FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's governor on Tuesday linked signers of a petition seeking his ouster to a rally where he was hanged in effigy and to a video declaring God would strike him down for his COVID-19 restrictions on churches.
Ratcheting up his response, Gov. Andy Beshear called out two petition signers a day after the GOP-led House formed a committee to review the petition. The petition calls for Beshear's impeachment for lockdown orders meant to combat the pandemic. It was submitted by just four Kentuckians.
"These people who signed this petition have tried to create terror for me and my family before," the Democratic governor said at a news conference. "And when that hasn't worked, I guess they're trying something new.
"We cannot, as a country and as a government, lift these folks up," he added. "It is dangerous. It is fanning the flames of their hate and of their anger."
One petition signer, Beshear said, was an organizer of a 2020 rally where armed protesters gathered near the governor's home and then hanged Beshear in effigy in a tree near the State Capitol. The event was billed as a rally in defense of constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms, but turned into a protest against the governor's coronavirus restrictions.
Beshear pointed to a social media video posted by another petition signer. It warned Beshear risked being struck down by God unless he rescinded a COVID-19 order from applying to churches. It showed a gun behind the man.
"Pretty sure the statement he was trying to send to me then," Beshear said.
The governor angered some social conservatives last spring when he initially included in-person religious services in a broader temporary ban on mass gatherings to try to slow the virus's spread.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the impeachment committee said Tuesday that Beshear and his accusers will have a chance to make their case when the panel reviews the petition. The seven-member, bipartisan committee will start meeting soon, said Rep. Jason Nemes, the panel's chairman.
"The governor is going to be given every opportunity to defend himself," said Nemes, a Louisville Republican. "And the petitioners are going to be given every opportunity to make the case that they put forward."
The petition claims the governor violated the state and U.S. constitutions with a series of restrictions he ordered to try to prevent the virus's spread.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have signed an online petition in support of Beshear.
Beshear said Monday there is "zero grounds" for his removal and declared that attempting to do so would undo his valid election. He pointed to a state Supreme Court ruling that said he had the authority to put restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the virus.
House Speaker David Osborne said he is legally obligated to respond to the petition.
"I don't think anyone should be overly concerned or excited about the appointment of a committee, which is statutorily required," Nemes added.
Beshear warned, however, that the House response could set a "concerning precedent."
"If a person out there making videos of smiting people, with his handgun in clear sight, can file a petition and create a real spectacle, my goodness, how many of these are we going to see?" the governor said.
Some Republican-led states with more lax responses have been hit much harder by the pandemic, resulting in much higher death tolls, a contrast Beshear has noted in defending his restrictions.
Kentucky has surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 cases and is approaching 3,000 virus-related deaths.
Four constitutional officers have been impeached in Kentucky history but only one was convicted: James "Honest Dick" Tate, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Tate, a state treasurer in the post-Civil War era, was impeached after stealing $250,000 from the state, even though he fled the country and was never found.
Democratic Rep. Jeffery Donohue said Tuesday that the petition against Beshear presents a "false narrative." He urged lawmakers to quickly resolve the matter and work together on COVID-related issues.
"Let's make sure — which I know we will — (we) come to the correct conclusion on this," he said.
GOP lawmakers fumed from the sidelines for months as Beshear put restrictions on schools, individuals and some businesses to combat the pandemic. They accused him of overreaching with arbitrary decisions made without consulting with them.
In response, Beshear has noted that the state has substantially lower case numbers than several states that took less aggressive measures.
Republican lawmakers took quick action in the opening week of this year's session, passing bills to limit the governor's emergency authority to impose COVID-19 restrictions. The GOP has enough House and Senate members to override any gubernatorial vetoes.