The Kentucky Primary Elections are on May 21. Republicans and Democrats will choose their candidates for the constitutional office seats of Governor/Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Commissioner of Agriculture, Auditor and Treasurer. The General Election is on November 5.
WKMS News compiled the following series of candidate profiles, based on interviews with the candidates at various campaign stops in the region or over the phone. We asked the candidates about their priorities and what differentiates them from their opponents.
Rocky Adkins / Stephanie Horne
Longtime state Representative, and current House Minority Leader, Rocky Adkins bills himself as a moderate, middle of the road, common sense person. He touts his leadership in the Kentucky General Assembly as a training ground for stepping into the role of Governor. He says he has relationships working in the legislature with both Democrats and Republicans. Among his top priorities are public education and access to health care.
Adkins says the Bevin administration has "radical views" and listed issues involving public education and charter schools, the privatization of public pensions, an agenda that “drives down the wages of working people” and Kentuckians losing their health care.
He says Kentucky needs to have strong public education and quality health care to compete in the global economy and to attract jobs.
Adkins says winning back the Governor's seat is "critical" for Democrats and could start on a path forward to restructure and rebuild, build the party, and to recruit quality candidates ahead of 2020.
He says he doesn't follow the national Democratic Party platform, but rather the party values he says he grew up with: public education, working families, fighting for good wages, building infrastructure and social security.
Public education is "key," he says, that the jobs of the future require training and education. He also wants to invest in infrastructure: roads, bridges, airports and the rail system.
He says he's a pro-life Democrat. He also says the Obama-era Clean Power Plan hasn't been good for the economy and hurt the state's coal industry. He said the tearing down of power plants is a "big mistake" and low-cost energy is needed to build an industrial manufacturing sector.
Opioid addiction and abuse are areas where common ground can be found, he says. He believes individuals should be moved into treatment and rehabilitation that progress on this effort needs to continue.
Andy Beshear / Jacqueline Coleman
Current Attorney General Andy Beshear says he's a "fighter that gets results." He touts his many lawsuits against Governor Matt Bevin on various issues, including cuts to public higher education and changes to the retirement system.
He also credits his work ending the rape kit backlog, indictments in the cold case unit, returning $3 million stolen from seniors, tripling the number of child predators caught and lawsuits against opioid distributors.
Beshear's top priorities are to improve the public education system by investing in, and fully-funding, public schools and "bringing teachers back to the table." He says it's wrong Kentucky continued to cut higher ed funding after the recession. He says more graduates will raise per capita income in the state.
He believes health care is a basic human right and says everyone should have coverage and be able to see a doctor "without it breaking the bank." He wants it to be illegal for someone to be kicked off their coverage for pre-existing conditions, wants to rescind Bevin's Medicaid waiver, wants to sign more people up for Medicaid and wants to lower individual and state costs.
He also wants to invest in the jobs of tomorrow, such as agriculture technology. He says job skills training and college should not be an either/or, but rather wants more people going to both.
He says pension reform should not cust benefits or hoist costs onto cities, counties and universities. He says this can be resolved through the creation of new revenue streams such as expanded gaming, medical marijuana, closing tax loopholes and by stopping the provision of tax incentives to companies that aren't creating jobs that pay living wages.
On other issues, he opposes recreational marijuana. He is pro-choice and supports Roe v. Wade. He believes government should be transparent because citizens pay for it. He criticizes the Bevin administration for hiding their actions. He says he releases his tax returns every year to show Kentuckians that no one will ever own him and that he will always try to do the right thing.
Beshear says Republicans can disagree with his challenges against Bevin, but noted that the Supreme Court has ruled in his favor because he was "right" and that Bevin's actions were illegal. He says the governor should just follow the law and that Bevin refuses to do it "because he wants to be a king and does not want to be held accountable." He adds that it's time to end bullying and name-calling.
"I am a candidate of right now," Beshear said, explaining that families are falling behind because wages aren’t increasing, because of the drug epidemic and costly medical bills.
Adam Edelen / Gill Holland
Adam Edelen, former state Auditor, came to Murray State University’s campus in early April to pitch why he’s the best choice for governor and highlight his policies - rural broadband being a key component of his agenda.
“When a huge percentage of our population doesn’t have access to the Internet, an overwhelming majority in rural Kentucky, it means we’re producing people who are not relevant to the opportunities of the digital age,” Edelen said.
Edelen’s other priorities include expanding renewable energy in Kentucky’s energy portfolio, boosting funding for public education, and expanding drug court opportunities for those recovering from the opioid epidemic.
Edelen says while he opposes the policies and actions of current Governor Matt Bevin, who he calls “the worst governor in the history of this state,” he wants his campaign to focus more on policies he believes can get bipartisan support.
“We have seen the disastrous consequence of running campaigns that simply say ‘we’re just against Matt Bevin,’” Edelen said. “There are areas of broad commonality on which we can get big, important things done in Kentucky: embracing renewable energy, improving school performance, modernizing economic development.”
Edelen believes pension reform should be fully-funded for teachers, reforming tax loopholes and expanding legal gambling to bring new money into the state. The day after he came to Murray State, he announced he would decriminalize possession of marijuana of a half-ounce or less, but would still have people receive fines up to $100 for possession.
In the interview, Louisville developer Gill Holland says his job as Lieutenant Governor would be to "improve quality of place" by helping towns revitalize their main streets. He says there's more fear than reason on the pension issue, supports renewable energy, wants to establish a living wage policy, supports medical marijuana and decriminalizing small possession and wants to provide two-years of free post-high school education to all Kentuckians.
Geoff Young / Joshua French
Democratic candidate and retired engineer Geoff Young says he wants to strengthen unions, defend Planned Parenthood and clean up corruption in the Kentucky Democratic Party if elected. Young says he’s already started on that last goal with a lawsuit against 23 individuals and 10 organizations. He says he’s the most progressive candidate and calls Democratic opponents Adam Edelen and Andy Beshear “crooks.”
“They have been involved in a conspiracy to rig Democratic Party elections in Kentucky. I’ve run for a number of offices and every time I run the party apparatus make it impossible for me to win,” he said.
Young says he wants to defeat the Right-to-Life movement, which seeks to abolish all abortions past the point of fertilization. Young also says income inequality is a major issue in Kentucky. He says he will solve the budget crisis by increasing taxes and adding tax brackets for the rich, while lowering taxes on the working class.
Gregory Stumbo (unopposed)
Former Kentucky Attorney General Gregory Stumbo is running for his old seat, unopposed in the primary, and has a much easier primary election this year than the last time he ran for the position -- he won the 2003 primary by two percent over former state auditor Ed Hatchett and Chris Gorman, who was state Attorney General in the mid 1990s.
He sees this election as an opportunity to continue the work he did when he was Attorney General from 2004 to 2008.
“I want to focus on are the same things that I have fought before: Fighting the opioid epidemic, taking care of our most vulnerable citizens and rooting out crime and abuse in government, in Frankfort and throughout the state,” Stumbo said.
Stumbo points to the $24 million lawsuit settlement the state won against Purdue Pharma, a lawsuit that originated when, as Attorney General, he sued the company in 2007, as an example of the work he could continue to do if he wins the election.
He says that experience, litigating cases like that, separates him from the Republican primary candidates.
“I’m a middle of the road, independent-type prosecutor. I believe the Attorney General is what stands in between the public and a police state,” Stumbo said. “A prosecutor has to be fair. And I think my record shows that I am.”
SECRETARY OF STATE
Jason Belcher is an eastern Kentucky native, Air Force veteran and corporate cybersecurity consultant. He says he’s running for Secretary of State to make voting easier for Kentuckians, and he sees electronic voting as a key way to pursue that goal.
“The majority of Kentuckians don’t vote. That’s not good for our state. It’s not good for our democracy. The more people that participate, the better we do,” Belcher said. “I think I’ve been the strongest advocate for electronic voting. I know other [candidates] say they support it. But I didn’t hear them say that until after I’ve said it.”
Belcher points to the actions West Virginia has taken to allow overseas residents and veterans vote in state elections through a smartphone app, as an example of something that could be implemented in Kentucky. He says cybersecurity would be a top priority in protecting online votes.
“There are bad guys out there that try to find new ways to hack into the system. Or try to find new vulnerabilities in old systems,” Belcher said. “So every day, we have to patch those flaws, make those fixes, but most importantly we have to communicate with each other.”
If elected, he said he would also create a commission of business owners across the state to find how state regulations can be more business friendly.
IT businessman Jason Griffith says his top priority, if elected, is to restore the right to vote for former felons. Griffith says there is bipartisan support to make this happen. He says his other priorities are to implement automatic voter registration, extend voting hours and support small businesses by reducing the yearly tax from the Secretary of State office. He says he wants to look at things systematically and fight for every person’s right to vote.
“That transcends party. That transcends all of that and if democrats are doing something wrong then I’m going to be opposed to it. If Republicans are doing something wrong, I’m going to be opposed to it. I believe every person’s right to vote should be upheld.”
Griffith says he’s heard people say that people who do not vote often need to be removed from voter rolls. He says he thinks the idea is “barbaric and monstrous.”
“I can’t believe that we have people campaigning to take away people's right to vote because they maybe didn’t show up the last election of two. To me that’s no different than seizing someone’s land because they don’t mow it regularly or seizing a firearm because they haven’t fired it in seven or eight years.”
Griffith says he has the experience and methods to make his platform a reality.
Heather French Henry
Heather French Henry is a Maysville and Augusta native, living in Louisville. She is an advocate for Military Heroes and a wide range of veterans issues. She is a former Miss America. She served as commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs in the Beshear administration and as deputy commissioner in the Bevin administration.
Henry says the Secretary of State’s office relates to Veterans Affairs because of a cooperative effort to bring polling locations into veteran nursing homes. She said she championed accreditation for service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses - as well as having served on a minority and women-owned accreditation committee. She says the office of Secretary of State is interesting to her because of the possibility of bringing veterans into “every niche of that office.”
Henry says she feels confident in having run a statewide department that she could manage the “ins and outs” of the Secretary of State’s office - from voter registration systems, working with the state board, navigating a budget and personnel and the upcoming presidential primary and general elections.
One of her top priorities is working through “whatever structure is going to be there when you take office.” She noted the recent removal of the State Board of Elections from the Secretary of State’s office. Navigating responsibilities in this new territory would be a priority, she says.
One of her objectives would be to hire a chief information security officer who is solely dedicated to the digital security of information and that infrastructure.
She would also prioritize working with county clerks, crediting her time working with clerks while in the Veterans Affairs office. “I think when you’re in a leadership role, the first question you ask the county clerks is, ‘How can I better serve you to help you facilitate the job you need to do.” She said that could include helping to find funding or filling precincts with personnel. She says she wants to assist them and not create unfunded mandates on them.
She also says she wants to grow businesses through the Kentucky One Stop Business Portal.
Henry says she wants to get the word out and get people excited about voting. She says she is concerned people have lost trust in government and feel their vote doesn’t count. Henry says there are ways to make voting easier, such as expanding voting hours, automatic registration when someone gets their license, early voting, no excuse absentee voting. “I would support early voting,” she said, but wants to talk to county clerks about how they would pay for any such changes.
She encourages families to raise their children to understand the election process and to take them to the polls and set an example.
Henry says she is able to work both sides of the political aisle. “The Secretary of State, while a partisan race, should be run like a nonpartisan office. People’s registration, whether they’re a Republican or Democrat, should not matter when it comes to providing safe and secure elections. Every vote should count. Every business should count regardless of whether it’s run by a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent.”
She says, in the end, people want to see good government and good work being done.
Geoff Sebesta says his top priority as Secretary of State is the maintenance of transparency and the competent management of an important office. He said he would strive to run an office with “no drama” and maintain the office within its existing budget.
Sebesta says he has a lot of secretarial experience. He describes himself as coming from “the protest world, the world of activism.” He is aligned with gubernatorial candidate Geoff Young.
Sebesta supports returning the right to vote to felons. He criticizes Republican policy for resulting in “fewer people voting.”
He says he would be nonpartisan in office and would strive to be “ruthlessly fair.”
COMMISSIONER OF AGRICULTURE
Robert Haley Conway
Robert Haley Conway says he has served on the Scott County Board of Education. He is a small farm owner and an eighth generation farmer.
Conway wants to get young people involved in agriculture. He says farming requires a lot of capital and would define success in this priority as having conversations about this and other issues, such as farm bankruptcy. He says small farms are his priority.
“There is money out there. I know that for a fact. But nobody knows where it is or how to get to it,” he said. “So there has to be some transparency on how to access the funds because it takes a lot of money to get into farming. It takes a lot of money to stay in farming.”
He also says solar and hydroponics could be more prioritized.
Conway says his business experience in operating large budgets and overseeing thousands of employees means he has qualities to run the Department of Agriculture.
He says the Republican Party has used the commissioner position as a platform for up-and-comers. He says incumbent Ryan Quarles is “the golden boy of the Republican Party” and the “heir apparent to Mitch McConnell.”
Conway says he’s financing his own campaign and has never run for a statewide office or in a partisan race. He describes himself as “a middle of the road guy” and an “old fashioned Democrat.”
Joe Trigg says his top priority is to find a way to increase income for farmers, “and right now, the only way we can do that is to replace the old tobacco system with the hemp system.” He says this program will lay a new foundation for farmers. Trigg says success would be having separate quotas for CBD oil and for fiber and seed.
Trigg says he is a farmer and has been involved in all aspects from vegetables to fish, as well as research projects. Trigg also has a military background and says, through that, he has dealt with large budgets and people reporting to him.
When asked how he’d win the general election, Trigg says he wants to “come to the people.”
“The program that’s set up now is designed, I think, and I believe most of the folks do, so that the large corporations will come in and take control of the hemp,” he said. He suspects large corporations are lurking and that small farmers are “ripe for a takeover.”
Sheri Donahue says she wants to expand IT security audits to the county levels. She wants to audit voting machines as well as state contracts since the elimination of prevailing wage.
Her goal is to have no hacks in IT security. She says there currently isn’t anything measurable on this front, so anything steps taken would be a huge improvement.
As for the state contracts, Donahue says she believes there are some public safety issues and wants to identify those to improve quality of work.
She credits her 30 years of experience and working for the Navy for her qualifications in the role as Auditor. She says she has managed organizations as small as eight people and as large as 50,000. She says she has worked for Republican and Democratic presidents. “Party never mattered to me,” she said. “What mattered to me was the people that put me there and the people I was responsible for helping - the military. That’s what I’m going to do as auditor.”
Donahue says incumbent Mike Harmon has been more responsive to the Governor than the people who elected him. She said previous auditor Adam Edelen referred 68 cases for prosecution and says the current auditor has had no cases taken up for prosecution. “I know that we can do better, and my concern is that there is a lot of talk about us being a corrupt state. I don’t believe we are. I take offense as a Kentuckian. I believe that Kentucky is good at exposing it. That we have been. But the last few years, I worry that there’s been a lot of hiding things,” she said. “We need to be better at being open. And we need to be better at finding things that are wrong and making them better.”
Kelsey Hayes Coots
Democratic candidate and Louisville teacher Kelsey Hayes Coots says her top priorities if elected are to make audits more accessible and navigable to the public. She says she wants to overhaul the website and streamline what comes out of the Auditor’s office. She says audits are currently hyperlinked chronologically, but says people should be able to sign up for audits that relating to where they live or topics that interest them. She also says audits should be available to Kentuckians in a way that they can read and understand.
Coots says she thinks that elected leaders have stopped “showing up” for everyday working Kentuckians. She says there is a “deficit of trust” in state government because of corruption. She says she wants to restore trust in office by increasing transparency and accountability.
“And I don’t mean those as just buzzwords,” Coots says. “I make the case that I am the only candidate in the race that has a full vision and a plan for the office. It really has to do a lot with the democratization of the office.”
Coots says she also wants to expand the SAFE-house program, a platform where people can anonymously report waste, fraud and abuse.
She says the first thing she would do in office is “audit the auditors” or meet with them to see what their ideas are for office and how to help entities be better stewards of taxpayer dollars. She says she can hit the ground running and bring passion to the office, if elected.
Pension consultant Chris Tobe says he hopes to tackle the pension crisis by going after “secret no bid contracts to Wall Street.” Tobe says he’s worked finance accounting for roughly 30 years and wrote a book in 2013 called “Kentucky Fried Pension.” He says, if elected, he would immediately audit Kentucky Retirement Systems to look at investments and payments.
“We’re paying out over 4 million in fees through our retirement systems to Wall Street in these secret no bid contracts,” Tobe said. “What I would define success is trying to get these fees down hopefully in the tens of millions of dollars being paid by Kentucky taxpayers out to Wall Street firms.”
Tobe says he has the most finance and accounting experience out of his primary opponents combined. He also says his Republican opponent, incumbent Mike Harmon, has done “halfway audits” and ignored illegal investments in December’s pension audit. He says Harmon is a “rubber stamp” for Governor Matt Bevin.
“As auditor, I would be there to look at both projects that may upset a democratic or republican governor. I will be going after all of them for the taxpayers,” Tobe said.
Tobe says he would also look at the Fish and Wildlife Department, the Yum Center in Louisville and Braidy Industries in eastern Kentucky.
Louisville-based US Bank branch manager Michael Bowman believes his experience managing investment portfolios and several years of work as a legislative assistant with the Louisville Metro Council makes him the best Democratic candidate for Treasurer in this year’s primary election.
“I have knowledge of investments. I can sit on the investment commission board and ask those questions such as ‘is this a good investment for Kentucky,’” Bowman said. “This is for the people of Kentucky. And to ensure they have a voice that doesn’t just sit in an office in Frankfort, but is actually proactive and gets out in the community.”
Bowman says he’s running for Treasurer partly because he feels that state elected officials need to do a better job of holding accountable the governor's office, pointing to the actions of current Governor Matt Bevin.
“My priorities are accountability and transparency. We have a situation in Frankfort where we have someone who sits in the Governor’s mansion who doesn’t believe he should be held accountable,” Bowman said. “And the purposes of offices like Auditor, Treasurer, Attorney General -- all of those are meant to put a check on the executive branch.”
Bowman lost a race for Jefferson County clerk in the 2018 general election to Republican incumbent Barbara Holsclaw.
Josh Mers runs a small insurance agency in Lexington, and the experience of having that business is one of the reasons why he believes he’s the best candidate for Treasurer in the Democratic Primary.
“My experience doesn’t come from a corporate handbook that’s been handed down and says ‘this is how you do it,” Mers said. “It comes from day to day experience, not only trying to start, expand and grow a small business, but keep it thriving.”
Mers says he envisions the Treasurer position as an opportunity not only to advocate for economic development across the state but to be an advocate for economic development benefiting communities left behind. He believes several years serving on Lexington’s Human Rights Commission gives him perspective on how to advocate for people who have less.
If he wins the primary election, Mers says he sees his support for public education as an advantage against Republican incumbent Treasurer Allison Ball, who is running unopposed in the Republican Primary.
“I think our race will definitely be a public referendum on should the person that sits on the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System Board by mandate, should the State Treasurer believe in public education,” Mers said. “And currently, we have someone that does not. And it’s a very big difference.”