Politics & Government

Promising 'big things,' Adam Edelen is focused on Governor's Mansion

Adam Edelen
Adam Edelen Herald-Leader

After the GPS failed, state Auditor Adam Edelen took over, giving directions through downtown Paris to the young staffer driving, and he arrived to speak at the Rotary Club meeting about 20 minutes early.

Among the first there, he chatted up two of the country club officials and an employee setting up lunch as his staff eyed the fried fish, grilled cheese sandwiches and chili that was coming.

"We don't eat much," Edelen said, grinning.

With Edelen, who has time?

At 39, he is considering calendar dates near the first Saturday in May to announce that he is running for governor.

"My guess is the field will be pretty well established this spring, sometime either before or right after Derby," Edelen said. "And I wouldn't anticipate, if I were to go, I wouldn't anticipate being a late entrant."

To his critics, being late has never been a problem for Edelen, a young man in a hurry who is guided by ambition that they say will be his undoing.

To Edelen, Kentucky can't afford to wait any longer for a young leader with bold ideas to transform the state's economy and education systems.

Perhaps the most naturally gifted elected politician in Kentucky, Edelen is brash to his critics and bold to his admirers, smiling and strutting on the fine line between arrogance and confidence and not afraid to take on his party's more well-known candidates in a race for the Governor's Mansion.

'Big things'

After artfully working the crowd in the cozy dining room at Stoner Creek Country Club in late January, Edelen stood before a stone fireplace and held the audience of 30 people captive with what was the unmistakable early draft of a stump speech.

"The mayor says it's the biggest (crowd) he's seen in a long time, which leads me to conclude y'all must think I'm up to something," Edelen said to laughs.

Edelen looked at his watch, promised not to break the Rotary Club's "first commandment" of speaking past 1 p.m., and launched into a list of his greatest hits as auditor, alternating between impassioned talk of education reform and thinly veiled swipes at his would-be opponents, but calling for a bipartisan spirit of togetherness.

"What's happening is that Frankfort is becoming more like Washington, D.C., and I think we can all agree that Washington, D.C., is a disgrace," Edelen said. "So what we've got to do is reignite a reformist spirit that brings people together focused on doing big things."

"Big things" is a recurring theme for Edelen.

On the drive back to Lexington in Edelen's Chevy Tahoe — his twin 8-year-old boys' coloring books litter the back seat — Edelen's answers to a series of questions seem a lot like a to-do list of giants he wants to slay — education, tax modernization, cyber security and former state Auditor Crit Luallen.

Luallen's deliberation over whether to run for governor has been the source of consternation for many Democrats, especially Edelen and Attorney General Jack Conway.

"Crit has long been a friend of mine, and she's somebody I've admired," Edelen said. "And while I'm respectful of Crit's position and certainly she deserves the time and space to make her decision, I think that time is rapidly approaching. And it would be my preference she decide in fairly short order, certainly before we get too deep into winter so other people can make their plans. And that's not to say I won't run if Crit does, but I certainly think the path for me would be clearer if she were not in the campaign."

That path is uphill right now. Edelen is the least well-known of the candidates considering a bid. When asked about his low name recognition compared with Conway's, Edelen is dismissive.

"I don't think the next election is going to be about old name ID," he said. "I think it's going to be about new ideas. Anybody who relies on leftover name ID is someone who makes that calculation at their own peril."

Edelen describes himself as a "relationship politician," somebody who can achieve those big things he talks about because he has built friendships with politicians from both parties and all corners of the state.

That, he said, is why Republicans should be afraid of him.

"I've got demonstrated crossover appeal," Edelen said. "I speak the language of markets. I'm comfortable with business people. I'm not ideological. I'm practical. And I have a compelling message that a lot of Republicans respond to."

Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, dismisses such talk, pointing to what he called a "meltdown" Edelen had Thursday when the auditor held a news conference to accuse Senate Republican leaders of blocking for political reasons a cyber-security bill he is pushing. His bill "can't even get a damn hearing" in the Senate, Edelen said.

"I don't think anyone puts Adam Edelen at the top of any list for Governor in 2015," Robertson said. "Based on his recent meltdown with the legislature, he appears self-important and comes off as if he believes the world revolves around him. I don't think Kentuckians respond well to that type of candidate."

Far from an underdog in his own mind, Edelen seems ready to get on the debate stage at any minute.

"If I'm in the race, I think other people need to know that on the issue landscape, they're going to have to raise their game," he said. "Because that's the kind of campaign that the state needs."

'I hope he hangs'

In his remarks to the Rotary Club, Edelen drew laughs from the crowd when he told anyone thinking of running for public office: "run for an office where you have subpoena power, because it is awesome.

"It really makes people behave," he said.

A former chief of staff to Gov. Steve Beshear and a fixture in Kentucky politics for years, Edelen might seem an unlikely candidate to run against the "status quo" in Frankfort.

It's his time and efforts as auditor that Edelen says has given him a "high level of credibility of being a modernizer and a reformer and a doer of big things."

Like most Kentuckians, Edelen remembers exactly where he was when Duke's Christian Laettner hit "the shot" that ended Kentucky's unforgettable NCAA tournament run in 1992.

About two decades later, it was Edelen, along with Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who put one of that Kentucky team's star players on the road to federal prison.

In almost every speech he gives, Edelen talks about bringing down former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, an endeavor he says was "difficult" considering the emotional connection so many Kentuckians felt to Farmer from his playing days.

"What was troubling was, when you're part of building someone up — and as a member of the Big Blue Nation, I was party to that — you want them to, you know, man, you want them to meet your expectations," Edelen said. "And he didn't."

Whether it's Farmer or development districts or school districts, Edelen sees himself as Kentucky's official in charge of going after "the bad guys."

He often describes his "best and worst day" as auditor: going after a superintendent in Dayton who had been skimming money from the school's budgets.

"I hope he hangs," Edelen told a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce group earlier this year.

Edelen rattles off to the Rotary Club the percentage of kids in Bourbon County who are on free or reduced lunch. It’s a staple of his always off-the-cuff remarks wherever he goes, and he later reveals he has a cheat — he knows the estimated percentages based on the geography of the state.

He talks about the importance of getting school children digital readers, bemoans a “culture of low expectations” and laments “a state that does a better job of producing uneducated, unhealthy people who can’t provide for their families, much less themselves.”

In acknowledging his critics’ charges of blind ambition, Edelen points to his record as auditor.

"It's one where we haven't made political calculations," he said. "It's where we've done big things and frankly have the enemies to prove it."

From that perspective, Edelen is unapologetic about the rush he's in.

"Am I in the business of trying to be a transformative leader in Kentucky? Absolutely," he said. "And anybody who is running for office who doesn't have the same ambition ought to do a gut check about why they're running."

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