An interview with Buddy Wheatley, candidate for SOS Skip to content

An interview with Buddy Wheatley, candidate for SOS

Buddy Wheatley is the Democratic candidate for KY Secretary of State in this fall's election. In this interview, we talk about why he's running, what he hopes to accomplish, and what sets him apart from his opponent, the current SOS Michael Adams. Watch or listen and learn more about Buddy Wheatley!

15 min read

Buddy Wheatley is the Democratic candidate for KY Secretary of State in this fall's election. He's fairly well-known in the northern part of the state, but not as well elsewhere. So in this interview, we talk about why he's running, what he hopes to accomplish, and what sets him apart from his opponent, the current SOS Michael Adams. Watch or listen and learn more about Buddy Wheatley!

(If you are a paying member of ForwardKY, you can also read the transcript down below.)

Podcast version


Hello, and welcome to Moving Kentucky Forward. I’m Bruce Maples, your host, publisher of Forward Kentucky.

Today we are going to speak with Representative Buddy Wheatley of Northern Kentucky, who is running for Secretary of State.

He’s fairly well known in the northern part of the state, but not so much across the rest of Kentucky, so I thought it would be good for us to get to know him and to learn more about his campaign and why he is running.

So let’s hear from Buddy Wheatley about what he hopes to accomplish when he is elected as Secretary of State.

So we’re here today with Buddy Wheatley, Representative Buddy Wheatley, who is running for Secretary of State this fall. Representative Wheatley, welcome to Moving Kentucky Forward.

Thank you, Bruce. It’s an honor to be here. I’ve been here before as a state representative and always enjoy our conversations.

Good. Thank you. I’m looking forward to this because I’m interested in a whole lot of things about your race. You are running for Secretary of State after having been a state representative. So the basic question we always start with is why? Why are you running for this particular office?

Thank you, Bruce. It’s pretty clear that I have been involved in election legislation during my time as a state representative.

And you know, I originally went to the House of Representatives with pension issues important to me. I come from the fire service, retired fire chief, and had those issues that I worked on very hard during my time in the General Assembly.

Rocky Atkins put me right on the Public Pension Oversight Board, worked across the aisle, worked with the labor unions, worked with the people who had a lot at stake when it comes to the pension issues, and helped stabilize with a bipartisan group, helped stabilize the pensions enough to say that we don’t hear that phrase, “pension crisis,” quite as often. But when I turned my attention to my other interests, it is related to elections, opening access to the polls, democracy, strengthening our democracy, and modernizing our elections.

And the governor, right after he had come into office, he recognized I was a state representative who had this interest.

He and I had several meetings related to this issue. We actually did it right before the pandemic hit. We met and did a video together, was planning to do more things related to modernizing our elections because Kentucky is still one of the hardest places to vote in the country. So I have a strong desire to modernize our elections and increase the voter turnout so that we have the truest form of representation in Frankfurt and in Washington, D.C.

So I’m intrigued. I mean, I understand what you’re talking about, modernizing and making it easier to vote. Over the past, I don’t know, four years, I guess, ever since Michael Adams was elected, he has done some things working with the legislature to increase access in some ways.

I never thought we would see early voting, never. And that happened.

We’ve got some absentee ballots now that you can get. So it seems to me that it has gotten easier from what it used to be, which was show up on Tuesday or you can’t vote at all.

So what would you do in addition or instead of if you were elected?

Well, let me say this about what Michael Adams has done. He has made it ever so slightly better. There’s been an increased opening access to the polls, but we are so far below even anything that’s the average amount of access to the polls that that that is not a very much of a distinction, in my my opinion. There’s other ways he’s actually making it harder to vote.

But, you know, my plan is to increase voter turnout is a is it takes a number of things. But they all can happen in a modernizing way.

And I recognize the General Assembly is not one to quickly pass major election issues. As Michael Adams says, it hasn’t happened for 100 years, but that’s no excuse to leave us right where we’re at. So I would I would work on two full weeks of early voting, which was very close to happening in the 2021 legislation. But I’d have to say Michael Adams caved on that issue.

I would keep our polls open until 7 p.m. Our Constitution permits our polls to be open till 7 p.m. We have many working Kentuckians who just can’t get to the polls by 6 p.m.

And yes, there’s some funding that will be required to sustain a program like that and poll workers. But I’ll work to secure that state and federal funding and sustain it, too. So there are many other ways that open access to the polls, including increasing confidence within the security of our polls, of course, and that we can do something Michael Adams is trying to pull us away from is the is the voter fraud protection program known as Eric. And yes, he is trying to pull us out of Eric, which only some of the more far right secretary of states are trying to do in other states. So those are things that I would do to increase access to the polls.

I’ve had other pieces of legislation such as allowing independents to vote in our primaries, independents and third party voters to vote in our primaries. Independents are the fastest-growing voting block in the state. And many of our veterans are independents.

Again, it takes a number of these issues to move us more into the modern age and opening access to the polls. But I’ll be working on all of them. And there are more.

So I’m surprised about the 7 p.m. thing. I did not realize the Constitution allowed that. It allows what, six to seven then?

Not all state constitutions have their election hours in the Constitution. Kentucky does 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. But our state legislature has had it at 6 p .m. for quite a long time. And there is really no good reason why we’re not open to 7 p.m. There’s some things we have to do with our poll workers and to make it sustainable and all that. But that’s that’s quite easy to do.

One of the things that I know you were interested in in your last election and I think is probably on your list of issues is the number of polling locations we have had. On the one hand, having a central polling location for early voting is not necessarily a bad idea. But it seemed to me that a number of counties were using that as an excuse to get rid of local polling locations, which ultimately hurts people who don’t have good transportation. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Yes, I think you recall one of our last conversations was focused on this issue. Michael Adams, the first election that he was completely in charge of, drastically reduced the number of polling locations in the state, leading to this lowest voter turnout in 30 years in Kentucky. A state that already has very low voter turnout, truly not getting the form of democracy or the representation of democracy that we all deserve.

So, yes, the voting centers that were permitted that went into the 2021 piece of legislation did not have any kind of safety guards in it related to reducing polling locations, which is what Michael Adams did, led to the very long lines that we saw that Jefferson County legislators called voter suppression, as did some other legislators around the state. So it is a form of voter suppression. So Michael Adams was making it harder to vote. That is something that we certainly have to pay attention to.

And voter turnout, to me, is a big part of what the Secretary of State and what I will do to try to increase. And Michael Adams has said it’s not his responsibility. It’s up to the county parties and the candidates themselves. But I don’t feel that way at all. I feel like it’s part of the Secretary of State’s job, including the civic engagement that I will have a robust program for, also.

I was surprised at the last election, which would have been midterms. I know there was a ton of interest, and I’m a poll worker, and the polling location that I work certainly stayed busy. But then at the end of the day, I think the turnout was like 33 percent or something like that. How does Kentucky compare in turnout to some of the other states around us? That seems so bad to me.

Well, unfortunately, it is bad, Bruce. We, our voter turnout for the 2022 elections was closer to 41 percent on a statewide average. But a lot of the locations where we had precincts in our neighborhoods, civic centers and churches, firehouses, those were pulled away, and they had voter turnout in the teens.

And you asked about the surrounding locations, the surrounding states. I don’t have the numbers for each state, but I can put us near the bottom. Maybe not Tennessee level, because I think Tennessee is last in the nation in voter turnout. But we are very low ourselves.

And, you know, voter turnout and reasons for it, it’s a broad mix of things that happens. But it seems like Michael Adams is not addressing anything other. The early voting days, that was great. Primarily, I think the work of the legislature and not the Secretary of State. But we need much greater access to the polls.

So I interviewed Colonel Pam Stevenson just a few days ago. And we talked about the difference between when I ran, which was a local race, and I spent months knocking on doors. And I said, unless you’re going to do a Lamar Alexander and walk across the state, I don’t think you’re going to be knocking on too many doors.

So my question to you is the same question I had for her. How are you running this race? What are you doing to reach across the state?

Great question, Bruce. You know, elections are too much about dollars and getting up on screens. But we recognize that is the most efficient way to get around or to get your name out there and to get your message out there.

However, it doesn’t replace that old, you know, shoe leather work. And the shoe leather work, more so in this age, is attending events around the state, meeting people, having meet and greets, literally every county if you can get to there.

And when I go, you know, I’m a firefighter. And I come from labor. And I reach out to those groups when I go to those areas. And those are those are ways that we are having more connections with more people around the state.

And each each campaign has to look at, you know, their unique situation. It takes dollars, of course. But I’ve got a great team. We’ve set ourselves up to really have a strong finish here. And that will be probably more digital or media related. But it still is a mix here.

And while it’s unfortunate that as many dollars as needed to get up on the air or get on screens, it’s a part of today’s elections. And we will be there. We’ll be there quite a bit as we get closer to the election.

One of the things that I’ve always told people, both elected officials and candidates and leaders of any kind, is that the people that like you tell you to your face and the people that don’t like you talk behind your back. So what sort of connections at these events you’ve been going to, what sort of connections have you been able to make with people that may not know about you or may not even like you necessarily?

Well, I have to tell you, Bruce, you know, I’ve run three races and in situations where I’ve overperformed by 10 percent, actually 11 percent for my last race. And I can tell you that for the most part, the way I interact with people, it does have an effect.

You know, they learn about my background. I’m a lifelong Kentucky and family has been in northern Kentucky 150 years, fourth generation firefighter, Govington firefighter, fire chief, law school. When I was a firefighter now practicing labor attorney, these are the things people are fascinated by.

The fact that I got into politics late in life, I’m very far from being a lifetime politician, but public service was imbued in me from a young age. And once I became an attorney, these things, again, were still nagging at me to go make a difference. And people hear this story and they just seem to react to it. I have a positive reaction to it. I have a positive attitude, attitude about this.

And it’s great meeting the people of Kentucky. It’s such a beautiful state from where we were at Fancy Farms, far western Kentucky to far eastern Kentucky. My wife is from south central on the border of McCreary County. Everywhere I go, it’s just getting really, really positive reactions.

Now, the people that you who don’t like you, like you said, they may not say it to your face. And I don’t think they’re talking about me very much behind my back, except in a good way.

So did you speak at Fancy Farm?

I did. Yes.

I thought the entire ticket did.

The entire ticket did on both sides.

Yeah. So was that your first time to go to Fancy Farm?

It was. It was my first time. I’ve been following it, you know, online.

Bless your heart.

You know, the event itself is very hectic and very loud, but still pretty neat, pretty interesting. And it’s worth doing. Of course, the pre-event events that we did that were so helpful as far as getting me to the people, getting me out there to the people of western Kentucky, far western Kentucky.

And I have to tell you this. This is I can’t be more sincere about this. Kentuckians have the same interests all over the state. They want to move the state forward. This far left, far right thing that’s going on around the country and the state. The people that I’m talking to know that, you know, we have our differences, but they want to go forward. That’s what this governor wants to do.

I’m very proud to be on the ticket with him. He did ask that I run for secretary of state. I’m proud that he’s done that. And going forward, you know, we have we all make mistakes. We all do great things. But learning from them and going forward, that’s what I’m about. That’s what I will do as secretary of state and look forward to it.

I want to ask one question. I seem to recall, and if I’m wrong, please correct me. I seem to recall something about Michael Adams having other work than secretary of state. I was unaware of that. So can you tell me about that?

Well, I can, and it’s unfortunate that he’s, you know, being paid a full time salary to be our secretary of state in Kentucky. But he remains full partner in a national elections law firm that represents some of the worst election deniers and some of the worst people that have been in politics for decades. And that’s how he makes money, and that’s how he funds his own elections.

And I say that, you know, I see it as public service 100 percent. I would never, I will set aside my law practice when I’m secretary of state to vote full time to the position. But yes, Michael Adams is working his side job while secretary of state.

Well, that’s interesting because I really was unaware of that. So I appreciate you sharing that information.

So you’re talking about doing digital and so on and so forth. Have you done very much so far? Or are you really sort of saving it all for the final turn, as it were?

Well, we we’re very careful with the dollars we have. We have not had a lot of digital right now. But of course, we’ve got signs and we’ve got campaign literature that we have been out with, and we will have a lot more and a lot more is coming. But it’s a good question. We are gearing up, I guess you can say, for this last two and a half months to the elections, only 84 days away. So we’re ready, you know, recognizing serving two terms in the General Assembly. There are people who know me and know my name, a little bit of a unique name. They’ve attached me to the firefighting side of this, and I’m proud of all that. But I know I want to get out there and touch and be around as many people as possible as far as, you know, having contact like that.

I wish we had millions of dollars in our campaign accounts, and we could have been running commercials all year round. But this is what it’s like to run down ballot. That’s fine with me. I understand it makes me work harder.

You know, it’s an easy lift for me when I say I don’t mind it. I think it’s that important in public service. That is that important to me.

Have you gotten any endorsements that you’re particularly proud of?

Well, you know, you’re probably aware that I’m very connected to labor. So yes, there are a number of labor endorsements that I could talk about. There are some organizations that will be having their endorsements and announcements coming soon, so I can’t quite announce them. But yes, of course, we are unanimously endorsed by the Kentucky AFL-CIO. That’s the fourth time that’s happened for me, endorsed by the Kentucky Professional Firefighters, the United Steelworkers, the Ironworkers, the United Mineworkers.

There are probably quite a few more that aren’t coming to the top of my head, but there’s at least a couple dozen.

Cool. I don’t know if you remember Ann Northup, who was third district congressional person from Louisville. People who’ve lived in Louisville for a long time know what I’m talking about. And I talked about this the other day with one of the campaign consultants when we were talking about digital and ads.

Ann Northup used to not put out any signs at all in Louisville until the last week, and they would all go up on one night. And so in one night, the whole city would be covered in these signs. And I asked this consultant, I said, so you’re gonna do the same thing with digital? You know, wait and then throw them all in there at once? And she was like, well, maybe not quite all in one night. But yeah, we’re gonna save some stuff for the end, as it were.

Well, we don’t want to give away too many secrets, of course. But these are some good ideas. I’m kind of liking that. I’ve run, you know, this is my fourth race. Two is three as a state representative. We have some experience. We’ve seen what’s worked. It certainly is different statewide. And as far as having a simultaneous kind of distribution of signs to put them out in one day, you know, we’re gonna have a lot of friends helping us with signs. So we’ll have to see how that best works. But I kind of like that idea.

Well, I was not just talking about signs. I was talking about like ads and stuff. So you do all the ads at once.

So I always like to close with two questions. And the first one is, is there anything that you wanted to talk about that I haven’t asked you?

You know, the thing that I have, I worked so hard on related to this independent redistricting commission bill that I worked with the Kentucky League of Women Voters on. It truly is an important way that we can take a lot of partisanship out of our redistricting process.

It’s a commission type thing that where they draw the lines so that politicians aren’t picking their voters. The voters truly get to pick the politicians, get to elect the people they want to have in Frankfurt, in Washington, D.C.

Actually, I’ve had a little bit of buy in from some people across the aisle, recognizing that this part of our election systems, where the legislators are drawing these lines, has created more partisanship. And that’s another way that we can bring it back to less partisanship.

With today’s computer technology and be able to finally draw those lines around all those households and people who are in one party and vote a particular way and vote however many times they vote. We can really have some controls with that with the independent redistricting commission. So I will be working on that piece of legislation again and really help bring our democracy to its truest form with that kind of legislation. As I said, I think I said this about half the states have it so far, but it’s an amount that’s increasing and it’s time Kentucky modernize our elections.

All right. My last question is the one I ask every candidate I ever interview, which is, let’s pretend that you’re out knocking doors. So you’re standing on my front porch and I’ve opened the door and I look at you and I say, why should I vote for you? What would be your answer?

I am the candidate in this race who wants to fully bring Kentucky’s elections to the 21st century, truly make it easier to vote and secure our elections like they’ve always been and keep them secure.

I have a program that will open access to the polls, increase civic engagement and keep our elections secure.

Buddy Wheatley, running for secretary of state in a statewide race. So you won’t be knocking on too many doors, but you’ll be doing other things.

And we really wish you the best, wish you all the luck in the world. I’d love to see you get elected and good luck in the next, what is it, 84 days, you said?

84, you know, we’re getting close to the end of the day, so getting close to 83.

All right. Well, thank you for the interview and good luck.

It’s been a pleasure, Bruce, as always. And thank you. I look forward to the next time, whether it’s on this screen or somewhere else.

That was Representative Buddy Wheatley, the Democratic candidate this year for secretary of state. As you heard, he has a lot of good ideas for what he would do when he is elected. And I hope you will get out and vote for him and all the Democratic candidates this fall. I think they will all make a big difference in Frankfurt, and you’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for watching or listening, and we’ll see you next week.

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Bruce Maples

Bruce Maples has been involved in politics and activism since 2004, when he became active in the Kerry Kentucky movement. (Read the rest of his bio on the Bruce Maples Bio page in the bottom nav bar.)

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