cowardly to me.”
Sonka, who is LEO’s news editor, said he was initially told he could not attend the press event due to a lack of space at the hotel, but other reporters said the room had available seating.
When Sonka arrived, McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said another reporters objected to LEO asking questions, but declined to say who.
Eventually police blocked Sonka at the doorway and threatened to arrest the reporter if he went any further.
“Our campaign held a private event at a hotel (Monday), and select members of the media were invited to attend for an intimate question and answer session,” says McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore. “Mr. Sonka was not invited, and was therefore asked to leave. When he refused, the matter was turned over to the hotel staff who followed their internal protocol.”
In a March 14 e-mail, Moore indicated the presser was a “RSVP-only event,” but the release never said it was private or that certain media outlets were not allowed to cover it.
Sonka was also kicked out of a McConnell press conference at a Louisville business last month for an unknown reason, but was allowed to re-enter by the owner.
The McConnell camp is known to run a tight messaging operation in what’s one of the more closely watched Senate contests this year.
In past events with the press, the senator has made it clear the news is about what he wants to be covered. Taking that a step further, McConnell campaign officials tell WFPL it is also their prerogative to hold private events with select media outlets.
The clash with LEO caught the attention of McConnell’s GOP primary opponent Matt Bevin, whose campaign contrasted banning a reporter with McConnell’s free speech stance on other issues.
“It’s sad that for as big of a proponent of the First Amendment Mitch McConnell thinks he is, his actions speak louder than words,” says Bevin spokeswoman Rachel Semmel, adding their campaign would never bar a reporter. “McConnell is working hard to hide his true record of higher taxes, increased spending, and bigger government from the voters, but we’re confident the truth will come out.”
Likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes’ campaign also pounced on the incident.
“After getting caught just last week lying to Kentucky media, one would have thought Mitch McConnell and his campaign would have reassessed their dishonest tactics,” says Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton. “It is clear that McConnell is so eager to run away from his horrible 30-year Washington record that he will go to shocking lengths to save the only job he cares about—his own. Kentucky voters have had enough of Mitch McConnell’s failed leadership.”
McConnell’s aides dismissed criticisms over their handling of the situation, however.
Former chief of staff Johs Holmes referred to Sonka as a “lib(eral) activist” on Twitter, and cited his past writings for the blog, Barefoot & Progressive.
(Disclosure: I worked at LEO Weekly as a staff writer for three years before coming to WFPL.)