One of the more unusual moments of the 2015 race for governor came in August during the Fancy Farm Picnic, famous for its unruly crowds.
Republican Matt Bevin approached the lectern where for decades Kentucky candidates faced deafening heckles and jeers — and asked the audience to join him in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Fancy Farm speech and other moments this election cycle depict a candidate who isn’t particularly interested in the conventions of Kentucky politics, and who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Bevin’s entry into Kentucky politics was a shot at political convention — a primary challenge against one of the most powerful men in the state and in the nation, Sen. Mitch McConnell. Bevin lost by a lot.
During a recent Kentucky Sports Radio debate, Bevin said he’d support neurosurgeon Ben Carson over U.S. Sen. Rand Paul for president. Paul, Kentucky’s junior senator, was about to stump for Bevin.
Bevin has a history of unconventional moves.
The 48-year-old grew up in New Hampshire and relocated to Kentucky in 1999 to join an investment firm called National Asset Management. After the company was sold in 2001, Bevin and 11 other partners in the firm were given hefty incentives to stay. But Bevin left after a year to found his own company, Integrity Asset Management, leaving a pot of money on the table.
Bevin’s friend Robbie Brown, former executive manager of Brown-Forman, said people called him crazy.
“He does things a little bit different than most people, I think,” Brown said. “Usually to his own benefit.”
Bevin said he made the decision to follow his passion, knowing full well that it could cost him financially in ways he’d never be able to make up.
“If you find that your head, your heart and your feet don’t show up in the same place every day, then you’re going to the wrong place,” Bevin said in an interview Wednesday with WFPL News.
And the risk worked out. In 2008, Bevin sold the company, which had grown to manage $1.8 billion in assets.
Vivek Sarin, chief executive of Shelby Industries and Bevin’s close friend, said Bevin doesn’t make decisions based on political calculations.
“Fundamentally, he’s a very principled man,” Sarin said.
“He knows who he is, he knows his values. He’s true to those values, and it is not difficult for him to go into any arena and communicate a message that’s in alignment with his principals, his values, his beliefs.”
That sometimes means not doing the obvious thing. This week, Bevin turned down an invitation to join McConnell, the powerbroker of the Republican Party in Kentucky, for a turn-out-the-vote rally in Louisville. Bevin said he had obligations in Eastern Kentucky, where several state legislators had already planned to stump with him at rallies.
“I was in multiple places that day,” he said.
Bevin has also been part of a push for criminal justice reform, which has gotten only tenuous support so far from state Republicans.
“Voter restoration is the right thing to do; expungement is the right thing to do; signing a medical marijuana bill if it were put in front of me would be the right thing to do,” Bevin said.
But Bevin has also come across as testy — or even petty — during the campaign. During a debate this week, he was asked to say something nice about his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway. He responded only by wishing Conway well in the private sector.
Bevin has also come at odds with members of the press during the campaign, refusing to answer questions posed by the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Sam Youngman and The Courier-Journal’s Joe Gerth.
Most of Bevin’s fights with journalists have come in response to pointed questions about the candidate’s seemingly evolving stance on whether to roll back or completely end Kentucky’s expanded Medicaid program. About 400,000 people have gained health insurance through the expansion, which was part of the federal Affordable Care Act.
During a press conference on Sunday, Youngman asked Bevin whether he had the temperament to be governor. In an interview on Wednesday, Bevin called Youngman, Gerth and Courier-Journal columnist Al Cross “unprofessional.”
“They’re an embarrassment to their profession,” he said. “They’re an embarrassment to the people they work for. That’s the reality. I would question, do they have the temperament to cover politics?”
The most recent polls show Bevin trailing slightly, but he’s shown signs of political resilience, bouncing back from his 2014 Senate primary defeat to narrowly win the gubernatorial nomination in May.
Brown called Bevin a natural leader. “People tend to listen to him,” he said.