FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Andy Beshear’s first year as Kentucky governor was consumed by politically treacherous decisions to combat the COVID-19 crisis, which led him to restrict public life in unprecedented ways as infections and deaths mounted.
Amid surge after surge of virus cases, the Democrat temporarily closed or scaled back some businesses. He halted in-class school instruction. He preached the virtues of wearing masks and limiting public gatherings. His difficult decisions spurred legal challenges and protests, even to the point of armed demonstrators once showing up outside his home to hang the governor in effigy.
Like other governors, Beshear found himself at the forefront of a monumental health crisis that to a large extent will shape his legacy and determine his political future. His crisis-management skills were tested again during the upheaval that put Kentucky in the spotlight over racial injustice. Protests erupted in Louisville over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police.
Beshear took the virus-related pushback, much of it from Republican officeholders, in stride. But he acknowledged that steering the Bluegrass State through the deadly pandemic has been “hard emotionally” even as “it’s been really hard on every family out there.”
“The pressure of knowing that your decisions will determine how many people live and how many people die, that’s heavy, it’s very heavy,” the governor told The Associated Press in a year-end interview. “And knowing that every decision that you make, or that you don’t make, is going to be unpopular as well.”
“But I became convinced early on that this is going to be the most important task in my professional life that I’m ever called on to undertake and I was going to do it right. So no matter what the future implications are to me, if I do this right I’ll be at peace.”
Beshear said his actions, and the cooperation of most Kentuckians, have saved thousands of lives.
“You make the best call you can but you push on,” Beshear said. “Because if we stop, people die.”
More tough decisions loom as Kentucky grapples with the worst surge of the pandemic. And the governor will be watched closely as he oversees the distribution of vaccines.
It’s taken a political toll: Beshear’s rocky relationship with the Republican-led legislature worsened as the pandemic dragged on. GOP lawmakers denounced his virus-related actions as inconsistent. They criticized him for not consulting them on decisions even though he said he tried to always meet with GOP lawmakers when asked.
“Too often, Gov. Beshear relies on unilateral orders instead of working with lawmakers and other state elected leaders to put Kentuckians first,” said state Republican Party spokesman Mike Lonergan.
Republicans signaled they’ll consider legislation next year to rein in a governor’s emergency powers.
Beshear said he has worked well with GOP governors and Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state. “Responding to a pandemic takes strong executive action, and I made a choice early on that the primary voices that I was going to listen to were public health experts,” he said.
He also notes the state overcame daunting early challenges. When the virus first hit in March, testing capabilities were limited, he said. Now there’s an extensive statewide testing network, he said, and the state has strong inventories of personal protective equipment.
But any “room to operate” given Beshear by the Republicans evaporated when he took action against a church that violated his order against mass gatherings, said longtime political commentator Al Cross. Federal courts halted his decision that his ban on mass gatherings could be applied to in-person religious services.
The governor also notched court victories. The state Supreme Court upheld his authority to issue virus-related restrictions on businesses and individuals to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Pike County Judge-Executive Ray Jones said the governor has responded to a “very bad situation as well as anyone could have.”
“He has made hard political decisions that, in my opinion, have saved a lot of lives,” Jones said. “It’s not popular to tell people they can’t run their business. It’s not popular to say you can’t go to school.”
The enormity of the pandemic overshadowed other actions Beshear has taken. He overhauled the state school board, restored voting rights for non-violent felons who completed their sentences and halted efforts to impose work requirements on some Medicaid health coverage.
Later, Beshear led the push to take down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky Capitol. He relaunched a state-run web portal to point Kentuckians to health coverage.
The governor said his top priorities remain boosting public education, expanding health care coverage, creating good-paying jobs and protecting public pensions.
But his handling of the pandemic likely will shape his legacy — and his political future.
“It will be interesting to see how he polls after we get through the latest crucible and into the legislative session, when he will be the target of repeated attacks from Republicans who may be competing for the title of who can be toughest on him,” Cross said.
Beshear predicts the pandemic will be “substantially lessened, if not defeated,” by next summer’s end, when he’ll still have much of his term “in front of me.”
“Kentuckians are going to watch over the next couple of years and I think they’ll be able to judge me on work that I’ve done,” the governor said. “And I feel comfortable that three years from now, we’re going to be in a good spot.”