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Meet the three Democrats aiming to end Republican Mike Harmon’s role as state auditor

Mike Harmon was jubilant the night of Nov. 3, 2015. Outspent by about 20-to-1 and unable to buy TV ads, Harmon had just rode a Republican wave into the state auditor’s office.

The insurance agent from Danville, who had been in the state House since 2003 and was an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 2011 on a ticket with Louisville businessman Phil Moffett, had knocked off the well-heeled Adam Edelen.

In his victory speech, Harmon, who often tries to provide comic relief on the campaign trail with folksy jokes, compared himself to the Biblical shepherd David and Edelen to the giant Goliath.

This year, three Democrats are tossing their “political stones” at Harmon in hopes of vanquishing him from the state office that audits all accounts and financial transactions of state government spending agencies.

The winner in the May 21 Democratic primary election will face Harmon in the Nov. 5 general election. Harmon is unopposed in the GOP primary.

The Democratic contenders are Kelsey Hayes Coots, a Jefferson County public school teacher, Kentucky Education Association member and a former organizer for the teacher advocacy group KY 120 United; Sheri Donahue, an industrial engineer and security specialist from Louisville; and Chris Tobe, a chartered financial analyst who worked three years in the office of former state Auditor Ed Hatchett.

Democrat Drew Curtis of Versailles, founder of the website, withdrew from the race April 11 because of “other commitments.” His name will remain on the May 21 primary ballot because the ballots were already printed, but votes for Curtis will not be counted.

The office of state auditor was established in the first Kentucky Constitution of 1792, but did not become an elected position until 1850.

It often garners much publicity as it unveils questionable, and sometimes illegal, spending by state and local agencies. It has an annual operating budget of about $16.5 million and fluctuates between 130 and 140 employees. The job pays $124,113 a year.

Harmon, 52, said his administration’s motto is “Follow the Data.” He said that “means we don’t target anyone or give anyone a pass, we just follow the data. We take the time needed on every report to ensure we are giving the public factual information that is supported by evidence.”

He said he is proud of his office’s work, noting that he undertook the first-ever outside examination of the state Administrative Office of the Courts and the KentuckyWired project to bring broadband to all of Kentucky.

Harmon’s campaign reported $65,769 in receipts as of April 21

Harmon’s Democratic challengers say he has not done enough. Here’s a closer look at the three contenders.

Kelsey Hayes Coots

Coots, 30, contends Harmon is “asleep at the wheel.”

“I’m the only candidate with a vision for the office and that is to restore accountability and transparency,” Coots said.

Coots, a native of Owensboro who is making her first bid for public office, said she would update the office’s website to make it easier for taxpayers to read audits and provide feedback. “Harmon’s looks like it was made in 1994,” she said.

She also said she would conduct more education audits. “So much of our tax dollars go to education,” Coots said. “Are they going for the right things? Let’s find out.”

Coots, who has a degree in political science from the University of Kentucky, said she would “scrutinize how every state dollar is spent. Every dollar that is misspent is one that could go to improve things like our classrooms.”

Coots’ campaign is not accepting any contributions from corporate political action committees. “I am proud of that,” she said. “I am frugal and accountable. We will see how far our money can go.”

Her campaign finance reports listed $52,999 in receipts as of April 21.

Sheri Donahue

Donahue, 51, said she is the best candidate because she is a “proven problem solver.”

A native of Louisville, Donahue has an industrial engineering degree from Purdue University and for 20 years audited multimillion-dollar weapons systems projects and managed classified security intelligence contracts for the U.S. Navy. She also worked on intelligence projects for the FBI, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and cybersecurity measures for Humana.

After losing a bid for a state Senate seat in Jefferson County last year, Donahue said she realized many people don’t have faith in government.

“I know how to fix problems and believe, as auditor, I can expose and fix problems in government and restore faith in it,” she said. “My experience is the main reason people should vote for me.”

Donahue accused Harmon of working for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. “I want to be an auditor like Crit Luallen and Adam Edelen, independent auditors who had many cases prosecuted from their audits.”

She also said she wants to shore up cybersecurity in state government. “One way to do that would be to audit money spent and usefulness of electronic voting machines.”

Donahue has raised the most money so far in the race — $125,261 as of April 21.

Chris Tobe

Tobe, 57, claims to be the candidate with the most experience to be auditor, noting his nearly 30 years in finance and accounting and his previous work in the auditor’s office in the 1990s on pensions. He has written two books on “cover-up and corruption” in the state’s pension systems — “Kentucky Fried Pensions 2013” and “Kentucky Fried Pensions 2018.”

Tobe, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Tulane University, said Harmon “has done half-way audits at best.” He mentioned Harmon’s audits of the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife when asked which ones bothered him.

“The audit that set me off was the Christmas holiday release of the Kentucky Retirement Systems,” Tobe said.

He accused Harmon of ignoring questionable investments by the KRS board, not posting the contracts for the investments on the office website and ignoring causes of the pension budget crises for regional universities, local governments, health centers and other quasi-government agencies.

As auditor, Tobe said his first order would be a redo of the KRS audit, and looking more at the finances of the KFC Yum! Center, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Braidy Industries’ aluminum plant in northeastern Kentucky and KentuckyWired.

Tobe’s campaign reported $39,230 in receipts as of April 21.