Politics & Government

Kentucky Democratic governor candidates debate for first time. Here’s what happened.

Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidates Adam Edelen, left, Rocky Adkins and Andy Beshear respond to questions during a debate at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, April 24, 2019.
Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidates Adam Edelen, left, Rocky Adkins and Andy Beshear respond to questions during a debate at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, April 24, 2019. aslitz@herald-leader.com

The buildup to the first televised debate between the three major Democratic candidates vying to take on Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin suggested there might be fireworks. It was more like sparklers.

The three candidates — House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, Attorney General Andy Beshear and former State Auditor Adam Edelen — launched only minor jabs from the stage of Carrick Theater at Transylvania University during a debate hosted by Hey Kentucky! and LEX18.

Edelen made veiled references to talking point politicians who only challenge things in the courtroom (Beshear) and criticized his opponents for having “pie in the sky” ideas that weren’t backed up with realistic ways to raise revenue. But he used his only direct question to a candidate to criticize Beshear’s commitment to a constitutional amendment that would allow medicinal marijuana, which Beshear easily parried.

“If a bill comes to us, I will sign it right now,” Beshear said.

Instead, the limited fighting centered around tax returns. Bevin notoriously refused to release his tax returns during his campaign for governor and after taking office, but Adkins, Beshear and Edelen instead fought over the nuances of their own tax returns.

Adkins asked Beshear whether he would release his tax returns from the time period when he was a private attorney, allowing Beshear to say he would do that if all the candidates, including those running for lieutenant governor, released their tax returns. Edelen’s running mate, Louisville businessman Gill Holland, has refused to release his tax filings.

When Edelen was asked about the issue, he said Holland released a detailed financial disclosure form and had no conflict of interests. After the debate, Edelen was asked if Holland has refused to release his returns because he uses tax breaks to dramatically lower his effective tax rate, as many wealthy businessmen often do. Edelen deflected.

“What else you got?” he said.

It was a Republican, Bevin, who really struck first Wednesday, posting a video to YouTube hours before the debate suggesting that it should be held in New York or California based on the values the Democratic candidates espouse.

“The ideas that you hear are tired, they’re backward, they’re backward looking,” Bevin said. “These socialist ideas are the kind being espoused by young voices coming out of New York and tired old voices coming out of California. They’re not what’s best for us.”

In the description for the video Republican Kentucky governor Matt Bevin released before the first televised debate between the three major Democratic candidates read: "Will you join us in the fight to ensure that socialism never comes to Kentucky? "

His video was driven home by members of the Republican Party of Kentucky who gathered in front of the debate with a cardboard cutout of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old Democratic U.S. Representative from New York who has become the go-to villain for the Republican Party.

When asked about national politics during the debate, most of the candidates deflected.

All three said they voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, but all three also shied away from naming their preferred candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary.

When the moderator, Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones, pushed Beshear on whether his many criticisms of Bevin also apply to President Donald Trump, Beshear said “name calling is always wrong” before pivoting.

“I don’t think this race is about the White House, I think it’s about what’s going on in each and every one of our houses. But name calling is always wrong, no matter who does it,” Beshear said, before saying he supported the fact that Trump’s Department of Justice has helped him fund some of his initiatives as attorney general.

Earlier Wednesday, Edelen released a statement about news that a group of 200 people had come forward with new allegations of sexual abuse against the Boy Scouts of America, referencing previous Herald-Leader reporting that Beshear defended the Boy Scouts of America in a case in Paducah in 2012 when two men filed lawsuits saying they were sexually molested by their scoutmaster in the 1970s.

Beshear has defended his role in the case, insisting that the Boy Scouts organization would not have been able to get a fair trial because the alleged abuse had happened so long ago. Jones dug into the issue on stage.

“What I learned from that case has taught me so much,” Beshear said before launching into a list of things he did to help protect children as Attorney General.

After the debate, Edelen was critical of Beshear’s answer.

“If the good thing that can come out of this is that he feels badly about representing pedophiles in his private practice, then I’m glad that he has come around,” Edelen said. “My regret is that he took the case to begin with.”

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