04/23/2014 12:31 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

How Rand Paul May Owe His Presidential Bid to Hall of Fame Journalist Mark Hebert

Blue moon of Kentucky
Keep on shining

-Bill Monroe

If Senator Rand Paul becomes President Rand Paul in 2017, he may have Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame inductee Mark Hebert to thank.

Follow my logic here.

In 2002, Kentucky Governor Paul Patton was finishing his second term with high popularity ratings and his eye on taking on incumbent Senator Jim Bunning in 2004. An incumbent Governor in Kentucky has little trouble raising money and Patton had a terrific campaign organization. Odds are very strong that he would have beaten Bunning, who won his race in 1998 by a small margin.

Instead, Patton's political career was derailed when television journalist Mark Hebert broke the story of a fascinating scandal. While serving as Governor, Paul Patton was having an extramarital affair with Tina Conner, a nursing home operator that Patton had also appointed to Kentucky's lottery board.

Without Patton in the race, the Democrats went to a relatively unknown State Senator from Hazard, Dr. Daniel Mongiardo. Mongiardo was outspent about five to one by Bunning, but still came within a percentage point of winning. In a year when Presidential nominee John Kerry lost Kentucky by a large margin and an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment brought out a large conservative vote.

Mongiardo gave himself a chance to win, but millionaire Paul Patton would have matched or exceeded Bunning in fundraising and organization and cruised to victory.

Bunning left the Senate at the end of the term and Rand Paul took his place. If Paul Patton had been Senator Paul Patton, it's unlikely that Rand Paul would have taken him on and even more unlikely that Paul would be elected.

It took a journalist with Mark Hebert's talents, and courage, to dig out a scandal about a sitting Governor and make it a national story. With a long-term national impact.

I'm thrilled to see that Mark is being inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Before Hebert took a top job at the University of Louisville, he was considered by many to be one of the best investigative broadcast journalists in the history of Kentucky.

I would suspect that Paul Patton would agree. Hebert told me that Patton always treated him with professional respect and candor, even after Mark did the story that sunk his political career. Patton was the ultimate political professional who understood that Mark Hebert, the ultimate journalism professional, was doing his job of digging up news and letting people know about it.

As he was the ultimate journalism professional, and eventually my friend, Mark and I got off to a rocky start. Mark, who never lost the bluntness of his upstate New York heritage, was very unhappy when I started appearing, in 2004, on the ultimate Kentucky journalism television program, Comment on Kentucky.

Although it is common now, especially on Washington-based news shows, for journalists to have outside business interests, not be affiliated with a legacy media outlet and do various things to promote themselves, it was extremely unusual in 2004 and I suspect I was the Kentucky pioneer in the genre.

Although it took Mark and other establishment journalists a while to warm up to me, eventually they did as host Al Smith (a newspaper publisher who understood living in two worlds) was stubborn enough to make me a semi-regular on Comment on Kentucky.

I got into journalism midlife as I wanted to do what Mark, Al Cross, Tom Loftus and the establishment types were doing: taking on the bad guys.

Mark got to see that taking shots at politicians, without the protection of a multibillion dollar media chain, had some extreme risks. Especially for me.

I started to notice that every time I was critical of the Governor on Comment on Kentucky or in my syndicated newspaper column, various state inspectors started showing up at my financial business. It could have been coincidence, but I viewed the stream of inspectors as an scare tactic or a shakedown.

I did what any good journalist would do when someone is trying to intimidate them. I wrote about it.

Hebert did what a good journalist should do. He followed up on my story himself.

Mark interviewed me and my office staff; he did an open records request of the inspectors schedules, interviewed various people in the departments and ran his own story. He did not find a Chris Christie-like trail to the Governor's inner circle, but he did find a lot of smoke and a lot of suspicious activity.

Before Mark did his story, I seemed to be audited or inspected by every agency in Kentucky state government on a weekly basis. Even some that had no regulatory power over what I do.

Once he did the story, that stopped completely.

I am thrilled that Mark is going into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. An interesting class as he goes in with highly acclaimed Eastern Kentucky University Journalism Professor Liz Hansen and the "Doctor of Gonzo Journalism" Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. I hate that Mark is not out on the beat, keeping the rich and powerful from feeling too rich and powerful but he made a great career move at the right time.

It takes a lot of courage and passion to be willing to take on powerful enemies, but Mark has both.

Coming from a Democrat who has watched Rand Paul from ground zero, he will be a formidable presidential candidate. He often gets underestimated, but that is a mistake for anyone going up against him. He is a complicated candidate in a complicated world. I suspect that the public is so tired of cookie cutter, poll-driven, blow-dried talking heads that a person like Paul, who is a little off the beaten path is going to get some attention.

Inheriting his father's organization and fund raising skill, I can see Paul becoming the 2016 Republican nominee. Hillary Clinton seems like a heavy favorite to be the Democratic nominee and next president but Paul is such an unusual candidate, who picks unusual issues that he could be the kind of candidate that drives Clinton crazy in a one on one race.

He is the first real presidential contender from Kentucky since Harry Truman's Vice President Alben Barkley and connects with voters in a way that Washington insiders have a hard time understanding.

I only know Paul on a superficial level and was a friend of both of the candidates he beat for Senate. However, I picked Paul to win very early as I could see that Kentucky voters were on his wavelength.

Like him or dislike him, but respect the idea that he could be president.

I have no idea where Hebert stands politically. Like most professional journalists, he has kept his politics to himself and was equal opportunity in his ability to inflict pain on candidates in both parties.

It's said that journalism is the first draft of history. If Rand Paul becomes president or a presidential nominee, it can be said that the very first draft came from the dogged investigative work of Mark Hebert.

Who is now in the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

Don McNay is a former syndicated columnist and is a best selling author. You can read about him