Community Politics

Over the weekend, photos from an unlikely place at the Kentucky State Fair went viral; they show Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, festooned in a garish blue jacket covered with images of President Donald Trump, speaking with volunteers for the state’s Democratic Party at the party’s booth at the fair.

The photos were posted by Bevin’s own campaign manager. They were amplified by a reporter and the Louisville Democratic Party, who accused Bevin of “trolling.” Online commenters piled on, saying the governor was bullying and harassing the volunteers.

But some of the people in the photos say the interaction was misconstrued, and they’re upset it’s being portrayed so divisively.

“He didn’t harass us, he didn’t bully us. He just had a nice long conversation with us,” said University of Louisville freshman Forest Clevenger, who’s one of the people pictured in the photo.

He said the conversation included Bevin’s blocking of detractors on social media and abortion policy.

“And I wish that he treated everyone with the kind of respect he treated us with then,” Clevenger said.

In the photos, it’s hard to take your eyes off Bevin’s jacket, which was for sale at a nearby booth. When a Courier Journal reporter posted the photos to Twitter with the language about Bevin trolling the volunteers, the post was retweeted, commented on and liked by hundreds of people. The Louisville Democrats Facebook post repeated that language, and the photos racked up more than 2,000 shares and hundreds of comments.

Many of the comments accuse Bevin of harassing or bullying the volunteers; the official Louisville Democrats account didn’t make or refute those claims, but responded to online commenters with pleas to donate money to defeat Bevin in his re-election bid this November.

Local TV station WHAS11 did a story — purely on the “social frenzy” caused by the visit. And by Monday morning, even Newsweek had published a story. The Courier Journal followed up Monday evening with another story about Bevin — and President Donald Trump’s — history trolling opponents.

But for Clevenger and Meera Sahney, who’s also featured in the pictures, it’s frustrating. They say they don’t agree with Bevin’s policies and don’t know whether the governor was trying to get a rise out of them when he visited the Dems’ booth on Saturday, but the narrative about the encounter that emerged wasn’t accurate.

Volunteer Brenda Erickson, who’s also in the photos, agrees. She said she disagrees with Bevin and does not want him to be re-elected, but that doesn’t mean she would be rude.

“We weren’t nasty to him and he was not nasty to us,” she said.

Clevenger said he tried to reach out to commenters and reporters online after the “trolling” narrative took off, but he had mixed results.

“Some folks were kind to us when we tried to say, ‘Here’s the whole picture,’” he said. “Other folks got very mad at us because they wanted it to be this incendiary thing. One person texted me and said ‘Boo, that’s boring.’”

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Louisville Democrats directed all inquiries to Kentucky Democratic Party spokesperson Marisa McNee. McNee said the state party had not shared the encounter at all on social media, and the party had responded through a veiled tweet posted Sunday.

“We may be Kentucky Democrats, but we have republicans visit our booth all the time at the #KYStateFair,” it reads in part, with a picture of a woman it identifies as a teacher and registered Republican who plans to vote for Bevin’s opponent, Democrat Andy Beshear.

Sahney, also a freshman at U of L, said the encounter with Bevin and the ensuing social media storm only strengthened her belief that civil discourse is essential to democracy.

“People will spew a story into whatever they want and because of the power of the media, it can be blown up beyond any proportion,” she said. “So instead of the conversation being about civil discourse, which is the moral of the story at the end of the day, it was about something so trivial.”

Correction: This story previously stated the Kentucky Democratic Party’s only comment was the tweet. McNee also spoke with WFPL News.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.