In his campaign to become the state attorney general, Democratic nominee Andy Beshear has made voters aware that his Republican opponent, state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, of Hopkinsville, was counseled eight years ago about getting a pedicure when he was reportedly expected in court. That is one detail in Westerfield’s personnel file with Lynn Pryor, the commonwealth’s attorney for Christian County. Unfortunately, it has received disproportionate attention in this race.
Voters ought to be asking if that detail alone is enough to determine if Westerfield is qualified to be Kentucky’s attorney general.
But many voters won’t ask questions that go beyond a sound bite about a lawyer getting a pedicure. It’s the kind of detail that can hijack an election.
Some context would put both candidates in better focus.
Westerfield, 34, passed the bar exam in 2006 and became a part-time prosecutor for Pryor’s office in 2007. The details from his personnel file, which is a public record, were first reported in the news media by “Pure Politics,” a program of cn2, a cable television channel broadcast in Louisville, Bowling Green and Northern Kentucky markets. The file includes a memo written during Westerfield’s first year as a lawyer that outlined complaints about his punctuality and his dealings with co-workers and court officials. One portion included, “Personal interests often take priority over work duties,” and then noted, “Teeth Cleaning vs. Jury Trial,” ”Pedicure vs. Arraignments,” and “Cell Phone in Court.”
In an interview with cn2, Pryor indicated she was trying to provide constructive criticism to Westerfield as a young lawyer. She added he eventually became her “go to” staff member in the office when she was away.
A fair assessment of Westerfield’s qualifications to be attorney general should include his record as a prosecutor for five years and his performance in the Kentucky Senate since his upset victory over Joey Pendleton in 2012. His legislative record is easily his better selling point. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Westerfield was instrumental — along with Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee — in passing a juvenile justice reform bill, the dating violence bill and legislation aimed at reducing heroin abuse.
Still, at last weekend’s Fancy Farm Picnic, Westerfield had to acknowledge the pedicure sound bite by telling Beshear that his nails were clipped and he was ready to go “toe to toe” with him.
Beshear, 37, passed the bar in 2003. He is the son of Gov. Steve Beshear and practices law with Stites and Hardison in Louisville. He’s also taken some hits in this election. He’s been criticized for not revealing clients he represents in cases before the attorney general’s office.
Beshear has said he would be in violation of state ethics rules established by the Kentucky Supreme Court for lawyers if he named his clients. However, some law firms, including the one where Beshear works, list clients publicly as a form of marketing.
There is a legitimate concern about potential conflicts of interest if Beshear or Westerfield have represented clients in private practice who face investigation by the state’s top attorney. In one case reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper, we know Beshear represented Home Service USA, a business that paid a fine to the state, but did not admit wrongdoing, in a dispute over selling insurance policies to municipal water customers.
Still, questions about clients and potential conflicts of interest don’t stick like a pedicure slam.
Westerfield, who had raised about $88,000 compared to $1.99 million by Beshear in the last report to election finance officials, might not be able to overcome the money deficit. To stand a chance against Beshear’s name recognition, and the dig about the pedicure, he’ll have to attend every chicken dinner and every civic gathering from one end of the state to the other between now and Nov. 3.
Let’s hope voters chose the next attorney general based on his overall record and qualifications — not on one sound bite that’s become a joke too easily recalled and too often repeated.
Kentucky New Era, Hopkinsville