This is the first of three profiles of the major Democratic candidates for governor of Kentucky.
Rocky Adkins stood in front of the courthouse at Hillbilly Days in a blue half-zip adorned with his campaign logo. He pointed his finger at the crowd and shouted through a three minute spiel, as he tends to do when speechifying.
“Let me first of all say I am proud to be in the hills and the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and I’m proud to be Eastern Kentucky, born and raised in the hills of Eastern Kentucky,” Adkins said. “...If anybody knows the issues and the challenges that we face and the bright spots that we have in these hills and the mountains it’s Rocky Adkins who’s from here, who lives here, who’s made his living here and I’m honored to be here with all of you today.”
Adkins, who is running in the Democratic primary for governor, was in his element. After the speeches were done, he picked up a guitar and played a Bluegrass tune with the band. He tried his hand at one of the basketball carnival games. There was such a delay between his float and the float in front of him in the annual parade that people assumed it was over, not that it was being held up by Rocky shaking hands in the street.
If you were creating an Eastern Kentucky politician from scratch, it would look something like House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins.
Appalachian drawl? Check. Worked in the coal industry? Check. Anti-abortion? Check. Played basketball in college? Check. He can even pick a guitar to Flatt & Scruggs.
But as he campaigns to unseat Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and take over the state’s highest office, there is an open question of whether his political moment has already passed. The base of the Democratic Party has moved to the left, pushing many of the traditional Democrats Adkins has long relied on for support over to the Republican Party.
In debates, Adkins has stumbled over questions about his anti-abortion stance. He grew flustered when grilled by a reporter over his evolution on LGBTQ rights.
Both issues represent the cultural divide that has shaped elections in Kentucky for the past 20 years. And his long voting history in the legislature has the potential to make him appear too conservative for the Democratic base.
Adkins, of course, doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think so at all,” he said, when asked if he’s too conservative to win a Democratic primary. “The agenda that I have supported since I have been in the Kentucky General Assembly is to grow a strong economy to create the kind of jobs our people need and deserve, to stand up for quality public education across Kentucky.”
The compromise candidate
Adkins was just 26 years old, not far removed from five years as backup point guard on the Morehead State University basketball team, when he defeated a Republican to win a seat in the General Assembly in 1986.
He entered the legislature with a full head of hair and took his seat in the middle of a House Chamber dominated by Democrats. He’d spend the next 33 years there. His legislative bio grew, his NRA membership slipped away. He joined the pro-life caucus. They changed the carpets and the desks.
Mostly, he waited his turn. Of the members in the House during Adkins’ first legislative session, only he and Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, remain. Others went on to Congress or the attorney general’s office or to judgeships or the Senate or were indicted and sent to jail. Adkins slowly rose from back-bencher, to transportation committee chairman, to House Majority Floor Leader by 2003. Finally, in 2016, he snagged the top spot in the Democratic Caucus. The drawback? It came with the title “Minority Leader” rather than “Speaker of the House.”
“The legislature is going to be Republican, it doesn’t matter which Democrat wins the race,” said former Gov. Paul Patton, who has endorsed Adkins. “And the governor is going to have to work with the legislature. Rocky certainly knows the legislature. He knows what can be done and can’t be done.”
Adkins has been leaning heavily on that experience as he’s made his pitch to voters, saying it sets him apart from the other candidates — even Bevin — because of his institutional knowledge of the legislature.
“I have spent a lot of my adult life working within those two chambers, developing the relationships you have to have to bring people together and compromise,” Adkins said when asked about his ability to work with the legislature as governor.
His role in the General Assembly has also given him a platform to talk about the major policy issues in the state and a voting record to go along with his words.
‘I’m a proud former teacher’
Throughout the debate over how to reform Kentucky’s ailing pension systems and during teacher protests this year, Adkins could be seen making speeches to teachers, often invoking his one year at Elliott County High School teaching science, health and physical education and expressing his support for public education.
“I’m a proud former teacher,” Adkins said in February. “... I want you all to know that I know that I understand what it’s like to be in a classroom full of kids. I’ve been there, I’ve done it. I’m not just talking the talk, I’ve walked the walk. I understand what you do. And I want you to know that I have deep respect and appreciation for what you do on a daily basis with our most precious resource, our children.”
Doubling down on his message to teachers, Adkins picked Louisville Attorney Stephanie Horne, a former member of the Jefferson County Board of Education, as his running mate.
When he’s asked how to deal with Kentucky’s massively underfunded pension systems, Adkins evokes reforms the legislature passed in 2013, saying the legislature simply needs to find money to fund the systems. That bill only addressed the pension systems for state and local government employees and did not touch the retirement system for teachers, which is better funded.
Republicans, however, are quick to point out that Adkins repeatedly voted for state budgets that underfunded the pension systems and that he voted for a bill that allowed lawmakers to pad their own pension benefits by leaving the General Assembly for another public-sector job.
“I like Rocky, he’s a personable guy,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. “Fact of the matter is he was in leadership in the House Democratic caucus in a period of time when Kentucky languished.”
Adkins has been a vocal opponent of charter schools and frequently talks about the importance of funding higher education and public schools, but in 1990 he joined Republicans in the House to vote against one of the most significant bills in Kentucky history, the Kentucky Education Reform Act. The bill was responsible for reshaping Kentucky’s education system and raised about $1 billion in taxes to pay for reforms.
Adkins said last year that he voted against the bill because he felt his constituents didn’t support it. He was one of 42 votes against the bill.
“You see what happens when you don’t listen to the education community, you have trouble getting elected,” Adkins said when asked about his vote against KERA at Fancy Farm last summer.
Adkins has also been in the legislature through several sexual harassment scandals. When former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, was accused of sexual harassment, Adkins was part of the Democratic leadership team that was accused of covering it up.
Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, who has been outspoken about a culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol, said her regard for Adkins has grown as the House of Representatives has grappled with the scandals.
“He heads toward the arc of justice,” Flood said, echoing the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote. “And I take the long view sometimes with my conservative Democratic men.”
The area of Adkins’ legislative record that has gotten the most attention this spring has been his votes on abortion-related bills. The 2019 legislative session focused heavily on limiting abortion rights, with four anti-abortion bills passing in the 30-workday session.
Adkins voted for all but one of the bills, one that would prevent women from getting an abortion because they didn’t like the race, gender or disability of their unborn child. That means he approved of a bill that would ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, one that would make doctors tell their patients that medically induced abortions can be reversed (a treatment that has not been recognized by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) and a bill that would ban abortion in Kentucky if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its ruling that states can’t prohibit abortion.
“I am pro-life, my record would indicate that,” Adkins said on the House floor in February. “My stance on pro-life goes a little further. I think we ought to take care of these babies after they’re born. A roof over their head, a quality education and hopefully a quality job.”
Despite having a clear anti-abortion record, Adkins stumbled over questions on the issue during debates with his two main competitors, Attorney General Andy Beshear and former State Auditor Adam Edelen. When asked whether he would sign a bill banning abortion if the Supreme Court reverses itself, Adkins said he would have to seek advice from his future general counsel even though he has already voted for such a bill.
Relying on rural Kentucky
On the campaign trail, his stump speech harkens back to the old Democratic Party. Adkins talks about working families and ”standing up for the little guy.” He talks about Republicans attacking unions by passing laws intended to weaken their bargaining power.
“In terms of reaching out to the conservative base in Kentucky, absolutely, Rocky is the type of candidate with the right personal story and love of this state,” Flood said.
But the people who the Kentucky Democratic Party was built on have increasingly voted Republican in recent years. In 2016, despite there being more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans, Kentucky supported Donald Trump for president by a larger margin than Alabama. The Democratic strongholds in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky have flipped and the Republicans have super majorities in the legislature.
Scott Lasley, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and a former chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, said there aren’t enough conservative Democrats left to elect Adkins.
“It exists, but there’s fewer of them,” Lasley said. “I think that there’s a ceiling, but he is the candidate that the moderate, that the practically inclined Democrats would find appealing.”
Union membership in Kentucky is below the national average — only 9.6 percent of wage and salary workers in Kentucky are members of a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — and the 2018 legislative elections raised serious doubts about the political effectiveness of protesting teachers.
But Adkins still has a strong vein of support in rural Kentucky. In the latest campaign finance disclosure reports, Adkins raised a substantial amount from Pikeville, Ashland, Morehead and other cities in Appalachian Kentucky, while other candidates mostly got donations from Lexington and Louisville.
As Beshear and Edelen aggressively court Democratic voters in the big cities, Adkins seems content to lean into his rural roots.
“It’s going to take somebody with an understanding of rural Kentucky,” Adkins said. “A rural Kentucky that needs hope and opportunity. A rural Kentucky that needs somebody that understands of rural Kentucky, that lives in rural Kentucky, that’s experienced the ups and downs of rural Kentucky. Of how we rebuild and diversify an economy for the future.”