At Fancy Farm, Rocky Adkins looked like a Kentucky governor candidate

Published 6:05 am Tuesday, August 14, 2018


Guest columnist

FANCY FARM — Rocky Adkins didn’t make a speech at the Fancy Farm Picnic, because he’s not a statewide official or candidate. But he leads the Democrats in the state House, and he’s running a campaign for governor that hit second gear on picnic weekend.

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At a breakfast, a lunch, two dinners and in between, Adkins said he was campaigning to win back the House majority his party lost in a big way in 2016. But it’s a hand-in-glove campaign: As he travels the state talking with Democrats about state issues and giving speeches to show his mettle, Adkins is doing pretty much the same things he will be doing as a candidate for governor.

“I feel like for the first time in many years I’ve got the wind at my back instead of a hurricane in my face,” Adkins told union members at the annual labor lunch in Paducah. “That hurricane has switched direction because of the bad policies in Frankfort, Kentucky: the war on working families, the war on public education, the war on health care, and a tax package that raised taxes on 95 percent of Kentuckians while giving a tax break to the top 5 percent.”

He won’t have to change a word when he becomes a candidate. And he’s apparently settled on a running mate for lieutenant governor – Stephanie Horne, who owns a Louisville title company and is the wife of Andrew Horne, who lost to John Yarmuth in the 2006 3rd Congressional District primary. She reportedly shook every hand she could at the breakfast before the picnic.

Picking a Louisville running mate should open some doors, minds and checkbooks in the city to an Appalachian (“from the left-hand fork of Middle Fork in Elliott County,” Adkins likes to say) who is still a little rough around the edges – like Paul Patton of Pikeville, who chose Steve Henry to run with him in the 1995 campaign that sent them to Frankfort.

In the past, Adkins was notoriously verbose, as if speaking a lot made up for not speaking well. He is much improved. He keeps speeches to reasonable lengths, and I heard only one subject-verb disagreement, a pretty common one: “Matt Bevin, that Capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky, don’t belong to you. It belongs to the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

At the labor lunch, Adkins prowled the stage, and ultimately the tables, like a revival preacher. A former point guard for Morehead State University, he’s big, tall and rangy, and dominates a room more than Attorney General Andy Beshear (the only announced candidate), Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes or former state auditor Adam Edelen.

Beshear, son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, is joined at the hip with much of the Kentucky Education Association, which had a major presence at the picnic and other events, boosting his relatively bland speeches. But teachers in the area are keeping their minds open, said longtime KEA stalwart Merryman Kemp of Paducah.

Kemp said after Adkins’ speech at the labor lunch, “The preacher type can win easier than Steve and Jane’s son. I love him; I love Steve and Jane, but  … it’s who I think can win.”

After Saturday’s picnic, I asked Adkins to make a case for himself. He cited his 31 years in the House, his private-sector experience (mainly coal) and said, “I think people believe that they want a governor they can approach, they can talk to, that they can actually communicate with, that cares about them.”

But running statewide is a big leap for someone with a constituency of 40,000 people. Andy Beshear has run statewide once. Alison Lundergan Grimes has won two races for secretary of state and lost a U.S. Senate race to Mitch McConnell. But somewhat like Adkins, she has said races for 2019 should wait until after those of 2018.

Grimes, who is expecting her first child in December, is a lawyer and could run for attorney general. But her rhetoric at the picnic and its preliminaries sounded mostly gubernatorial, and her pointed barbs seemed designed to attract attention and send the message: “Don’t forget about me.”

We won’t. In a region where President Donald Trump remains popular, Grimes went after him at the labor lunch: “When he’s not in bed with Russia, he’s in bed with Stormy Daniels.” She said Bevin, who passed up the picnic, was “still having a sleepover with the Koch brothers,” and “We thought he’s the reason God created the middle finger.” (She had plenty more zingers, but you’ve probably read them.)

Now that we’re past Fancy Farm, the rhetoric may cool a bit. But the governor’s race is on.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal.