The most interesting speech of Fancy Farm weekend wasn’t made at Saturday’s picnic, but at the Democratic bean supper the night before. And it wasn’t made by an elected official or candidate, but by Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones.
Jones, who emceed the picnic last year and considered challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington for re-election this year, said he was asked by bean supper organizers to talk about the state party’s future.
Jones didn’t pull many punches.
“I’m a progressive, but I spend every day talking to conservatives,” Jones began by saying. “My audience is probably 75 percent conservative.”
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When you get past a few issues and the stereotypes each party has of the other, Jones said, “most of the people who label themselves conservatives really think a lot of the same things we do.”
Yet, he said, the Kentucky Democratic Party has never been in worse shape, with fewer state officeholders and seats in Congress and the General Assembly than ever before. Hillary Clinton’s likely election as president will only make things harder because, like President Barack Obama, she is widely unpopular in the state.
“I believe it’s a crucial time for Democrats,” Jones said. “In my opinion, we’ve got three to five years to make a move.”
Jones said Kentucky Democrats must become more energized, better organized and recruit a new generation of leaders.
Jones and former state auditor Adam Edelen will soon launch an effort called the New Kentucky Project to identify and encourage young leaders in all 120 counties with progressive and moderate visions for the state’s future. The Democratic Party must do the same, he said.
But more than anything, Jones said, Democrats must be proud of the issues they stand for, do a better job of communicating their beliefs to Kentuckians and win back working-class voters.
“We need to stop being scared of our values,” Jones said. “I’m tired of watching candidates in this state who are scared to say what they think. I believe people respect you if you have opinions, even if they disagree with you.”
Jones said that successful Democrats of the past, including Paul Patton and Wendell Ford, weren’t afraid to take a stand. Neither was former Gov. Steve Beshear when he used the Affordable Care Act to cut the percentage of Kentuckians without health insurance from 20.4 percent to 7.5 percent.
But rather than campaign on that issue last year, Kentucky Democrats mostly ran away from it because Republicans were demonizing “Obamacare.”
“If there was ever an issue that we should be proud to be on the side of, it’s that one,” Jones said. “It’s clear running the other way will cause us to lose.”
National Democratic leaders too often “talk down” to working-class people in places like Kentucky. “I wish they didn’t, but they do,” Jones said. “There aren’t many Joe Bidens left. And thus we have to pick up the slack here in Kentucky.”
Democrats stand for things working-class voters want, including fair wages, and affordable health care and education, Jones said.
“We are on the right side of history on all these issues,” he said. “But it’s not going to matter in this state if we don’t get our act together. It’s not going to matter that we’re correct if we don’t go and talk to people in the language that they understand.”
Kentucky Democrats’ ineptitude has made it easier for far-right candidates such as Rand Paul and Matt Bevin to beat moderate Republicans in primaries and then get elected.
“If we don’t fix this now, not just the progressive movement but the moderate movement in this state is done in the next few years,” Jones said.
I didn’t attend the bean supper, but I saw a WHAS video of Jones’ speech online after I returned home. I was intrigued and met with him Monday to talk more about it.
“I felt like what I said needed to be said,” Jones said, adding that the decision of several elected Democrats to skip the Fancy Farm Picnic made the party look timid.
Jones said he has received a lot of positive response to his speech from Democrats — and moderate Republicans.
“There’s some worry from moderate, intelligent voices on the right that if they flip the House that the extremes will take over that party,” Jones said.
“It’s not so much if you’re going to have a progressive Kentucky,” he added. “I worry we’re not even going to have a moderate Kentucky. If we don’t get our act together, even moderate, good Republicans won’t win.”
Here is the WHAS video of Jones’ speech.