Julian Carroll, this state's widely traveled Democratic governor, has been grounded-made captive by vintage Kenutcky political backstabbing. His tormentor is a crusty woman, Lt. Gov. Thelma Stovall, who twice in recent weeks has virtually taken over the state in Carroll's absence.
While Carroll was lecturing rookie governors on the art of governing in Atlanta, she called the state legislature into session to cut taxes. A couple weeks later, while Carroll was in Las Vegas, she ordered an audit of state books, again embarrassing the governor.
Stovall says she has no more surprises for Carroll "unless I find something else that needs doing. You know, I'm not just aggravating him for the fun of it."
Carroll, chairman of the National Governors' Association, is worried half silly about what "Old Thelma," as she is called here, will do the next time he leaves town. I've decided, at least for now, to stay home for awhile," he lamented the other day in his mansion. "I may find myself a captive in the state."
Stovall's actions have made her the most controversial political figure in the Bluegrass State and a leading contender to succeed Carroll, who is prohibited from running for a second term next year.
"Politically, she's shown a streak of genius," says state Sen. Walter Baker, a Republican. "Almost overnight, she's become the apparent front-runner for governor."
The moves were made possible by an obscure provision of the state constitution written in the horse-and-buggy days of 1891 when communications were difficult, placing all of the governor's powers in the hands of hhe lieutenant governor anytime the chief executive crosses the state line. Once the lieutenant governor takes an action, the governor cannot override it when he returns to the state.
"What can I do about her?" Carrol asked. When I have to go the next time, I'll ask her to go with me. If she refuses, I'll attempt find out what she's up to."
Stovall, 59, would seem an unlikely grandstander, or serious candidate for governor of any state. A former assembly line worker at a Louisville cigthrough the labor movement and has state and lieutenant governor as result of the musical chair system that permeates Kentucky politics.
She's survived for two decades on the strength of her familiar name, and her ability to make strong friends and weak enemies. "You don't have to like Thelma Stovall to vote for her, but if you've been around Kentucky very long, you know who she is," Stovall says.
She is clumsy in public, and stammers through routine speeches and interviews, a result, in part, of a speechimpediment caused by a stroke.
"neither her features nor her language could be described as delicate," Louisville Courier-Journal columnist John Filiatreau has written. "She has devoted her public life to stamping out tact. Her sense of humor runs to ribaldry. She has been known to down a drink or two or three in support of a good Democratic cause."
Although Carroll is one of the most traveled governors in Kentucky history-he has built up the state air fleet to 13 planes and helicopters and has spent all or part of 80 days away form Kentucky this year-the only previous time Stovall took advantage of absence was last March when she vetoed a bill that would have rescinded the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. This move that made her a minor folk hero among women's groups.
The two **democrats, however, had an unspoken agreement on that one, Stovall claims. "I think he knew well enough what I'd do when he left town. He's been for the ERA before, but he was afraid he's hurt his candidate (for governor) if he did anything."
The current melodrama is being played out against a backdrop of emerging scandal in the Carroll administration and one of the most crowded governor's races in state history.
Kentucky is traditionally, a Democratic state and the party's gubernatorial nominations are normally decided in bitter factional fights, seldom attracting more than two candidates.
The 1979 race already drawn six major Democrats. Carroll's favorite is Terry McBrayer, a former state commerce commissioner and the acknowledged front-runner. Until recently, Rep. Carroll Hubbard, a Bible-toting congressman from Western kentucky, was thought to be McBrayer's strongest rival followed by Stovall, former Louisville mayor Harvey Sloane, and state auditor George Atkins.
Stovall, sensing the popularity of a Kentucky version of a Proposition 13 tax cut issue, secretly concocted her current offensive almost three months ago.
She knew, there was precedent for a lieutenant governor calling the legislature into special session. A. B. (Happy) Chandler, one of the state's most colorful political figures in modern times, used it while lieutenant governor when Gov. Ruby Lafoon went on a trip in 1937. It helped propel Chandler into the governor's chair.
Joseph Leary, an adviser to both Stovall and Chandler, originally wanted her to call a session for midwinter, closer to the May primary election. But Stovall favored an earlier date, and waited on pins and needles for Carroll to leave the state.
He finally did Nov. 17. Declaring she had found a "genuine and urgent concern" over high taxes in her travels in the state, she called the legislature into session.
Politicians from the Mississippi River on the west to the Tug River on the east were stunned. "You're putting me on," said House Speaker William Kenton when informed of the move.
Stovall insisted the maneuver was carefully plotted out. "You wouldn't want me to do something stupid like this without thinking about it, would you?" she told one reporter. "I was concerned about whether I was smart enough or wise enough to do it. I thought about it and decided I was."
The move outflanked her opponents, and guaranteed herself a spot on the front pages of state newspapers for a month. It co-opted the tax issue from her opponents. And it embarrassed Carroll at a time when scores of FBI agents were investigating alleged corruption in his administration.
Republicians could not have been more pleased. "I love it. It's a political coup," exclaimed Gene Stuart, a state senator from Louisville. "She's given us (Republicans) the best year we've had in a long time. All the things (tax cuts) she's called for are like the flag and motherhood. With 113 of the 138 members of the legislature up for re-election next year, it's going to be awfully hard for us to vote against them."
The special session was scheduled to open Dec. 11. But then a flood hit Frankfurt. It was, people said here, an act of God and Carroll treated it like it was his act of God.
He closed state government, and postponed the session for two days. Legislators appearing at the capitol were barred from entering-leading one group of them to hold a rump session on the capitol steps. "There's nothing like a good flood to save a politician's hide," one of Carroll's legislative allies joked.
By the time the legislators gathered Dec. 13, flood recovery efforts were still the dominant concern. Carroll persuaded legislative leaders to postpone the session until Jan. 8, giving him time to mount a counteroffensive. Stovall reluctantly went along. "I can't believe God put this flood here just to help the governor, but he's certainly taken advantaage of it," she complained.
Carroll loyalists, meanwhile, think the tide has turned against Stovall. "You are probably seeing the last hurrah of old Thelma-the end of the musical chairs game," one of the governor's top aides said last week.
"It was cute for a few days," Carroll said in an interview. "But when reality surfaced and the novelty wore off, opinion shifted. It's our judgement that it's not going to worth anything to her politically in the long run."