Candidate analysis: Adam Edelen

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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This is one of three analyses of the top Democratic candidates for Kentucky governor. For more about the four criteria we used in each analysis, please read the introductory article.

Vision for the State

Adam Edelen’s vision for Kentucky contains many of the same Democratic icons as the visions of the other candidates: better education, healthcare access, and so on. And yet, whether it’s the tone or the passion, Edelen’s vision feels bigger.

He doesn’t talk so much about undoing the damage done by the Bevin administration (although there is that) as he does about the big things and big ideas that Kentucky should be aiming for. Some examples:

  • Universal pre-Kindergarten
  • Statewide living wage
  • A bold initiative in renewable energy industries, including both getting factories and installations built in Kentucky and retro-fitting government facilities with renewable energy to lower costs. He is passionate about this topic, and can get even the most jaded listener excited about the possibilities.

One of the most unusual items is his Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights. It includes the expected deference to gun owners, but then lists the following:

  • Restore integrity to the Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Oppose selling off or transferring our public lands
  • Pass along Kentucky’s sporting traditions through recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters
  • Conserve and enhance Kentucky habitat to maintain robust fish and wildlife populations

I haven’t heard this particular plank talked about much, but it seems to bring a part of Kentucky into focus that often gets ignored.

Finally, one of the most interesting and “big idea” pieces of the Edelen vision is the Kentucky Kick-Start. Basically, this is a “NuLu that looks like you” for towns and counties across the Commonwealth. Local leaders will be able to frame up investment opportunities in their area, then put them into a central database, where investors and entrepreneurs could look for opportunities and get matched up with the opportunities.

Policies and Legislation

Edelen is unabashedly progressive, pretty much across the board. If you make a list of standard progressive ideas and policies (living wage, marriage equality, addressing climate change), Adam Edelen checks almost all the boxes.

He is pro-choice and clear about it. He calls dealing with climate change “both a moral imperative and an economic imperative.” He wants to find revenue opportunities, instead of continuing to cut ourselves into oblivion. He is for bail reform, and has come out for not only legalizing medical marijuana, but for decriminalizing recreational marijuana. He says that he will lead an effort in the legislature to restore felon voting rights, and if the legislature won’t pass it, he’ll do it through executive order.

The only box that one could say he misses is doing something about gun regulation, such as outlawing assault weapons. But, even there, he talks about a “fair and rational gun ownership system,” and about better background checks.

Viability as a Candidate

Adam Edelen started out fairly well-known to political activists across the state, but not as well known outside of those circles. He upset some party leadership with his editorial after losing in 2015, and exacerbated that problem when he helped start the New Kentucky Project, which was seen as being in competition to the official Democratic party.

I have also heard from sources that he has upset some union people over the years, and that seems backed up by Adkins (and to some extent, Beshear) getting pretty much all the union endorsements.

In my opinion, the Edelen campaign has made two mistakes that may come back to haunt them:

  • Not having running-mate Gill Holland release his tax returns, when Beshear and Coleman have already released theirs, and when that was a big complaint about Matt Bevin in 2015.
  • Talking about “not taking PAC money” when everyone knows that while the campaign may not be taking PAC money, there is a super PAC supporting the campaign.

HOWEVER … there is an interesting dynamic happening in this race. Adam Edelen is challenging his opponents from the left, which is certainly unexpected in Kentucky. And at least for the moment, it seems to be working:

  • He got the endorsement of the political arm of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the largest progressive group in the state.
  • He won the straw poll at the Young Dems convention.
  • He has closed the gap between him and Beshear, and seems to be gaining ground, especially among younger voters and activists. (At least according to Edelen’s internal poll. Beshear’s internal poll suggests otherwise.)

How would he be in the general? He doesn’t have the baggage of Beshear, for one thing. And, he is pretty good on the stump, though not as stem-windery as Adkins. I think he would be very good in debates, and surely would be able to challenge Bevin both in person and in ads, where he comes across as a good combination of intelligent and down-home.

One thing that is off-putting sometimes is that there is an edge of anger in some of his public presentations. I understand that he has to come after the front-runner Beshear – but somehow he’s got to find a way to be forceful without being angry or mean.

If he can mend some fences with the unions, and find a campaign gear based in hope and not anger, he would make a good general-election candidate.

Effectiveness as Governor

Adam Edelen as governor is something of an unknown quantity. He was effective as an auditor, which is why most people assumed he would win in 2015. He knows Frankfort, though not as well, perhaps, as the other two.

The two biggest unknowns would be his relationship with the legislature, and his ability to run the executive branch. Being governor involves many of the same skills as being CEO: hiring good people, setting a vision and a culture, delegating appropriately, and then getting out of the way.

If Edelen wins, it will be because he is able to get the voters of this state to share his vision and passion for making the state all it can be. Can he then get the legislature, especially the Republicans, to buy into that vision as well? Can he build coalitions and relationships across the aisle? Adkins probably starts in a better place in this regard; Edelen would have to work hard to build trust.

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