One of the most significant moments of Attorney General Jack Conway’s career was his refusal in 2014 to appeal the state’s same-sex marriage ban in federal court.
It was a bold move in Kentucky, where polls have shown that most of the state’s likely voters disapprove of same-sex marriage. During his campaign this year for governor, Conway has had to answer to critics who say he shirked his duty by not defending a state law.
“I had a decision to make. Was I going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and what ultimately turned out to be millions of dollars, wasting taxpayer money on something where I thought we would lose?” the Democratic candidate said during a debate at Centre College earlier this month.
Conway has also stood against the national Democratic Party on coal. Still, he’s battled criticism that he’s too wonkish, too prudent, too introspective on the campaign trail.
Conway’s decision on same-sex marriage complicated his bid for governor. The latest Bluegrass Poll shows him with a narrow lead over Republican Matt Bevin, despite a Democratic majority of registered voters in Kentucky.
During a WFPL News special earlier this month, Conway blamed the close race partly on a “summer of social upheaval,” referring to the noisy episode of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“People have some concerns about that. What I’ve tried to do as attorney general and as a candidate is just to say that the good-paying jobs of the future are coming to states that have policies of inclusivity,” Conway said.
Conway said he would support “narrowly tailored” legislation exempting disapproving clerks from signing marriage licenses while ensuring that the documents were appropriately issued. On the campaign stump, he doesn’t make a point of bringing up the same-sex marriage issue.
Conway, 46, grew up in Louisville and earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke University and a law degree from George Washington University. He returned to his home state in 1995 to work for the administration of Gov. Paul Patton, and helped craft the state’s 1997 higher education reform law and Patton’s priorities for the legislature.
Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who was secretary of Patton’s executive cabinet, said Conway excelled in the administration because of his grasp of complex issues.
“He was one of the quickest studies I’ve ever seen in terms of grabbing hold of something very complicated and getting to the bottom of understanding everything,” Luallen said.
His focus on policy-writing can also be a political liability. He has been criticized as being wonkish and not attentive enough to campaigning.
Luallen, who Conway calls a mentor, said that’s a good thing.
“If by ‘wonkish’ you mean he’s interested in policy, I think it’s a blessing,” Luallen said. “Too many young politicians get involved in politics because they want to win elections, and they want to have the power and the glory that goes along with being an elected leader.”
Conway has a hit-and-miss record in electoral politics. He was encouraged by Patton, Luallen and other state Democrats to run for Congress in 2002; he lost to Republican incumbent Anne Northup.
He worked in his father’s law firm until he ran successfully in 2007 for his first of two terms as attorney general. He tried for Washington again in 2010 but was defeated for a U.S. Senate seat by Republican Rand Paul.
Louisville Democratic state Sen. Morgan McGarvey — who worked in the attorney general’s office under Conway — said his former boss’ leadership has been significant for the state.
“You look at what he’s done on the civil side with some of the big lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies,” McGarvey said. “Even though it hasn’t resulted in a judgment yet, I can tell you having worked on it, that suit against Marathon Oil has been hugely influential.”
As attorney general, Conway is also suing the federal government for its rules regulating carbon emissions, which he said will drive up electricity prices and hurt Kentucky’s economy.
It’s one of Conway’s signature issues in the race for governor this year. And he uses it as a defense when his opponents compare him to President Obama, a particularly unpopular Democrat in Kentucky.
“I readily acknowledge that the president is unpopular here, particularly in Eastern Kentucky, they feel like he’s damaged the economy,” Conway said earlier this month. “That’s the reason I took on Obama’s EPA and have been the only Democrat in the country to take on the EPA. I will always put Kentucky over politics.”