The top three Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial contenders avoided attacking one another in their second televised debate in as many weeks, but they didn’t spare Republican incumbent Matt Bevin from sharp jabs on Tuesday.
House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, Attorney General Andy Beshear, and former State Auditor Adam Edelen rarely answered a question without bringing up Bevin, who was criticized heavily last week when he blamed the shooting of a 7-year-old girl on teacher’s protesting his pension reform efforts.
“The reason Matt Bevin’s administration has been an absolute disaster is he bullies,” said Beshear, who is the presumed front-runner. “He attacks everyone who disagrees with him. … Folks, we were raised better than this.”
Bevin campaign manager Davis Paine did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday evening seeking comment.
But Sarah Van Wallaghen, executive director of the state GOP, came to her party’s defense, saying it was telling that the three candidates didn’t mention Kentucky’s growing economy.
“Adam Edelen, Andy Beshear and Rocky Adkins all want to double down on support for the failed policies of Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,” she said in a statement.
“Kentuckians deserve to keep moving forward with the momentum Republican leadership has brought to our state — including historic economic growth like the lowest jobless rate in nearly 20 years, record-breaking private-sector investment and more.”
Like the first gubernatorial TV debate, which was held at Transylvania University in Lexington, the one-hour discussion, held in WDRB’s Louisville studio and moderated by reporters Lawrence Smith and Lindsay Allen, covered a range of topics during the program that showed just a few differences between the three.
At almost every opportunity, however, the Democratic candidates mentioned Bevin, who is the most unpopular governor in the country, according to a recent survey by Morning Consult.
Beshear, when asked if he supports any limitations on a woman’s right to end her pregnancy, said he is fighting for women’s reproductive rights in court. But he eventually turned the question around on the governor
“The only person who is really excited we are having this conversation is Matt Bevin,” he said. “This is all he’s going to talk about in the general election because he has a failed record.”
Edelen said his ticket is the only one in which both Democratic candidates fully support a woman’s right to make her own health care decision.
“The question in this election is will Kentucky be the first state in the union to pass a de facto ban on access to reproductive freedom,” Edelen said. “That’s the direction Matt Bevin and this group of extremist are driving this question in Frankfort.”
Adkins is an anti-abortion legislator who did not criticize Bevin’s policies on the subject, and dodged the question on if he would sign a measure banning access to abortion.
“I’ve gone ahead to say in my stance on pro-life that I’ve supported pre-K funding, streamlining the ability for adoption and foster care, and I’ve also said that we need to put warm food on the table and a roof over these babies’ heads,” Adkins said.
The debate Tuesday was the first since the three candidates submitted their fundraising totals, which show Edelen’s ticket leads the pack with around $2.3 million raised. Most of that, however, is being fueled by running mate Gill Holland, a Louisville film producer and developer, who gave a generous $1.4 million loan to their bid.
The Edelen campaign is also benefiting from Holland’s relatives, including mother-in-law Christy Brown, a liberal philanthropist, and businessman Steve Wilson, the husband of her cousin Laura Lee Brown’s husband. The two are among the six donors pumping big bucks into Kentuckians for a Better Future, a super PAC dedicated to electing Edelen, which has raised around $614,000.
Neither Beshear nor Adkins brought up Edelen’s fundraising or super PAC ties during the debate.
Here are the highlights of what the contenders were asked during Tuesday’s debate:
Speculation in Frankfort is that Bevin will call another special session session for a smaller pension relief bill as early as next Monday. The last time the governor convened one to deal with the retirement system crisis, the Republican-controlled legislature turned around in less than 24 hours to adjourn.
Asked what their solutions would be to address the estimated $43 billion liability there was some slight daylight among the three Democratic contenders.
Adkins blamed the rising pension costs on Bevin’s retirement board raising the rates, said and that solving the problem means sticking with reforms enacted in 2013.
“Making sure we keep a defined benefit for teachers across Kentucky and growing out of the problem we’re in,” he said. “We need to find the funding moving forward.”
Beshear said new revenue is the answer. He wants all money generated from expanded gaming to go toward state pensions, which he says would bring in $550 million annually in combination with $50 million a year from medical marijuana and ending certain tax breaks such as on private jets
Edelen, however, said that the system needs more than money, which he supports. He said that starts with allowing the Kentucky Retirement System to be more politically independent and that no one who has donated to his campaign will be appointed to those boards.
The Bevin administration is requesting the names of teachers who may have participated in so-called sickouts to protest pension reforms, which shut down Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, six times over a two-week period.
Kentucky teachers are prohibited from striking under state law, and when asked if they support the tactic, the three Democrats all blamed Bevin and said educators have a right to protest their state government.
“This tactic that they are taking is not only a First Amendment right, but I’m suing over Matt Bevin’s attempt to step in the shoes of the employer,” Beshear, who has requested a May 6 hearing to argue for the restraining order against the subpoenas.
Edelen, who is endorsed by the Jefferson County Teacher’s Association, said educators have the right to have an opinion, especially after being “pushed around” by state leaders. “They frankly were left with no other course of action,” he said.
Adkins, a former teacher, also expressed support for the sickouts, saying it was shameful that teachers had to swarm Frankfort to protect their profession.
Work requirements for Medicaid
The Bevin administration’s pursuit of a federal waiver to allow work requirements on able-bodied Medicaid recipients came up during the debate. U.S. District Judge James Boasberg blocked the state from implementing the idea, which is a dividing ideological line in Kentucky.
It was one area, again, where the Democrats seeking their party’s nomination largely agreed, saying it represents an attack on the working poor.
Adkins said as a cancer survivor, the governor’s approach sends the wrong message, and that the state must keep Medicaid expansion, which he argued has been a boost to rural hospitals.
Tax medical marijuana?
All three support the idea of allowing Kentuckians to use marijuana for medicinal purposes but Edelen used the question to put some daylight between him and Beshear on if it should raise revenue.
“Andy’s a good man but we have a difference of opinion,” he said. “I believe that medical marijuana by its very definition is medicine and I will never be a governor who believes that we ought to tax medicine.”
Beshear said his family is one from a small town in Western Kentucky that eight years ago opposed marijuana.
Adkins added Democrats need to be realistic about what can pass under a Republican-controlled legislature but that he favors medical marijuana.
“I’m a cancer survivor,” he said. “I have been convinced this is the right approach.”
Ending the War on Louisville
Kentucky’s most populous city is facing a budget crisis due to a heavier pension burden, and Mayor Greg Fischer has said one solution is giving Louisville more revenue options.
Adkins said he voted in favor of a constitutional amendment allowing communities to have a sales tax for certain projects.
“Local governments need flexibility to be able to do things, especially in these tough time,” he said. “We got to think out of the box.”
Beshear used the question to again take a jab at the Bevin administration, which he said has “foisted” pension costs on cities and counties because it has “refused to create new revenue.” He said once that happens, Louisville’s pension burden will decrease and it will be able to provide services “without raising taxes on anyone.”
Edelen, who is endorsed by a number of Metro Council members, said he supports the idea of giving city and county governments more tools.
“As governor, I will end the war on Louisville that is currently being launched by (state government),” he said.
Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at 502-582-4475 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/philb.