Democratic candidates for governor Adam Edelen, Rocky Adkins and Andy Beshear (left to right) faced off in their first televised debate | Screenshot via WLEX telecast

The three main Democratic candidates for governor faced off in their first televised and interactive debate on Wednesday evening at Transylvania University in Lexington, drawing differences between themselves on policy, experience and vision, but for the most part passing on any rhetorical haymakers until after the event.

Attorney General Andy Beshear, House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins and former state Auditor Adam Edelen steered much of the discussion and questions toward their familiar campaign themes — with Beshear emphasizing his legal battles with Gov. Matt Bevin, Adkins highlighting his decades of experience in the Kentucky General Assembly and Edelen pitching his call to modernize the state’s economy and break the political status quo.

At the prodding of debate moderator Matt Jones — the host of “Hey Kentucky!” on WLEX, which hosted and televised the event — the candidates also contrasted themselves with each other on policy issues like marijuana, abortion, taxes, college tuition, coal and LGBTQ rights.

The three came the closest to clashing during the debate on issues related to transparency and the release of their tax returns, but sharp criticisms turned up after the debate when Edelen took on Beshear’s work as a private attorney for the Boy Scouts of America in a sexual abuse lawsuit before he was attorney general.

Adam Edelen taking questions from reporters after the debate | Photo by Joe Sonka

While all three candidates have filed financial disclosure documents and released at least one year of their tax returns, Edelen’s running mate, Louisville businessman Gill Holland, has stated that he will not release any of his tax returns. While Edelen had previously criticized Bevin for breaking his promise as a candidate in 2015 to release his tax returns, he stated that Holland’s financial disclosure statements are detailed enough in describing what he and his family owns that “we’ve determined that he has no conflicts of interest.”

Pressed further after the debate by reporters on the extent of his vetting of Holland’s financial disclosures and what tax rate his running mate pays, Edelen eventually bristled and insisted moving on to other questions, saying, “What else you got?”

While Beshear released his tax returns from 2018 and has done so in previous years since he became attorney general, Adkins challenged Beshear to do the same for the years prior to 2016 when he was an attorney in private practice. Beshear responded that he would only be willing to do so if Adkins and Edelen both released their tax returns for those same years, as the two have so far only released their 2017 returns.

Jones asked Beshear about his representation of the Boy Scouts in a case that he was able to successfully dismiss due to those alleging sexual abuse in the 1970s waiting too long to report it, citing reports this week that the Boy Scouts has a private file naming 7,819 scout leaders who preyed on children in the past 75 years.

Beshear answered that what he learned from that case has driven his work to protect children from sexual abuse as attorney general, saying that he has pushed for a longer statute of limitations on such sexual abuse claims. However, he declined to directly answer a follow-up question asking if he regretted taking the case.

Edelen pounced on Beshear’s answer after the debate, telling reporters: “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. My regret is that he took the case to begin with.”

Told of Edelen’s comment after the debate, Beshear expressed shock and called it “desperate”

“I expected lies and distortions from Matt Bevin, but coming from a fellow Democrat? That’s disappointing,” said Beshear. “I represented an organization — the Boy Scouts and the Boy Scouts alone — on their practices and procedures in the 70s.”

Attorney General Andy Beshear taking questions from reporters after the debate | Photo by Joe Sonka

Beshear also told reporters that he wouldn’t take a case like that in the future, but defended the use of an argument in that case in which he referred to the “inexcusable delay” of the victims coming forward with their allegations of sexual abuse by scout leaders as children.

“When you represent a client you have to represent them under the law that exists at that time, and that term is a term that judges use when they haven’t found an exception to the statute of limitations,” said Beshear. “It wasn’t a term that was invented by the lawyers on that case whatsoever.”

Adkins, with a history of socially conservative votes on abortion and LGTBQ rights, mostly deflected when asked if he would sign a bill banning abortion if Roe v. Wade was overturned and the issue was sent back to the states, saying that he would consult with his general counsel “to give me the direction I need.”

Asked by a reporter about his vote in this year’s legislative session for a bill that would have criminalized abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned, Adkins — a member of the the legislature’s “Pro Life Caucus” who also voted to ban abortion after six weeks — defended it by noting that it passed by a wide margin and saying that’s what his constituents wanted.

“When you serve in the legislature, you express the views of your constituents through your votes,” said Adkins. “And if you will look at the vote on that bill, you will see it was overwhelming through the House of Representatives when it was passed, and through the Senate, too.”

Beshear and Edelen both answered that they would veto such a bill, with Edelen stating that he would do so because “to build a modern Kentucky you can’t do that without recognizing the full equality of women and you can’t recognize the full equality of women if you don’t trust them enough to make their own health care decisions.”

All three candidates answered that they would support a statewide LGBTQ fairness law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with Edelen giving that question a “hell yes.”

Asked by a reporter why he did not add himself as a co-sponsor the bill in this year’s session — as well as past years over the past decade — that would provide such protections to LBGTQ individuals, Adkins answered that there a many bills throughout a session that he supports but does not add his name to as a sponsor.

State Rep. Rocky Adkins taking questions from reporters after the debate | Photo by Joe Sonka

Adkins also answered that he regretted voting for a constitutional amendment in 2004 that banned same-sex marriage and civil unions in Kentucky, saying that his views changed over time and that people should be treated with dignity and respect.

While all three candidates support the legalization of medical marijuana, Edelen questioned Beshear over the attorney general saying that he would only support it if it was passed as a constitutional amendment, a difficult process that involves getting a supermajority vote in the legislature and later being passed in a statewide referendum.

Beshear answered that he was “willing to sign a bill right now if a bill comes to us,” adding that just about every state that’s done this well and responsibly it’s done it through a referendum where everybody gets to have their voices heard and that’s the process that we ought to consider.

Adkins indicated that he is opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana — as “Kentucky is not ready” and neither is he — while Edelen said that he was the only candidate in support of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.”

“We just cannot afford folks in a state this broke to spend $50 million a year prosecuting 11,000 people for possession of small amounts of marijuana,” said Edelen. “It’s dumb, it’s expensive and it’s also terribly racist in its application.”

As for the future of coal in Kentucky, Adkins and Beshear both said that it had a future, though Beshear called for “diversifying” the state’s energy portfolio. Edelen responding by mockingly lauded Beshear for adopting his position on the issue of energy diversification, saying that he has put his money where his mouth is by investing in a large solar power project in eastern Kentucky that will put unemployed coal miners to work.

On the issue of the state’s underfunded pension system, Beshear said that he would fund it with increased revenue from casino gambling, medical marijuana and expanded luxury sales taxes, while Edelen backed a mix of reforms and new tax revenue.

Adkins was questioned over the fact that he was in House leadership during the decade-plus in which the legislature underfunded pensions, who responded by citing a bipartisan reform bill he worked to pass in 2013 that moved new hires into a hybrid plan. Despite that legislation, the non-hazardous plan for state workers has continued to see its funding ratio decrease, as it is now the worst-funded public pension in the country.

Adkins repeated a main theme from his campaign by saying that he would be an advocate for those in rural Kentucky who have been left behind by the economy, saying that he would fully invest in education and technical training, including free tuition to the state’s system of community and technical colleges.

Beshear lauded his many legal challenges against the Bevin administration on his executive orders and bills he signed into law on education and pensions, saying that it proves he is the fighter who “will stand up against anybody for Kentuckians.”

Edelen vowed as governor “to build a modern Kentucky where we have the opportunity to give our people a fighting chance in a changing economy, the opportunity to have a fighting chance of keeping our children and grandchildren right here in Kentucky realizing their version of the American dream.”

Before the debate, Gov. Bevin released a video in which he said the Democratic candidates would advocate for “socialist” ideas of California and New York, as well as a campaign email featuring a photo of Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and the mentioning the words “socialist” or “socialism” 11 times.

Outside of the debate in Lexington on Wednesday, Republican Party of Kentucky staffers gathered with a cardboard cutout of Ocasio-Cortez. Asked twice if he thought Beshear, Adkins or Edelen were socialists, RPK spokesman Mike Lonergan did not say yes, but said that Democrats “are trying to bring New York-style socialism to Kentucky” and the three candidates would be “tripping over themselves to see who could be most like her in these kind of radical extreme liberal policies.”

Republican Party of Kentucky staffers Mike Lonergan and Jake Cox standing with a cardboard cutout of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outside of the debate Wednesday night. | Photo by Joe Sonka

The primary election is on May 21, with internal polls of both the Beshear and Edelen campaigns showing Beshear with a significant lead, but Edelen gaining ground since February.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]