In Ky. House Race, Star Power and a Tough Battle
Democrat Clooney Seeks Win in District Edging Toward GOP
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2004; Page A02
MILTON, Ky. — It’s not the contributions from Grayson and Shelbyville and Fort Mitchell that catch your eye. It’s the ones from Santa Monica and Los Angeles, the ones attached to such names as Meg Ryan, Paul Newman, Salma Hayek, Warren Beatty, Renee Zellweger, Bette Midler, Danny DeVito and Kevin Costner.
Campaign checks have rolled in, too, from Catherine Zeta-Jones, Steven Spielberg, Red Buttons — and one George Clooney, whose credits include actor, director and, now, candidate’s son.
The race is Clooney for Congress and the Democratic name on the ballot in northern Kentucky belongs to Nick Clooney, a well-known former television news anchor who is driving the back roads trying to claim the state’s only House seat not in Republican hands.
Clooney, the brother of late singer-actress Rosemary Clooney, is not bashful about invoking his celebrity family ties. He reckons that his formidable family name has saved him “a couple hundred thousand dollars” in campaign ads. But it is clear that star power alone will not be enough to succeed retiring three-term Democrat Ken Lucas.
Lucas recruited Clooney, 70, who was born in tiny Maysville and has deep roots in Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District. But the district’s sensibilities have edged toward the GOP in a state President Bush is expected to win easily.
Clooney’s opponent, businessman and former Army Ranger Geoff Davis, narrowly lost to Lucas in 2002. Davis, who runs a consulting firm, is a graduate of West Point and helped direct Army air operations for a U.S. peacekeeping mission.
Davis has raised more campaign funds than Clooney, $2.28 million to $1.2 million. He and the Republican Party are trying to cast Clooney as a feckless liberal and are running an ad that dubs him “Looney Clooney.”
Clooney tells audiences that he remembers being called Looney Clooney.
“Then, of course, we went to the fourth grade.”
Clooney may be dipping into Hollywood’s pockets, but he is keeping the style of his race decidedly local. On a recent day as he drove from town to town along the Ohio River, the odometer on his black Lincoln Town Car passed 233,000 somewhere between Bedford and Carrollton.
At a Milton restaurant, Clooney chatted with farmers wearing denim and baseball caps. He talked about the economy and the huge federal tobacco buyout that Congress recently approved. “We’re not going to get anything better,” he said. “We’ve got to take it and move on.” When someone worried aloud about veterans’ health care, Clooney noted that he is a veteran and said, “I’m going to be pushing real hard.”
“We’ve got to get that bridge fixed up,” Clooney told the group, referring to an aging span over the Ohio River. “We got that one in Maysville fixed up.”
Reggie Rand, 69, said he likes what he sees. The candidate might be wearing a dark suit and a tie, and he might be the father of a rich and famous actor, but he “seems to have a real ear for the farm country. He seems to have an ability to listen to us. I’m for him real strong.”
Clooney has taken conservative stands on social issues. He opposes abortion in almost all cases, as well as same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research. On Iraq, he believes the invasion was a mistaken “diversion” from the war against terrorism and says he sees anger building among voters.
Davis, who backs Bush on the war and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, challenged Clooney in a recent debate to declare himself “pro-life.”
As the lunchtime crowd thinned out in Milton, Clooney worked his way through a bowl of bean soup and some corn bread, fried flat. He said running for Congress is not as farfetched as it might seem for a former Cincinnati newsman, onetime host on American Movie Classics and, since 1989, columnist for the Kentucky Post.
Clooney was tempted to run years ago, he said, but he concluded that it would be too hard on his family. This time, he said, everyone signed off and he jumped into the race — after recognizing, he said, that “my 15 years of columns would be 15 years of hostages to fortune.”
“If you have a facility for working with others and a single purpose and you focus on that, you can make a difference, even in one term,” Clooney said. He told a group that “politics can be really dumb, vulgar and mean. But politics at its best . . . can be noble.”