Politics & Government

Lawmakers cut Grimes’ power as secretary of state. Now these 8 people want her job.

Democrat Heather French Henry, the former Miss America who wants to be Kentucky’s next secretary of state, thinks Republican state lawmakers and Gov. Matt Bevin were wrong when they stripped power from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes this year.

But Republican candidate Andrew English, who left as general counsel for the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to seek the office being vacated by Grimes, supports the new legislation. “I think it’s best for our county clerks,” English said.

Opinions are strong about the new law among the eight candidates — four Democrats and four Republicans — running this year to be Kentucky’s next secretary of state.

The $124,113-a-year state job involves maintaining state records, registering businesses and overseeing elections. The office has an annual operating budget of about $5 million and 35 employees.

Grimes, a Lexington attorney who has held the office since 2016, cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

She vigorously opposed legislation this year approved by the Republican-led Senate and House and signed into law by Bevin that removed her as chairwoman of the State Board of Elections and expanded the board from six to eight voting members.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes during a special meeting of the State Board of Elections at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Grimes is now a non-voting member of the board. The law, which Grimes is challenging in court, also added the executive director of the State Board of Elections as a non-voting member and two former county clerks, nominated by the Kentucky County Clerks Association, as voting members. It also limits access by the secretary of state’s office to a database of registered voters.

Earlier this year, the Lexington Herald-Leader and ProPublica published a series of stories that showed Grimes had obtained unprecedented power over the elections board. It allowed her to push through a contract with a political donor, delay action on an order from the Department of Justice to clean the voter rolls and gave her staff access to the state’s voter registration database.

Here’s a look at this year’s candidates for secretary of state and their views on the new law and the office.

Four Democrats (top) and Four Republicans (bottom) are running for Kentucky secretary of state in the May 21 primary election. The Democrats, from left to right, are Jason Belcher, Jason Griffith, Heather French Henry, and Geoff Sebesta. The Republicans, from left to right, are Michael Adams, Andrew English, Stephen Knipper, and Carl Nett. Photos provided

Jason S. Belcher (D)

Belcher, 45, of Harold in Floyd County, thinks the new law should be reversed.

“I don’t think there’s much chance of a legal challenge to do away with it but I would advocate to repeal it and bring it back to where it was,” he said.

A writer of military science fiction and an occasional contributor to Huffington Post, Belcher is making his first bid for public office. He said county clerks should have a bigger voice on the board “but the law went too far with the secretary of state.”

Belcher, who was in the U.S. Air Force for more than nine years, including a deployment to Iraq in 2006, said he wants to increase Kentucky’s voter turnout.

He said he would back automatic voter registration, early voting, same day registration, electronic voting and restoration of felon voting rights.

His latest campaign finance report showed $5,600 in receipts.

Jason Griffith (D)

Griffith, 47, of Whitesburg, calls the GOP legislation “an overreach and a power grab. I would like to see it repealed.” He said the bill’s primary sponsor, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, is “a bully.”

Griffith is band director at Letcher County High School, a lay minister and small business owner who said he created the first app to read license plates. It helps police with stolen vehicles and missing persons. He has been a city trustee in Howard, Ohio.

Griffith said he wants to protect and expand voter access. He said that includes fighting for early voting and for expanding voter hours, possibly to multiple days.

The candidate also said he wants to restore voting rights to people convicted of non-violent crimes who have served their sentences.

His campaign receipts total $16,449, according to the latest campaign finance report.

Heather French Henry (D)

Henry, 44, of Louisville, said the secretary of state should be a voting member of the state elections board.

“The secretary of state serves as the only elected representative on the board and the secretary should be allowed to vote,” she said. “Any time you change the duties of a constitutional officer, it is serious.”

A plus for the new law, said Henry, is that it gave county clerks more representation on the board.

Henry said it would be difficult to get the new law repealed.

Henry has been mentioned as a possible political candidate for several years, especially since then-Gov. Steve Beshear on July 1, 2014, appointed her as commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs. She has been deputy commissioner during the Bevin administration, and left the post earlier this year to run for public office. Henry is popular among veterans.

On Oct. 27, 2000, she married then-Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, an orthopedic surgeon in Louisville. In 2002 and 2003, questions arose about his Medicare and Medicaid billings while he taught at the University of Louisville Medical School from 1996 through 2001. A federal lawsuit was filed against him and Henry countersued. He was never charged with any wrongdoing. In 2003, Henry settled the federal lawsuit by paying the federal government $162,000.

Heather Henry said she does not believe her husband’s medical billings have any bearing on her race.

As secretary of state, she said she will work with county clerks to make voting easier, focusing on providing proper equipment for them and trying to create a longer voting period.

Henry has contributed $1,000 to her campaign fund, which has raised $134,067.

Geoff Sebesta (D)

Sebesta, 43, of Lexington, said the legislation to cut Grimes’ power was “underhanded and poorly written.”

“If the secretary of state is the state’s chief elections official, that person should have authority over the state elections board,” he said.

A Winchester native who is a comic book artist, Sebesta is making his first bid for public office. He has helped in several area campaigns, including some for perennial candidate Geoff Young of Lexington.

As secretary of state, Sebesta said he would advocate for restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons who serve their sentences, making transparent all government records and replacing the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Capitol Rotunda with boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

Of all the candidates, Sebesta was the only one who said he will not have sufficient campaign funds to get his message out to the voters. His campaign finance report showed no money.

“I got into this race to raise some issues and not to win a popularity contest against Miss America,” he said.

Michael G. Adams (R)

Adams, 43, of Lyndon in Jefferson County, likes parts of the new law and dislikes others.

“It is appropriate to restrict the secretary of state’s access to voter registration files,” he said. “I also agree with giving county clerks a louder voice in the process.”

The new law, said the attorney whose professors at Harvard Law School included Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, “put the secretary of state’s office on probation. I really don’t see it as being permanent because it is better to have a strong chief election officer.”

Adams, who is making his first bid for public office, claims he is the only candidate who has “relevant experience” to be secretary of state.

His goal after Harvard was to become an election lawyer for Republicans. After working for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Gov. Ernie Fletcher and President George W. Bush’s Justice Department, he was named general counsel for the Republican Governor’s Association.

He also has built a successful Republican election-law practice, where he has represented Vice President Mike Pence’s political committee, the National Federation of Republican Women and other conservative candidates, committees and causes.

In 2016, he was counsel and treasurer to Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a Super PAC that helped Republicans gain control of the state House for the first time since 1921. Gov. Matt Bevin appointed him to the state Board of Elections, where he served about 18 months before resigning to run for secretary of state.

On May 8, Adams launched a two-week statewide broadcast and cable television ad campaign. He has contributed $300,000 to his campaign and about $55,000 of that has been repaid.

He said name recognition usually is low for “down-ticket” candidates and he wants to increase his in the final days of the campaign.

Andrew English (R)

English, 37, of Crestwood, supports the new election law limiting the power of the secretary of state.

“I’m a small government guy and this new law gives our county clerks a strong voice on the state elections board,” he said.

As secretary of state, English, who was general counsel for the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet before entering his first bid for public office, said he can rebuild the secretary of state office.

“We now have 48 counties in our state that have more registered voters than citizens eligible to vote,” he said. “That’s a sorry situation because we have no real voter ID law.”

English, who served on active duty with the U.S. Navy JAG Corp., said he would be “a strong leader” as secretary of state “who can restore trust.”

His latest campaign finance report showed $52,310 in receipts.

Stephen L. Knipper (R)

Knipper, 48, of Independence, said he understood why the legislature restricted Grimes’ power as secretary of state.

“It was reactionary legislation to how she ran things, and that was needed,” he said. “I’m glad that it gives county clerks direct representation on the elections board.”

Knipper, a former member of the Erlanger city council, said he is running this year on the same platform he ran against Grimes in the November 2015 election for secretary of state.

That included cleaning up voter rolls, increasing cyber security and requiring a legitimate voter ID.

Grimes narrowly won the 2015 election — 51 percent to 49 percent — though she had nearly $825,000 in campaign funds compared to about $44,000 for Knipper.

Knipper, a cyber security expert, was chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton before the Bevin administration fired him because he was running for state office. Hampton wanted him to stay on the job. He has appealed the Bevin administration’s job action to the state Personnel Board.

Knipper reported $43,535 in receipts in his latest campaign finance report.

Carl Nett (R)

Nett, 44, of Louisville, is the only Republican candidate for secretary of state who opposes the new state law regarding Grimes.

“This is the wrong approach,” said Nett. “ If Republicans don’t trust Grimes, they should have tried to remove her from office.”

But Nett has filed his own lawsuit against Grimes.

He claims Grimes unlawfully interfered in the Republican primary by not allowing him to use “Trump” as his nickname on the ballot.

Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled in February that Grimes had the power to disallow the nickname and Nett has appealed. Nett claims many people refer to him as Carl “Trump” Nett because of his support for President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, Nett, the son of former state Rep. Carl Nett, said he is campaigning on his background and qualifications.

Nett, who said he has worked for the Secret Service, CIA and FBI, said he is running to clean up voter rolls, make sure elections are secure, streamline services for businesses and educate students about civic responsibility.

Nett’s latest campaign finance report showed $33,835 in receipts.