Matt Jones and Adam Edelen announce new group
In August 2016, former Auditor Adam Edelen and Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones stood behind a plain black podium in downtown Lexington and announced their plan to save politics in Kentucky.
“It is clear to me that our political model is not working, that government as a delivery system for tangible results is not working, and it has to be changed,” Edelen said at the time.
They wanted new candidates, they wanted new ideas, they wanted to figure out how Democrats could win in a state that had just handed the governor’s office to Matt Bevin and sent Edelen, who had been hyped as the Democrat to take on U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, packing in a loss to a little known state Representative.
A little more than two years later — and less than a month after Edelen formally announced his candidacy for governor — the group dissolved.
There wasn’t much fanfare. Despite having around 1,000 members at one point, none of their social media pages made an announcement about the decision to end the organization.
“I had no clue whatsoever,” said Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville. McGarvey was listed as a county coordinator in Harrison County on their website in October 2016 but considered himself “very, very loosely” involved in the project.
The group was founded with big ambitions. On Tuesday, Edelen said it was intended to “fix a broken brand of politics that was both idea-less and people-less,” but that ultimately the project didn’t make enough money to sustain itself.
“It was one largely made by economics,” Edelen said of the decision to dissolve.
Jones said he had lost money in the venture. He described the group as having two main goals: find new leaders in the state and facilitate more conversations between Republicans and Democrats.
“I think we were successful with the first,” Jones said. “The second was a little harder than I hoped.”
Edelen rattled off a few leaders he said the New Kentucky Project helped promote: Trent Garrison, a Northern Kentucky University geology professor; Adrian Wallace, who fell short in his bid for an at-large seat on the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council; and Connie Grubbs, who launched an unsuccessful bid for Campbell County Commissioner.
The group made no political donations (“it was never about getting particular people elected,” Jones said). They did host occasional events highlighting speakers and allowing Edelen and Jones to get in front of a progressive, eager political base that Edelen is now trying to court with his gubernatorial campaign. (Jones could still potentially run for Senate in 2020, but has indicated he’s reluctant to enter a primary with potential Democratic candidate Amy McGrath.)
“The New Kentucky Project was to bring new ideas from a younger generation into the Democratic Party in Kentucky and now you’re seeing those values espoused by Adam’s gubernatorial campaign,” said David O’Neil, the Fayette County PVA who was listed as one of the Fayette County coordinators on their website.
Edelen has always dismissed questions about whether the project was merely a vehicle for his future candidacy — “This organization is not premised on being ‘The Adam and Matt Show,’” he said at the first press conference — but both the timing of the group’s rise and fall, and its legacy, seem to be tied to his political availability.
Edelen said Tuesday that any “notion that this was used for self-promotion is a total fiction” and talked about how the group gave a platform for fellow gubernatorial candidate Rocky Adkins to speak and highlighted several candidates and Democratic thinkers throughout the state.
“We promoted an awful lot of people,” Edelen said. “And if this were done to promote Adam Edelen and Matt Jones we would have done it very differently.”
At a time when politics are fractured and the political divide between people living in rural areas and people living in urban areas seems to only be growing with each election, Jones and Edelen’s idea was ambitious. Rather than connect people of opposing parties, the group seemed to capture the increasingly vocal progressive base that surfaced with the campaign of Bernie Sanders and only got louder after President Donald Trump’s election.
The group was registered as a 501(c)4 and didn’t have to publicly release any documents about its fundraising, but Edelen said the group raised roughly $175,000 since it started. He said about $100,000 went to a full-time and part-time staffer and the rest went to the events they hosted.
While the group surged to more than 1,000 members in 2018, the number was hard to maintain and eventually fizzled.
“I think it’s hard in Kentucky to start and maintain those,” McGarvey said of groups designed to build grassroots movements.
Edelen said he considered the project successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others. He said it helped find what worked (the ideas conferences) and what didn’t (building a bridge between the parties).
“The New Kentucky Project by definition is an initiative, an experiment, if you will,” Edelen said. “...we have to dream greatly and the notion that we should dumb down our goals are for incrementalists.”
Edelen, who ricocheted out of his 2015 loss in the auditor’s race with plenty of opinions on how to move the party forward, said he was happy to have attempted to harness grassroots political energy, even if it only lasted two years and came up short.
“We diffused information, we shared ideas and we’re better as a result,” Edelen said.