Renee Shaw: Meet the men who want to be the state’s top election official. One already has the job, the other, a former state lawmaker, wants to replace him. A conversation with Republican incumbent Secretary of State Michael Adams and Democrat Charles “Buddy” Wheatley, now, on Connections.
Renee Shaw: Thank you for joining us for Connections today, I’m Renee Shaw. We’re almost two weeks away from Election Day in Kentucky and while a lot of attention is on the governor’s contest, there are some interesting matchups down ballot. Today, we talk to the party nominees for Kentucky Secretary of State. This office hasn’t always been an elected one. In fact, up until 1896, it was appointed by the governor. In addition to overseeing elections, the secretary of state deals with business filings in the state, public notary commissions, and more. Kentucky voters will choose between Republican Michael Adams, who was elected in 2019 and is seeking a second term, and Democrat Charles “Buddy” Wheatley. I talked awhile back with Secretary Adams about why he wants and deserves a second term.
Renee Shaw: Secretary Adams, it’s a pleasure.
Michael Adams: Good to be back, thanks, Renee.
Renee Shaw: Good to see you. How are things going on the campaign trail?
Michael Adams: Pretty good. I’m getting a good reception everywhere I go. I might score some counties this time I lost last time. That’s one of my goals.
Renee Shaw: Uh, ha, Which, which are?
Michael Adams: There are several counties that were for Gov. Beshear and for my opponent last time I’m hoping to pick up: Woodford County, Nicholas County. I’d love to do better in Jefferson and Fayette as well. I do think I’ve got some crossover opportunity in those counties that are more blue or purple.
Renee Shaw: When we get to this point in the election season, and by the time this airs, it will be ever closer toward the end of October. How, the polling I always find fascinating and I don’t know enough about it to know how that works. You feel good by what you’re already seeing?
Michael Adams: Yeah, we’ve had a couple of polls and we’re in a pretty strong position, but there are a lot of undecided people and those people tend to tune in pretty late in the campaign. Those people disproportionately are independents. Independents tend to be the least political of us, so they tend to tune in pretty late. And those are the faster growing voter block in Kentucky, the independents, and they don’t have one, uh, one set of opinions about things. They have lots of multifarious opinions about lots of things, and so they’re a difficult group to really understand and target successfully, but I think we’ll do that.
Renee Shaw: Yeah, and you’ve talked before, I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on this because I could go on and on about how the voter registration has changed to favor Republicans. There has been that flip but the independent category is growing and they’re now at, what, 10, 10 percent?
Michael Adams: Yeah, you’ve seen really, really rapid growth among independents and that’s a pretty significant thing because when you register independent in Kentucky, you’re self-disenfranchising. You’re making it impossible to vote in our primary, and the primaries are getting more and more important, so that’s a big deal. I do think we should open up our primaries, let our independent voters vote in those primaries. Number one, they’re paying taxes to pay for these elections and we shouldn’t discriminate. But number two, it’d be better for all of us if our government had less polarity in it, and when you have primaries with low turnout and just the most motivated Rs and Ds vote, you have extreme outcomes. It distorts the outcomes. It’s better for all of us as a polity. We’ll have more cooperation, I think, if we have that leavened a little bit by independent voters as well.
Renee Shaw: Let’s talk about you.
Michael Adams: Yeah.
Renee Shaw: Your background, you, you hold the office of Secretary of state currently. Why do you want a second term?
Michael Adams: Sometimes I’ve wondered the same thing myself.
Renee Shaw: (laughs)
Michael Adams: This has been a really hard job.
Renee Shaw: Yeah.
Michael Adams: When I ran four years ago, the number one question I got was what does your office do. And it was a fair question because the office didn’t do anything. I’ve had some crises, but I’ve also made opportunity out of those crises. It’s very rare to have a secretary of state be a big leader in state government. Normally it’s just an office that stamps stuff and signs stuff. I think this is a place to really make significant change in Kentucky. I’ve run more legislation that’s accomplished more than arguably the governor or other constitutional officers, and this isn’t a sleepy office anymore. We’ve made it a point of moral leadership. I had virtually no power on paper. Uh, all the things that I do that I’ve accomplished in terms of expanding voting rights and improving the process of electing our, our candidates, it’s all been through moral leadership because I’ve been willing to challenge my own party on occasion and pull them in the right direction, but also call out the Democrats who did nothing to expand voting rights when they ran this state for a hundred years.
Renee Shaw: Yeah, so let’s talk about that. Some of this was pandemic-induced, and let’s talk about how you worked with the governor, current governor Andy Beshear, to help push some of that along so that people could vote in that critical 2020 primary.
Michael Adams: Yeah, at a time that other states were making it harder to vote in the name of election integrity and other states were dropping basic protocols for election integrity in favor of just letting everybody vote, we took a middle path, and the governor was a good partner in that. We made sure that we locked down who was voting in our election, we required people to prove who they were. But we also expanded voting days, expanded voting methods, implemented a portal to make it easier to apply for your ballot, very common-sense things. We did this in a very non-ideological way and I think it was good to have a Democrat and a Republican at the table together, not just because it meant that we had good policy where both sides were heard out. But we also offered a better look. We showed voters on both sides of the spectrum during a $100 million Senate race, where both sides were very, very attendant to the race, hey, we got this and we’re doing it in a fair way. No one’s disenfranchised, no one’s being cheated. And we had an election that Republicans did very well in but Democrats didn’t think that it was stolen. It’s very important to have both sides together on this stuff.
Renee Shaw: Yeah, I, I’ve heard it described, though, that during the pandemic voting period that some described it as more of a time-lapse rather than a snapshot in voting. And even Republicans took their jabs at you for that process and then the changes that you wanted to codify into law, are you beyond that?
Michael Adams: Uh, sort of. I’ve got a, I’ve got a fake certificate in my office that I issued to myself recognizing Benedict Adams. That was nickname in the capitol with Republicans in 2020. They saw me working with a Democrat trying to protect voting rights and they said this guy’s a traitor. But I was proved right by history. I was proved right that we had an election that was smooth, smoother than any other state had conducted. That didn’t have vote fraud, that came out just fine. People didn’t feel disenfranchised or cheated, and they, they learned that I was right and they actually ended up passing a lot of what I implemented on an emergency basis. So, we’re, we’re, we’re passed on that. I did get a primary over it, but I did pretty well in that one.
Renee Shaw: Well, I was going to say --
Michael Adams: Yeah.
Renee Shaw: -- so you did have uh, some challenge in this recent primary, and those contenders were also elevating those claims of voter fraud. And, and you were above that, and you came out the victor. When we constantly still hear about election integrity and security and voter fraud, is that a problem at all? Or in a miniscule amount?
Michael Adams: It is a problem, but here’s what it looks like: The notion of, of millions of people or hundreds of thousands of people forming a conspiracy and stealing an election is kind of farcical. But vote fraud’s a real thing and here’s what it looks like. It looks like what you saw in Monroe County in the primary last year for Monroe County Jailer. It’s three things that form a perfect storm: It’s a local office that’s got patronage and power: contracting power, hiring power. It’s a place with very few voters. It’s a primary election with a low turnout. It’s in a small county or a small town, and it’s a place with a lot of poverty, and so you can buy a vote for 50 bucks or 100 bucks. When you have those three things present, then you have a Monroe County Jailer’s race where you have indictments for vote fraud. Or a Magoffin County election or a Floyd County election. We typically see these things in small counties that have high poverty and it’s local elections. It’s not national elections or state elections. So I’m not happy about it, but we are keeping watch for it and we are holding people accountable.
Renee Shaw: Right, and so you have been very, uh, forthcoming about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. Do you get flack for that?
Michael Adams: Uh, I do. That’s starting to kind of wear off. I think winning my primary so convincingly, uh, was a factor in that, but something I’m really proud of but also is, is important voters is this race in which I’m running has national significance. I was the first Republican to win a closed primary for, for this office since 2020. I had colleagues that got beat by people like the ones I had to run against. I figured out a way to survive that. If I lose, or if I win, but it’s close, it’s going to have national implications because a lot of Republicans around the country running for this office and other offices were really given a shot in the arm by the fact that I could find a way to win. And it sent a message to other secretaries of state and legislators and others that I can tell the truth about elections in America and survive and maybe even be reelected. And so I’m really hopeful that we’ll have a strong turnout and we’ll be successful in November because it will give a shot in the arm for my style of governing, which is consensus-based, not just here in Kentucky but around America.
Renee Shaw: Yeah, who would’ve thought that the secretaries, secretary of state’s office would be the most politically dangerous constitutional office of the line-up?
Michael Adams: Not me. (laughs)
Renee Shaw: (laughs) You would’ve maybe thought about it differently --
Michael Adams: I didn’t see it coming, yeah --
Renee Shaw: Right?
Michael Adams: -- yeah.
Renee Shaw: Uh, and you did say, I remember, you know, your slogan is always make it easier to vote, harder to cheat. And, and you mentioned, I remember, and I think in the Republican caucus room in the Capitol Annex, you were saying that you could be proposing some things that could make you a first-term and only-term secretary of state, But. who knows, right?
Michael Adams: Yeah, well, we don’t know yet --
Renee Shaw: This is the test --
Michael Adams: -- we’ll find out
Renee Shaw: -- this is the test to find out.
Michael Adams: But I’ll tell you this: In May of 2020, we got a poll that showed that widely 3 or 4 to 1, independents and Democrats approved of me, Republicans 2 to 1 disapproved of me. So, three months into my term, I was toast, politically. But because we went out there and we addressed the myths and we explained how absentee voting was going to work in that primary, and how early voting was going to work and how it was reliable and secure, we actually got most Republicans even to vote early and to vote absentee. And if we hadn’t, our election would’ve crashed. So, it’s a, it’s a matter in this office, not just a matter of having the right policy, it’s about having the ability to sell the policy, not just to the legislature but also to the voters and get them to embrace what you’re offering so they’ll use it.
Renee Shaw: Yeah, and many people would’ve wanted the longer early voting opportunities like we had during the pandemic. Now there are three, but I think maybe perhaps your opponent has some ideas on how that can be addressed. You did take some flack last year about some moonlighting work, practicing election law for out-of-state clients. Are you still doing that?
Michael Adams: Yeah, I, I do. Uh, I’ve actually lost millions of dollars, uh, by doing this job for Kentucky. Uh, that’s fine. I believe in public service. I’ve been given opportunity, I want to use that. But I’ve made sure that don’t lose all my income. Most of my income is passive, it’s because I’ve built a national election law practice based on my qualifications and experience. I’ve pushed that work down to other people. So, I don’t spend a lot of my own time dealing with this stuff. I’ve cleared all the conflicts. I gave up all my Kentucky clients, I gave up anything in Kentucky I would do. I don’t use my law license here for any private work. It’s my D. C. license I use for that. So, I’ve been very attendant to ethics in this office. If you look at all the scandals that were here before I took office when the other party ran this office, corruption, mismanagement, people going to federal prison, it was a mess. So, I wanted to make sure we cleaned up this office and not let that crowd ever back into this office, and part of that is leading with integrity.
Renee Shaw: Well and what you were doing was not illegal, but there, it did raise some ethical questions, and you feel that you have cleared all of those concerns.
Michael Adams: Yeah, and the ethics commission agrees with me.
Renee Shaw: So, as you going into a possibly next term, what is your elevator pitch for why Kentuckians should reelect you as Kentucky Secretary of state
Michael Adams: So my opponents rally signs say “fire Michael Adams,” and he’s on to something that is the issue in this race, is should I be fired or not. And so, I ask voters, should we fire the guy that saved the 2020 election, the first secretary of state that figured out a way to run an election in a pandemic safely and securely, who created a model that other states then borrowed so their voters could vote safely and securely. Should we fire this guy? Should we fire the guy that brought early voting to Kentucky after the other party that ran this government for 100 years talked a big game about voting rights and did nothing, not one thing ever to make it easier to vote in our state. This guy came and did it, should we punish this guy, kick him out of office? Should we fire the guy that brought paper ballots to Kentucky, every single vote cast in November will be cast on a paper ballot. So, we have the ability the audit and recount. We have transparency and bolstered confidence in our process, should we fire this guy? And again, you know, national implications: If I am a truth-teller and I lose, it’s bad for truth-telling in American politics. So, I’d say it’s in everyone’s interest regardless of party that I stay in this job.
Renee Shaw: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary, it’s been a pleasure to sit down with you, and onward to November 7th, right?
Michael Adams: Onward indeed.
Renee Shaw: Thank you.
Michael Adams: Thanks.
Renee Shaw: Stay with us on Connections as I speak next with former state lawmaker Charles “Buddy Wheatley,” the Democratic nominee for Kentucky Secretary of State.
Renee Shaw: Buddy Wheatley, it’s good to see you.
Buddy Wheatley: Well, thank you Renee, it’s a pleasure. It’s been a little while.
Renee Shaw: It’s been a little while and I have to resist the urge to say, uh, not call you Rep. Wheatley. Uh, but that’s how I came to know you is when you spent a couple of terms there in Frankfort.
Buddy Wheatley: I get called Rep. Wheatley, Chief Wheatley, many things --
Renee Shaw: Chief Wheatley, that’s right --
Buddy Wheatley: You know, I am Buddy --
Renee Shaw: (laughs)
Buddy Wheatley: -- but, uh, thank you.
Renee Shaw: Well, it’s a pleasure. So, let’s talk about, let’s talk about your days as uh, in the fire department as fire chief, because people still, particularly in your area, call you chief. Tell us about your background and your professional activities.
Buddy Wheatley: Well, uh, I did serve as 20 years a Covington firefighter. Served as the fire chief when I retired. I’m a fourth generation Covington firefighter. So public service has been in the family and sort of imbued in me from, from a very young age. My family has been in Kentucky, northern Kentucky for 150 years. I really enjoyed my time on the fire department. I was very involved in the labor union that was part of the Covington Fire Department, which got me a little bit interested in the law and the things that were important to firefighters, uh, working conditions. So, I did as I was thinking about what I was going to do after I retired from the fire department, I went into law school and, uh, did finish my law degree from NKU’s Chase College of Law and went on to be a solo-practicing labor attorney from that point going forward, which meant, uh, I, I’m general counsel for the Kentucky Professional Firefighters and a number of other firefighter unions across the state. Had me in Frankfort quite a bit, so that’s where sort of got introduced --
Renee Shaw: Got your feet wet, right? Yeah, well before that, you had earned a degree in journalism and had worked as a reporter, the editor of the Kenton County Reporter. You trying to take my job, huh? (laughs)
Buddy Wheatley: Well, you know, I was thinking about it back then. But, you know it really was a fascinating part, uh, I went to the university of Kentucky and did get my journalism degree and always love to be back in Lexington, but, uh, that was really the first taste of politics and covering local government and very interesting. But, you know, public service is a bit of a calling and when the fire department came a-calling, I said yes. You know, that is something that would be interesting to me. And it was no regrets, though I think in a journalistic way all the time. When I talk to journalists, I, I usually have kind of things that, like, yeah, that’s the fair way of saying it or asking it.
Renee Shaw: Right. Well you are pretty measured in how you speak with people, not just to people. Uh, well let’s talk about your time in the legislature because you did spend two terms there. And talk to us about the things that you worked on. You were very involved in pension discussions and election reform. I mean those are some of the things we’re still talking about in some way.
Buddy Wheatley: It was, and it was the pension issues that initially got me interested in the General Assembly and to get there and help. You know, I, I was going to be, when I went into the General Assembly, I,I recognized I was going to be in the minority party but it really seemed to be a non-partisan issue and I, I like working across the aisle. I like putting heads together. And we put together a really good group of legislators who worked on a number of pieces of legislation, which I am proud to say that we don’t hear that two-word phrase “pension crisis” quite as much as we used to. So, prior to that work, and, uh, not that it was ever over and there’s continuing commitments that need to be made by the state, but, uh, looked up what the rest of my pieces of legislation, there were a lot to do with the elections. Something that I just recognized when I got to the General Assembly was Kentucky still was a very restrictive state when it comes to voting and access to the polls. So those are democracy things that were just really a front-burner to me and I started to, to have pieces of legislation I supported. I actually worked with the governor quite closely on some pieces of legislation. As a matter of fact, we did a little video together about keeping our polls open until 7 p.m. That was in late February of 2020 and then the world changed.
Renee Shaw: And then the world changed come March, right? And I do want to ask about why Kentucky Secretary of State and why now? Why are you seeking this post?
Buddy Wheatley: Well, I really am interested in voter turnout and the truest form of a representational democracy that Kentuckians can get. And with that for me, it is about highest voter turnout possible. Kentucky is still considered one of the hardest places to vote in the country. Uh, my opponent, the incumbent says, you know, he has make, he has lifted up the ability to vote, something that hasn’t been done for over 100 years. Well, it’s a very low bar and we’ve not gone very far. He is in the majority party and has done very little else to open access to the polls. My pieces of legislation have been about opening access to the polls and we need to do quite a bit of it to modernize our elections and make it available for people to get to the polls, get to the polls on time, have plenty of time to do it, and to have free and fair elections when it comes to the redistricting of our, of our districts that both for Frankfort and for Washington, D.C. These were burning issues for me as a state legislator, and you know, when the last election happened and I was available, the governor did call and, uh, we talked about it quite a bit. He said, “Buddy, they can’t gerrymander the whole state.” And, uh, it was a natural fit for me, actually, something, democracy is just too important, and, uh, I’m ready to work for it.
Renee Shaw: Secretary of State, the current one, Michael Adams has gotten both praise and criticism and, from within his own party, right? There are some who have said that he has been too lenient when it comes to allowing greater access to the polls and didn’t necessarily agree with some of those pandemic measures that had a little legs to them afterwards. Given that he is seemingly regarded on both sides of the aisle, aisle as someone who is an independent thinker, moderate perhaps, uh, how are you trying to position yourself as his opposite and better than what he could do in that office right now?
Buddy Wheatley: Well, here’s what I know about Michael Adams and what many people are starting to recognize about Michael Adams. Uh, there was a very low bar to raise, to modernize our elections and Michael Adams was part of a piece of legislation that I was very involved in to ensure, to make sure that it was a bipartisan piece of legislation because it was moving the ball forward. But we didn’t move it very, very far forward. We could’ve had more days of early voting. I’ve promoted two full weeks of early voting. That 2021 piece of legislation included two full weeks until late in the negations or the discussions about the bill, and I hate to say Michael Adams caved on that and we could’ve had had two weeks at that time. We also could’ve had later registration, voter registration. We still are one of the most restrictive states, 28 days before the election you have to be registered by when many states have same-day voter registration. There are other things about Michael Adams that, uh, you know, what we, what I’ve been most critical of is his outside work. So, he’s still a full managing partner of a national elections, partisan law firm that works for political operatives for the most part. And he does this, you know, to help fund his campaign. He’s a self-funding candidate, so those are things that, you know, I don’t think he’s paying full attention to what’s going on in Kentucky, and I will. I’ll be a full-time Secretary of State, set aside my law practice to work 100 percent in a nonpartisan way for all Kentuckians during my time as secretary of state.
Renee Shaw: Yeah, as you know, Mr. Wheatley, there, there has been some resurface of an incident involving you in 2008 when you were a Covington fire chief in which you were in an accident in a, in a city-owned vehicle and had been drinking beforehand. Can you set the record straight --
Buddy Wheatley: Yes.
Renee Shaw: -- on what happened then and how, what were the consequences of your actions.
Buddy Wheatley: Well, it was, uh, an accident that took place 15 years ago. Michael Adams has been misleading people for quite a while. He doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of other things to criticize me about. But 15 years ago, I ran off the side of the road, took responsibility for an accident, have been elected two times as a state representative where this issue has come up. It really isn’t more than that. You know, we have a lot going on right now that Michael Adams is doing that I can be critical of and I will be critical of that are not getting done as secretary of state because I don’t think he’s dedicating his full time to it. He’s parti-time secretary of state, and we’re talking about an incident that was 15 years ago, took responsibility for it, and moved on, and, uh, the voters have shown that that is a responsible way to handle it and, uh, that’s really all there is about that.
Renee Shaw: Right. You did have some consequences of that, and you correct me if I’m wrong on any of this: two weeks suspension without pay as fire chief, restitution for the vehicle that was totaled in the accident, and the revocation of a, a slated merit-based pay raise of 1.25 percent, and a written reprimand in your personnel file. So, all of that is for public record to see. For those, though, who wonder about judgment and making that action to drink before getting into a public vehicle, uh, people would question your judgement, and if 15 years later they can trust you to handle the duties and the property in your, in your discretion as secretary of state. What would you say to them?
Buddy Wheatley: Well, I would say I took responsibility for something that happened. That’s something Michael Adams doesn’t do. And I would say, you know, I’ve never had any charge related to this incident. This was an employment, uh, action, and never had anything since then --
Renee Shaw: And no criminal action, we should say.
Buddy Wheatley: No criminal or before, before the incident or after --
Renee Shaw: And no DUI.
Buddy Wheatley: No DUI, no charge. I’ve never had any issue, uh, DUI-related or not, car-related or not. It was a very isolated issue, and I can tell you this that, you know, as the fire chief, you’re always in a city vehicle and I was at a family event, was there the whole time with family, and, uh, that’s really what happened. You know, I took a, a, a way home that I usually ride my bike and it’s a windy, country road, and I went off to the side of the road. That’s really everything that happened.
Renee Shaw: So as you approach these last few weeks of the campaign, which I know you’re probably thrilled about in many ways, uh, what is it you’re communicating, not just about you and the office you’re seeking, but about the entire Democratic ticket and what Democrats can offer Kentuckians at this time when there is diminished power of the, of the Democratic Party in this state.
Buddy Wheatley: Well, it’s an honor to be on this ticket with Gov. Andy Beshear who has shown his commitment to, first of all the state, his compassion, his empathy, everything that he has shown as a human being and the leader that he’s been. But that’s even not to say the great the economic growth that we’ve had, and we’ve had incredible job creation, so very proud of that and very looking forward to working with the governor’s office on that. You know, there is a delay in business filings and a backlog in the business filings, you know, related to the portal that I’ll take care of as secretary of state and be a partner with the governor. But proud to be on this ticket, we have strong candidates up and down the ballot, and I just have to say that, uh, you know, we are a party with vision moving the state forward, not a party of division, not running a race that way. We’re looking to really be partners with the governor in Frankfort and there are many ways that we can be moving the state forward and that’s really what I hope to do as secretary of state.
Renee Shaw: Well, thank you, Mr. Wheatley. I still want to say representative or chief, either one. We appreciate you stopping by.
Buddy Wheatley: Thank you, Renee. It’s always a pleasure.
Renee Shaw: Thanks so much for watching Connections today. Stay plugged in to election news each weeknight on KET’s Kentucky Edition at 6:30 Eastern, 5:30 Central. And connect with me on all the social media channels you see your screen. Until I see you again, take really good care.