Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Charles Booker, his Democratic opponent this fall in Kentucky, traded shots at each other Monday involving each other’s response to the deadly flooding that devastated several Appalachian counties last week.
Booker personally delivered a truck full of water and supplies to an emergency shelter at Letcher County Central High School in flood-ravaged Whitesburg on Saturday, with his campaign office in Louisville now full of more supplies that will be delivered soon after his call for supporters to provide donations.
But when asked by a reporter at his Monday press conference in Louisville if he felt like he was doing enough for the flood victims — and the optics of his opponent being there on the ground with his volunteer effort — Paul countered that politicians should stay out of the way.
“I think most people think that the people who should be doing the responding are the professionals,” Paul said. “You know, politicians out there having their picture taken probably isn’t that useful.”
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Paul added that what flood victims actually need are “monetary donations, as opposed to goods,” saying that much of the goods collected for the Western Kentucky tornado victims in December “still sits in warehouses, and they’re still trying to find somebody that could make use of it.”
“I just don’t like the images of politicians getting in front of a camera out where rescuers are trying to actually dig people out and try to save lives.”
Paul said he would eventually visit the area and work with “the governor and the other elected officials to make sure that disaster relief is there for them. But in the immediate aftermath, we really would need to save lives.”
Booker shot back at Paul’s comments later Monday, issuing a statement that the senator’s “pitiful response is yet more evidence that he does not care about the people of Kentucky.”
“He’s talking like someone who hasn’t been on the ground, because if he saw what I saw, he’d know that everyone’s help is needed,” Booker said. “If he actually listened to the people on the ground, he’d know they are asking for supplies to help with cleanup, hot meals, and debris removal. They’re asking for help finding loved ones.”
Since delivering a truck full of supplies to the emergency shelter in Whitesburg on Saturday, Booker says his campaign office “has received an overwhelming amount of donations and supplies for the impacted areas. We will be working with organizers on the ground to make sure they are distributed to those in need.”
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Booker tweeted a video Monday afternoon of himself walking through rooms of his campaign office filled with water, diapers and other supplies that supporters had donated, writing: “This is what standing together looks like. This is what Kentucky is all about!”
“We turned our campaign office into a drop location for flood relief, and this is how you responded! I can’t thank you enough. Let’s keep going.”
Booker has not been the only politician who lives outside the region to travel there after the flooding and volunteer their help, as Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron posted photos of himself meeting with people in the area Monday.
“Today, I visited local shelters in Breathitt and Knott Counties to deliver essential supplies to Kentuckians who have been impacted by the severe flooding in eastern Kentucky,” Cameron wrote on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. “It was an honor to spend time with such generous and resilient Kentuckians.”
Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles — who like Cameron, is running for governor next year — also posted videos and photos Sunday of himself “delivering water, food and toiletries to devastated areas of Eastern Kentucky including Manchester and Hazard,” along with calls for people to deliver more supplies to his Frankfort office.
Gov. Andy Beshear observed the flooding damage from a National Guard helicopter Friday and visited affected areas on the ground Sunday in Perry, Knott and Letcher counties, before making another trip to emergency shelters in Floyd, Breathitt and Pike counties on Tuesday.
The governor, who has led the emergency response efforts, set up a website for people to donate to flood relief efforts, while also emphasizing the need for donations of water and cleaning supplies to the devastated areas.
Booker added in his statement to The Courier Journal that when he saw news of the flooding, “I did not respond as a politician. I responded as a Kentuckian and (Paul) should have done the same thing.”
State Rep. Angie Hatton, a Democrat from Whitesburg, told The Courier Journal she was grateful for Booker’s donations to her city’s shelter.
“I have known Charles for years, starting when we served together in the Kentucky House, and I was not the least bit surprised that he came here to help,” Hatton said. “He knows I would do exactly the same if the situation were reversed.”
Hatton added that “we don’t have the time or desire to politicize the worst natural disaster my corner of the state has ever suffered. On the contrary, we deeply appreciate everyone who has donated time, money and supplies to help, because the need is so great.”
“With that in mind, I know Sen. Paul has access to many resources, and we would be glad to work with him in any capacity. I’ll accept help — and hugs — from anyone willing to help my people.”
Reach reporter Joe Sonka at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @joesonka.