Adam Edelen, a 33-year-old longtime political junky and former restaurant executive, has taken over one of the most difficult posts in Kentucky politics: governor's chief of staff.
He replaced Jim Cauley, 42, who returns to his natural habitat of campaigns and elections after serving as Gov. Steve Beshear's top aide for the first six months of Beshear's term.
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The chief of staff position has meant different things to those who held that post over the years. Democratic Gov. Paul Patton's chief of staff Skipper Martin served as a political compass. Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher's first chief of staff Daniel Groves tried to balance both politics and policy while Groves' successor, Stan Cave, focused more on policies and running the governor's office.
Edelen started in politics as a teenager working for Patton — even writing a key political speech for him in 1993 — has worked as an executive for Thomas & King, Inc., and has focused on education through various civic groups.
Edelen, with less than a week on the job under his belt, sat down with the Herald-Leader last week to talk about his vision for the position, the administration and Kentucky.
Q — How have you and Gov. Beshear envisioned your role and what approach you'll take to the position?
A — The governor has brought me into this administrative role because of my private sector management background. We're using all my skills and background in management and strategic planning to get the office prepared to be more externally focused, to provide excellent service to what I would brand are our customers. Our customers are the people of Kentucky, they're interest groups ... focused on improving the state, they're state legislators, local officials ...
Q — So does that mean you won't be serving in the political-gatekeeper role?
A — I'm certainly a political adviser to the governor. My role is to manage the office day-to-day. I think it's safe to say (Secretary of the Cabinet) Larry Hayes and I are his (the governor's) senior advisers. One of the primary reasons the governor, I believe, put me in this position is because my belief that good government and effective administration makes for good politics ... So competence, effectiveness, efficiency will, we believe, drive the politics.
Q — You got your start in politics with Paul Patton driving him around ...
A — I was 18 years old and I had just graduated high school and was getting ready to go to UK in the fall and I started out doing the clips, making coffee in Paul Patton's lieutenant governor's office and by the end of that first summer I had written a good deal of his Fancy Farm speech. One of the great things ... you find in a political setting that you also find in a really hard-core private sector setting is that man, it's a meritocracy. These are sink or swim situations where you get in; you do a good job, you can rise.
Q — Then you were the driver for Gov. Patton's 1995 campaign. So through osmosis or directly from Paul Patton, what kind of political lessons did you pick up? A — That it's very important to have a working relationship with other policy makers, particularly the legislature.
Q — What has prevented that from happening with this administration as effectively as you envision it should?
A — I think the shear magnitude of having to assemble an administration and present a budget in such a short time-frame given that the state is in such a financial crisis. I don't think there was any time for what I would call strategic reflection. It was all hands on deck, we had an immediate crisis to deal with.
Q — What do you see going forward as the issue that helps the governor reconnect with some of these lawmakers?
A — The governor, himself, is going to be doing what he loves best, that is engaging the people of Kentucky in their local communities ... and meeting with local officials and legislators.
Q — Looking at the state of education, something that's been important to you, what do you think needs to be done?
A — I believe with the governor in this regard: In a time when we are in financial crisis is exactly the time when we ought to be establishing what our priorities are ... Going through a process now of determining what are our pre-kindergarten priorities in this state? After 20 years of KERA (the Kentucky Education Reform Act) what should be our process going forward to make sure we keep this progressive spirit related to education reform? ... The governor, in the coming months, will be addressing those questions directly.