This is the second of three profiles of the major Democratic candidates for governor of Kentucky.
Before Adam Edelen officially entered the Democratic primary for a chance to challenge Gov. Matt Bevin in 2019, before he flirted with launching a campaign for governor in 2015, as far back as when he was Gov. Paul Patton’s “cigarette boy” tracking down Marlboros and making sure there was Canadian Club whiskey and Diet Pepsi for road trips across the state, Edelen brimmed with political ambition.
“There was no question he was going to run for governor,” Patton said of his impression of a young Edelen.
That moment has arrived. As Democrats took a political beating from their Republican counterparts in Frankfort over the past three years, Edelen was busy rebuilding from the ashes of his failed 2015 reelection bid for auditor. He founded a political organization with Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones and he spearheaded a project to put solar panels on a reclaimed strip mine in Eastern Kentucky in anticipation of a campaign.
“I don’t know that I was the right guy to be governor four years ago, I don’t know that I’m the right guy to be governor eight years from now,” Edelen said. “But given where we are in a period of unprecedented economic and technological change, I think I am the right guy to be governor.”
Whether Kentuckians agree remains to be seen. In a state that has continued a steady march toward conservative values, Edelen has attempted to position himself as the candidate of the future.
He’s talked about restoring Main Streets in rural communities to attract new people and keep the ones who already live there. (“You know what the industrial park of the future is? Revitalized downtowns in small town Kentucky.”) He’s talked about bringing broadband internet access to every community in Kentucky. (“When McDonald’s is the most reliable provider of wifi in rural Kentucky, there is no better example of how you have been betrayed by your government.”) And he’s talked about aiding a transition to renewable energy. (“You can’t power a new economy without new energy.”)
It’s an agenda that has resonated with many progressives and young people (a straw poll that was conducted by the Kentucky Young Democrats had Edelen winning big), but has left those who have watched Edelen advance through the ranks of Kentucky politics wondering if he’s being genuine, or if he’s simply telling the Democratic base exactly what they want to hear.
“His major ambition in life is to be governor. Always has been, his entire life,” said Mike Scanlon, the former vice mayor of Lexington and Edelen’s Republican boss when he worked for Thomas & King, a Lexington restaurant franchise operator. “And he will adapt and do the things he needs to do to become governor.”
‘He’s a politician’
Edelen is a good talker.
“Well, I know what I think,” he explained. “You know, dude, I read the books and I know what I think.”
It’s more than that. In the world of political campaigns, where politicians endlessly repeat the same phrases in the same voice in front of an audience eating the same plate of mediocre chicken, it’s difficult for a candidate not to sound like a robot.
Edelen’s talking points, though, often seem fresher and more polished. Never mind that they’re eerily similar to the diagnosis he made of the Democratic Party’s decline in 2015. “The old names and old faces are not going to return the Democratic Party to power in Kentucky” has morphed into “have you had enough of mediocre talking-point politicians who are incapable of delivering anything other than what you’ve always gotten?”
Edelen’s rhetoric is built on a foundation of optimism for a better future in a political world that is hell-bent on fighting the opposing party. It’s why he’s been featured in a segment on The Rachel Maddow Show, where she compared him to the likes of former President Bill Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. (“I don’t like that comparison at all and I never have,” Edelen said of Edwards, whose political career was torpedoed by infidelity. Edelen’s wife, Melissa, whom he married in 2012 after his first marriage ended in 2010, has filed for divorce twice — in 2016 and 2017 — but they reconciled both times. A campaign spokesman declined to comment about the divorce filings.)
Edelen’s story goes like this: He was born to a teenage mother in Meade County in 1974. By the time he was a toddler, his parents had divorced and his mother moved him to Louisville while his father stayed in Meade County and worked in factories and farmed. Edelen would spend the summer and weekends in Meade County and the school year in Louisville, where his mother worked her way up from the makeup counter at the mall to industrial sales.
“I am a really interesting result of a very,” Edelen paused for four seconds... “asymmetrical childhood. And I think that one of the, I think the net result of a kid who doesn’t know his place in the world is you become an adult who is comfortable everywhere.”
His parents helped put him through school at St. Xavier, a private school in Louisville, before he attended the University of Kentucky. It was at UK that Edelen got his “big break” working on the campaign for Paul Patton, who said Edelen was sent to him as an intern by Pam Miller, the former mayor of Lexington.
Edelen worked for Gov. Patton while in school in the late ‘90s, before briefly working in Frankfort for the Associated Industries of Kentucky and then joining Commerce Lexington, the local chamber of commerce. From there, he made a failed bid for an at-large seat on the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council at age 27, then went to Thomas & King, which managed several chain restaurants in Lexington. In 2007, he joined the administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, where he served as Secretary of Homeland Security before moving over to chief of staff. He stepped down from his role as chief of staff in 2011 to run for state auditor, an office he held through 2015.
The path, with business and politics frequently intersecting, appeared as if it was always building toward something bigger.
“Adam is a politician,” Scanlon said. “He’s not a businessman or a political scientist. He’s a politician.”
Edelen started his political career as a more conservative Democrat.
When Edelen ran for Lexington council in 2002, one of the major topics was a proposed smoking ban in restaurants and other public places. Edelen, the son of a former tobacco farmer turned vice president of the chamber of commerce, was the only one of six candidates running for two at-large seats on the council who opposed the proposal. It was a conservative position for someone who nearly twenty years later would be talking about implementing a statewide smoking ban in most workplaces and raising the cigarette tax as a way to raise revenue and curb smoking.
“I am not a nanny state candidate. I believe If you want to smoke you should be able to,” Edelen told reporters on a call in February. “But I also believe those who choose not to smoke, those who choose to protect their health in the workplace or the health of their children have a right to a law that protects them.”
Edelen said an evolution of his positions was only natural.
“Certainly there are some issues that I have evolved on over the 20 years that I’ve been involved in public life,” Edelen said when asked how he had gone from being the vice president of a chamber of commerce to one of the more progressive candidates in a Democratic primary. “That’s because my worldview has always been about ‘let’s do big, important sweeping reform,’ but as you get older, you just learn how things are impacted. I’m certainly more practical than I was as a younger man.”
His evolving positions, though, add fuel to those who question whether Edelen is genuine about his beliefs. Edelen said it was a narrative “pushed by people who wish me ill.”
“I’ve always been someone who spoke difficult truths and I think any reputation I may have for telling people what they want to hear is not deserved,” he said. “I think my public record speaks just to the opposite.”
To back up his claim, Edelen touted his support for same-sex marriage. In 2013, Edelen was put on the spot by a reporter who asked all of the state’s constitutional officers if they supported gay marriage. After Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson openly supported marriage equality, Edelen followed by saying he felt “equal protection of the law and equality of opportunity are central to the American experiment and they ought to apply to every American.”
‘The bold ticket’
Throughout the primary, Edelen has positioned himself as the candidate of big ideas. It’s a philosophy he has long embraced, saying the Kentucky Democratic Party must stand for something other than just being against the Republican majority. To Edelen, that means taking advantage of a changing economy with tools like broadband internet, renewable energy and comprehensive tax reform.
On a gloomy day in April, though, the candidate who eschewes incrementalism — changing government through small steps — called for an incremental step toward the legalization of marijuana by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug. Edelen was well behind Attorney General Andy Beshear in internal polling, a fact his campaign didn’t seem afraid to admit, and he needed to create a policy distinction between himself, Beshear and House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, who have both supported legalizing medicinal marijuana.
When asked about whether he supported full legalization during a Hey Kentucky! debate on LEX 18, Edelen said the state “needed to walk before we can run,” echoing a line he has used before about giving communities a say in how legalized marijuana would be implemented.
Edelen said he doesn’t see any disconnect between rejecting incrementalism and his approach on marijuana.
“There’s a profound difference. Decriminalization is bold in Kentucky,” Edelen said. “But ... taking an action that isn’t judicious doesn’t make it bold, it makes it reckless. This is a statesmanship position here. There is a tremendous difference between being bold and being reckless. Going headlong into marijuana legalization is reckless.”
Being bold, he said, is what he thinks will propel him to the governor’s mansion this fall.
“I think we’ve certainly got the boldest platform... this is the bold ticket,” Edelen said.