Renee Shaw: Good evening, welcome to Kentucky Tonight, I’m Renee Shaw. Thank you so much for joining us. Tonight, we continue our conversations with candidates running in the November 7th general election. Later, we’ll have a conversation about the race for commissioner of agriculture. First, the candidates for Kentucky secretary of state. We’re joined in our Lexington studio by the Republican incumbent, Michael Adams, and his Democratic challenger, Charles “Buddy” Wheatley. Send us your questions and comments by X – formerly Twitter – at k-y tonight k-e-t. Send an email to k-y tonight at k-e-t dot o-r-g. Or use the web form at k-e-t dot o-r-g slash k-y tonight. Or you can simply give us a call 1-800-494-7605. Welcome, gentlemen, we appreciate you being here this evening.
Michael Adams: Thanks.
Renee Shaw: We don’t want to spend too much time on this. You both are very familiar to our audiences, I think, but we’ll allow Mr. Secretary to go first just to give us some remarks about why you are seeking a second term and your background.
Michael Adams: Well, I’m running to protect our elections, Shaw. The last four years we’ve had more election reform because of my leadership than we had in the prior 200 years. When Mr. Wheatley's party ran the government for 100-plus years, we had voter suppression. We just had one day to go vote. We’ve quadrupled that. I want to protect our gains, protect all we've done to expand access for our people, and also protect all we've done to improve security as well.
Renee Shaw: Mr. Wheatley, same question to you, sir.
Charles Wheatley: Thank you, Shaw, and good evening. My name is Buddy Wheatley. I am a retired firefighter from Covington, where I was chief for four years. I have been in the General Assembly for two years. I am very familiar with public service, that is why I’m running for secretary of state. When you’re a firefighter, when the alarm sounds, you go towards the emergency, and right now alarms are sounding how Michael Adams has run our elections. In 2022, we had, we had the lowest voter turnout in 30 years. Hundreds of polling locations were removed. Folks, this is what happens when you have a secretary of state who treats the office as part-time while he’s working his side job for election deniers. Who are his candidate, who are his, uh, his clients outside of the state? How many hours is he working for them instead of Kentuckians? He won't answer that. But here's what we do know: It will take a full-time secretary of state to keep our polls open until 7 p.m. To give Kentucky voters two full weeks of early voting. To allow our independents to vote in our elections. I’ll work across the aisle and with Gov. Beshear to get things done as secretary of state.
Renee Shaw: So Mr. Secretary, I want to begin with allegations we heard Mr. Wheatley enunciate, and that’s about you having a part-time gig and not being a full-time secretary of state. There was a report, I will say, that came out that you used public funds to pay Bar Association dues. So please answer all of those allegations.
Michael Adams: Well, Mr. Wheatley hasn’t spent this much time in the gutter since he drove drunk and crashed his taxpayer-owned vehicle in a ditch. This “report” you’re talking about was put out by a Democratic super PAC. It was put out by the Democrats. It was not an actual report. They quoted a lawyer who was the lawyer for the Democratic Party and didn't cite that in their, in their report. One of the problems we have in politics today is fake news, literally fake news where people setup a website and pretend to be journalists but they’re not and they confuse gullible people. I’m sorry that people have been falling for this.
Renee Shaw: And it's not true?
Michael Adams: Well, what I’ve said and what I say now is that my office does pay for dues for lawyers who practice in our office on behalf of the office. That’s true of me, it’s true of my general counsel and my deputy general counsel. We’ve achieved a cost savings in our office by in-sourcing our legal work. I personally brief cases, I personally argue cases on behalf of the office. I do it pro bono and the state pays for the bar dues. And by the way, we actually, I’m the first secretary of state to remove our office from the taxpayer dole. We don't take tax dollars. We actually run a surplus based on fees that we assess, $15 a year to operate a business in Kentucky. We run a surplus because we’re such skinflints with our budget, we actually turn money back over to the General Assembly so they can pay for education and roads and bridges.
Renee Shaw: Mr. Wheatley, you heard mister, Secretary Adam's explanation. Your response?
Charles Wheatly: Well, you know the bar dues being paid by the secretary, you know, he does do outside work outside of the state. That’s where more of my concern is, and I think there’s a conflict of interest when he’s working for candidates outside the state or working for clients. And some of the worst political people we've had in the country are some of his clients outside of the state. How much time is he doing? What kind of dollars does he make, and he funds his campaigns from his own funds and what he makes off of election deniers. That is where more of my concern is.
Renee Shaw: So I do want to go to a point that Secretary Adams just said a moment ago in his rapid-fire response about that you did have a, a vehicle accident in a publicly owned vehicle where you had been drinking and you did crash that vehicle. Tell us about that and the outcome?
Charles Wheatley: Well this is an incident that happened 15 years ago that Michael Adams has been misleading people on for a while. I had an accident, ran off the road, paid for the accident, took responsibility for it, stayed on as the fire chief, was elected two terms to a state representative. So Kentuckians are familiar with this. These are things that you bring up when you are trying to deflect from failings of your own office, and I think that’s what’s happening with Michael Adams here related to what he’s doing outside of his, his outside work as the, uh, attorney for election deniers.
Renee Shaw: So both of the situations that you gentlemen have brought up tonight might raise some question in viewers’ and Kentucky voters’ minds about the integrity of the men sitting before them this evening. Secretary Adams, I’ll go with you first: Why should Kentucky voters, taxpayers trust you as a second-term Kentucky secretary of state?
Michael Adams: Don't take it from me take it from me, take it from Andy Beshear. He routinely praises my integrity and my good faith and my performance in this office. I’ve got about a number of texts from Mr. Wheatley, from his colleagues in the House Democratic caucus praising my integrity, praising the job I’ve done in this office. I’ve cleaned up horrific scandals I inherited when his cronies ran the office. They ran the office into a ditch. We had a secretary of state whose father went to federal prison for election corruption in her campaign. Bags of cash stuffed from, from movies. She got popped twice by the ethics condition that Andy Beshear appointed for misusing her office, misusing taxpayer resources to help Democratic Party. This is what the Democratic Party brought to this office before I took over and restored integrity. I do want to respond to some false things Mr. Wheatley said. I don't represent any “election deniers.” That’s totally false. I don't even know who he is talking about. He actually thanked me in a -- I’m talking right now -- he thanked me in a text for standing up to these people. I’ve got it, I’ll read it to you and your viewers. That’s just totally false. And also, something that he and I do agree on, though, is that there's nothing wrong with having an outside practice when you’re in the government as long as you follow the ethics laws. He practiced law from his law firm when he was in the government. There’s no difference on that. You have to make sure, though, that you don’t have any conflicts of interest and so that’s why I don't have any Kentucky clients. I don't practice in Kentucky courts other than on behalf of the commonwealth.
Renee Shaw: Mr. Wheatley.
Charles Wheatley: Well I think the question was about your integrity and I can say this, you know: I’ve served two terms in the General Assembly, I know how to get things done, I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done there, I’m very proud to have represented the people of the 65th district when I did. I got into the General Assembly running on relations, uh, issues related to the pension systems and proud my bipartisan work across the aisle and to help calm that situation down and give stability to our pension systems. And this is something that you don't hear the phrase pension crisis nearly as much as you used to. So I know the voters have trust in me. I think my colleagues in the General Assembly have trust in me and, of course, the governor who asked me to run for secretary of state has trust in me. So I think there's plenty out there.
Renee Shaw: Mr. Wheatley, when you were state representative, there was a bill, House Bill 574 that Secretary Adams and others got across the finish line. Even though you had proposed some amendments to that measure, you did vote for it. So you would in effect agree with Secretary Adams’ election reform efforts as being a step forward for Kentucky?
Charles Wheatley: I do, Renee, in that it was a step forward and there were a lot of positive things in that bill. What I believe, though, is we moved a small step forward. And Kentucky is still one of the hardest places to vote in the country, and we have the lowest voter turnout in the country. And those are things that are very important to the secretary of state's office. We moved that ball forward a little bit, but we need it to move miles. And I, I’m proud that I have worked on these issues in the, in the General Assembly, and that we were able to pass these items. And the reason that Mike Adams can claim that he has bipartisan, he passed these bills bipartisan is because of my work in my caucus. And to move --
Renee Shaw: And the governor worked with him on the pandemic relief effort for voting in 2020, right?
Charles Wheatley: -- and the, I’m sorry, I missed --
Renee Shaw: Gov, Beshear worked with Secretary Adams on those pandemic relief or pandemic efforts to allow voting in the primary in May of 2020.
Charles Wheatley: We did. We had the pandemic election, which was much more open and open access to the polls. I wish we would carry on those access issues into the current elections. We've reverted back to our restrictive ways and, yes, we have, we've moved the ball forward but not nearly enough.
Renee Shaw: Do you believe it's the role of the Kentucky secretary of state to increase voter turnout?
Charles Wheatley: I do. I do believe that strongly and that’s one of the reasons why I’m running for secretary of state. Unlike our current secretary of state who doesn't believe, he has stated on the record that he doesn't believe that’s part of his job. Look, we have the truest form of governance when we have the highest voter turnout. Democracy depends on voter turnout. Low voter turnout is unacceptable. I completely support the secretary of state pushing voter turnout and I will do that as secretary of state.
Renee Shaw: Secretary of state Michael Adams, do you agree or disagree that it's the role of the office you currently occupy to help increase voter turnout?
Charles Wheatley: Well, my predecessors never did anything, no disrespect to them, but they never pushed legislation like I have to expand access to the polls. While other states in our region, other states with our politics are going backwards on voting rights, we are going forwards, and that’s not because of this guy and his party. The Democrats in the 1850s actually took away the early voting days that we had under the Whigs. Under George Washington up through the early 1850s, we had four days to go vote. And then the Democrats took over for 107 years they took it away from us. Now he is calling me a vote suppresser. He’s said that I slammed the door in the face of voters at 6 p.m. I didn't write that law. He and his cronies wrote that law. So there’s a huge chasm between what I’ve accomplished, which is a heck of a lot. The reason we're even talking about this is because of all that I have done to do to lead to this issue.
Renee Shaw: Do you support extending the polls to 7 p.m. closing?
Michael Adams: In theory, sure, but here is the problem: In the real world where I actually have to govern, there are costs and there are trade-offs and benefits. We actually found it was easier to get 24 more hours of voting, three more, uh, three days of eight-hour voting, including a Saturday, which is a game-changer for working people. These are things the Democrats never believed in, ever, ever did a thing to do. I came into office and I shamed them into it, and we actually got this passed. And now he is complaining we don't have one more hour on that day, but it's hard to get poll workers and it's especially hard if you make that day one hour longer. That’s why the county clerks opposed early voting when I got elected, but I could actually work with them to support three days of early voting, including a Saturday, but not the one-hour on Election Day. We’d kill off our poll workers.
Renee Shaw: Did the clerks support extending early voting longer than those three days to five days, 10 weeks, two weeks?
Michael Adams: No.
Charles Wheatley: There was a lot of support --
Renee Shaw: Mr. Wheatley, that is something that you’ve proposed in your platform to extend early voting to two weeks.
Charles Wheatley: Yes. You know, I was part of the House Bill 574 discussions behind the scenes, working bipartisan way to make this bill as much open access to the polls as possible. And we had two full weeks in there until there was just a little bit of pressure from the right side of Michael Adams’ party and he caved. We could have had two full weeks if we would have stuck strong and I believe, look, Kentucky has three early voting days. That's better. The national average for voting days, early voting days is 23 days. We need to modernize Kentucky's elections so we have those two full weeks. That’s not the only thing we need to increase voter turnout but it’s a part of a range of, of pieces of legislation that we need to get passed to open our access, increase our voter turnout.
Renee Shaw: What else would you suggest and work for?
Charles Wheatley: I would suggest that we allow our independents to vote in our primaries. You know, many of our veterans are independents, it's the fastest growing voting block. It will lead to less partisan candidates to emerge from our primaries. I believe we can have same-day voter registration. And that's something that is technically easier to do. There are ways that we can make more access to the polls when it comes to who can, who is on the, on the books and who is not on the books on the voting rosters. And I say that because Michael Adams had said he is thinking about pulling us out of the ERIC voting system, the ERIC bipartisan agreement that protects voter fraud. I’m very concerned about that. That actually will lead, can lead to voter fraud and Michael Adams has said he is willing to pull us out of there.
Renee Shaw: So I want to comment on that first --
Michael Adams: Yeah, there’s a lot to comment on.
Renee Shaw: -- and then we’re going to unpack some other things. But let's start with the ERIC system. Why do you –
Michael Adams: Well, first I’m going to start with the five things he talked about. So, number one, he didn’t actually propose a bill or an amendment to have two weeks of early voting. He just lied to you about that. He had a bill or an amendment, House Floor Amendment 3, that had four days of voting each of the prior two weeks not two full weeks of voting. You know, Mr. Wheatley didn’t propose as a legislator most of the things he is talking about tonight. He, his party didn't, when we convened in January for this session, they had no confidence in his agenda, either. All the things that he is talking about he doesn't actually have the conscious and the core beliefs to have proposed these in the legislature. And if he did, they would have failed. So I’m not sure how he’s going to be more effective as the secretary of state and pass these things that he didn't actually bother to try to pass when he was in the legislature.
Renee Shaw: Are you in favor of the open primaries?
Michael Adams: Yeah, that is my idea. That was something that he and I agree on. Uh, we actually tried to work together. It didn’t go very far, but I think it’s a good idea.
Renee Shaw: Is it because of pushback from your party?
Michael Adams: Oh, no, not at all. Neither party wants to open the primaries. You know, the Democrats created the closed primary system, the Democrats created polls closing at 6 p.m. after just one day. All the things that he’s indicting, he’s indicting his own party. He’s indicting his own people and his own caucus for their failure of leadership and lack of morality in expanding our access to the polls.
Renee Shaw: Same-day voter registration: For it or against it?
Michael Adams: It’s a terrible idea.
Renee Shaw: Why?
Michael Adams: Uh, because the lines, he’s complaining about the polls, which are pretty intermittent, but when they happen, if you have people registering at the polls, you’re going to increase the lines that voters have. Our registration is open 365 days a year until the election starts, then we close it for that. But you have to have some pre-registration, otherwise you’re going to have people just randomly showing up and saying that they’re voters. That doesn’t work
Renee Shaw: Automatic voter registration; Would you be for that?
Michael Adams: No, I don't think it’s a good idea to automatically register people for something they don't want. Where this comes from is the notion of having government databases where you’re in there for some reason, because you’ve gotten benefits or –
Renee Shaw: DMV?
Michael Adams: Yeah, whatever it is, but that you take people without their consent and you put them on the voter rolls, and they get called for jury duty. There’s a reason that these things haven’t been enacted by his party is they’re too far out.
Renee Shaw: Let me ask you about the ERIC system. Why do you, you considering removing Kentucky from that system and what is the point of that system anyway for the common viewer tonight.
Michael Adams: So let’s, let’s get a little bit of historical perspective. So my predecessor was sued and lost because she willfully followed, failed to follow the law that requires the voter rolls to be kept up-to-date. You take people off who’ve moved away, passed away, or been put away. That’s one of the things that a I ran on and I won on is that we ought to follow the law and get our rolls clean. The Democratic party actually sued to stop the rolls from the being cleaned up. That’s their view is they just don't believe in fair elections. So I withstood all of that. I’ve publicly praised the ERIC network. It's, it’s not some shadowy group. It's states, it's me, it’s member states. I risked my neck in the primary defending the ERIC system. But, subsequently, after the primary I said, look, ERIC is collapsing. State after state is leaving. Our dues are going up and the information that we get from other states about who’s moving in and out of other states is going down and we're paying more and getting less. So, I renewed ERIC for another year but I also said we should look at alternatives. So what I’ve been doing is leading my colleagues, the other secretaries of state, by directly contacting federal agencies to get information from them directly, like the master death index at the Social Security Administration so we can get these people off our rolls.
Renee Shaw: Mr. Wheatley, I want to go back to the amendment that you proposed to House Bill 574 that ended up passing that was a sweeping election reform bill and to Secretary Adams' point that you did not propose in a floor amendment for two weeks, you proposed four days, which still was not accepted by the body. Are you actually proposing more now than you would have voted for when you were in the Kentucky General Assembly.
Charles Wheatley: Yes, I am proposing more now than I proposed at that time. You know, what I, this is what you do when you’re in the General Assembly and you need to learn this as a secretary of state is how to move pieces of legislation. So that was something we had a chance of moving forward because there was some bipartisan support. Didn't come out in votes that way, but that’s the way you work behind the scenes to get things done. So that’s the reason for that, but yes, I am in full support of two full weeks of early voting. And as far as the ERIC system, the states that have pulled out, you only have to take a look who they are, and some of the most conspiracy-driven people are from those states and those secretaries of states. That’s why I think Mike Adams is considering it, it’s a bowing to the far right of that party. Now, you know, we have worked together. There are things that we, there are things that agree on. I know it may not seem like it tonight but there’s some stark differences and it's important to point them out.
Renee Shaw: So, I will have you answer that, Secretary Adams: Are you considering pulling out because what other conservative, far right states are doing?
Michael Adams: No, I’m considering pulling out because it’s a bad deal for Kentucky. Kentucky taxpayers are paying more and more money and getting less and less information. All of our --
Renee Shaw: What kind of information do you receive from ERIC?
Michael Adams: Well, specifically who’s moving non-out of our state. Twelve percent of Americans move every year and I’ve got to know if people are moving to Ohio or to Tennessee and vice versa to be able to keep my rolls accurate. The law requires that. Mr. Wheatley has never shown courage in politics. He’s never stood up to his party when they wouldn't follow the law on the voters rolls, when you had corruption in the secretary of state’s office. I’ve called that stuff out and said we’re going to run a clean office, and part of that is having the voter rolls be clean. Mr. Wheatley's attorney, the Democratic Party attorney sued me in court and said we should have to stay in ERIC even if we don't get a benefit from it so we can defray the costs for other states with Kentucky taxpayer dollars. I just disagree with that.
Renee Shaw: So if you’re not participating in ERIC, how else would you get that information?
Michael Adams: Well, directly from the horse's mouth. What we get from ERIC that’s most useful is federal data. But you can contract with the agencies directly. They didn't have that as an option previously. I was the first secretary of state to contact the agencies and say can we buy this stuff from you?
Renee Shaw: Is that more cost efficient?
Michael Adams: Oh, yeah, it’s a lot cheaper than being in ERIC, and that’s where most of the bang for the buck comes from. I’ll give you an example. We had a month we took 10,000 dead voters off the rolls and none were Kentuckians that lived here. They all lived in Florida and other states. We got that from ERIC but ERIC got it from Social Security. If I can get that information directly, it’s a cost savings for the taxpayers and we get dead voters off the rolls that much more quickly.
Renee Shaw: Let’s talk about restoration of voting rights for former felons. Do you support that, Mr. Wheatley, and are there any conditions that you would want to go along with that.
Charles Wheatley: I do support restoration of voting rights for former felons and I’m very happy that the governor has, has put this into an executive order for now. But it can go away if we change governors. I don't think that is going to happen. Yes, I, I support it, and there would be conditions of no, no violent crime and or any crimes related to election fraud or anything like that.
Renee Shaw: Would you support a waiting period?
Charles Wheatley: Uh, there could be a waiting period. I haven't looked, every bill and every amendment has fine things in there. But no, not necessarily a waiting period as long as they have served their time.
Renee Shaw: And this would be by way of a constitutional amendment -- I should have clarified that at the beginning. Secretary Adams, your position on this issue.
Michael Adams: Mine is pretty close, but I wasn’t a legislator and I never had a way to actually pass this and he did and he failed. He fails at everything when it comes our elections. He’s never passed a law. The only thing he's done that makes him think he’s relevant is he voted for my bill and I’m glad that he did. But he almost killed it. If his amendment had passed, it would have tanked the bill in the Senate. You have to work with both sides, you have to be respectful in this business. I’m doing that everyday. I work with governor, I work with Democrats in the both the chambers. But you can't be a partisan hack. You’ve got to be able to listen and time and time again he just sides with his tribe. There's never been an occasion where he’s split off from his party to side with others. There’s never been an occasion where he’s called his party out when they were wrong on corruption, on voter suppression, or anything else
Renee Shaw: To the question that I asked you before you responded in that manner, would you be in favor of restoration of voting rights for certain felons and would there be any conditions that you would advocate for?
Michael Adams: Yeah, like I said, he and I are pretty much in sync on this issue. I do think that we should do it automatically. I don’t think it’s appropriate to have, and I’m not criticizing any governor, but we've had five or seven governors in a row, and every governor the party changes and then the rights people have change, based on who’s in that office. They issue an order or they don’t issue an order. They retract an order. Let's just put this in the constitution and let’s let the voters vote on it. I think there should be exceptions. I don't want violent felons having automatic restoration. I think they should have to apply to the governor and explain how they’ve been rehabilitated. I don't that think election-fraud convicts should be able to have this automatically. I think you should pay restitution. If you’ve done harm to someone, you should pay whatever the court ordered. But for all of those exceptions, though, I think it should be automatic.
Renee Shaw: Waiting period or no? Automatic or not?
Michael Adams: Yeah, see if someone reoffends or not. A lot of people unfortunately reoffend. There’s a high rate of recidivism. Five years or whatever it is. I should note that the Republican-controlled state Senate actually passed a measure that’s almost identical to what we're talking about. Unfortunately, the Democrats never did anything to help get it done, get it across the finish line.
Renee Shaw: Straight ticket voting: For it or against it? We have it here in Kentucky. We’re one of, what, six or seven states.
Charles Wheatley: It might be less than that now. And I can tell you this: I had a bill to eliminate straight party voting. I don't think it's good for democracy, I don’t think it’s good for civic engagement.
Renee Shaw: Why?
Charles Wheatley: Because I think it leads to more partisan candidates. And when you have straight-party voting, you don't have quite the civic engagement, which is a big part of my platform to, to really increase civic engagement and I think straight- party voting is not conducive for that.
Renee Shaw: Same question to you?
Michael Adams: So this is a great example how Mr. Wheatley wants to change the election rules to benefit his party. He was fine with gerrymandering. He publicly admitted that his district that he was in was gerrymandered to help him win by 10 points, and then got redone and then he lost. And now he wants to ban gerrymandering. He wants to ban straight-ticket voting the Democrats passed when they were in power because they thought it helped them. And now that the shoe’s on the other foot, he wants to repeal it. You cannot have an election official that wants to change the rules to benefit his party. I’ve been willing to stand up to my party time and time again and say the rules need to be fair, they need to be neutral. I’ll work with the governor, I’ll work with the Democrats in the legislature and get everyone together in a room and come up with what is fair. That’s why Kentucky is the only state in America that’s doing things in a bipartisan fashion when it comes to elections.
Charles Wheatley: It wouldn't bipartisan if it weren’t for Buddy Wheatley, I can just tell you that because I’m the one who gets those things passed in the Democratic House. And a lot of what Michael Adams is talking about tonight is the past, and sometimes the far past. I think I heard him reference 1850s. This is a Democratic Party that I’m not aware of, I wasn't part of, I’m ready to talk about things that are happening today and not happening in the secretary of state's office. You know, we, he talked about funding that is not necessarily or not needed or turn back in. Kentucky's elections need much more funding. We need funding for modern equipment. We need to make sure all of our county clerks have what they need. He's even gone on the record to say he’s going to go after federal funding. Federal funding is out there. Do we want the dollars to go to California or Texas or Tennessee? We need all the dollars we can get to run our elections in Kentucky and to increase our polling locations, and that's where we, we really need to have the dollars that Michael Adams is not going to work for.
Michael Adams: I’ve got to respond to that. That’s, this guy is a pathological liar, Renee. He said I made it hard to vote. He said I wouldn't seek federal funds. He said I don’t stand up to conspiracy theorists, all things that we know are false. It's public record that I have drawn down tens of millions of dollars of new federal funds and I don't keep this money. I give it to the county clerks. It goes every penny to them to upgrade their equipment. That’s why Kentucky has modernized our elections significantly in the last four years. We have changed every voting experience now to a paper ballot experience. That wasn't free. That was from money that I got from Congress and the president and the election administration in Washington. That’s money that I got from our legislators that I went and begged for to pass along to the county clerks, $25 million in new funding just for machine upgrades along plus increased base funding. This guy just makes stuff up. That is why you can't trust him to be your election official.
Renee Shaw: So we have a few --
Charles Wheatley: I can’t let that go by without saying pathological liar, you know? That's beneath the dignity of the secretary of state to say things like that. And to say, you know, he's called people idiots on both sides of the aisle, quoting social media from his official account. You know, this is not, this us the Michael Adams that Kentucky really gets, needs to know.
Renee Shaw: We have a few questions from viewers that I want to get around to. Andy Gamon from Owensboro, question, quote: Would either of you be willing to approach legislators to discuss moving the primary in Kentucky up because by the time the primary happens in Kentucky often the presidential candidate has already been chosen for both parties. Maybe move it up to March? Secretary Adams?
Michael Adams: We tried that in 1988, Renee. We moved our primary – actually, it used to be in August. The reason Fancy Farm is in August is because that’s when the Democratic party was and we were a one-party state. We moved it from August up to Super Tuesday and we hoped that we would get presidential candidates to come here and campaign and it didn't work. And then other states are now jumping past each other, playing leapfrog trying to go earlier and earlier. Some states have laws that say they have to be the first even if the election is the year before the election. I think Iowa and New Hampshire have laws that would bump their primaries into December even. I think that’s a little bit ridiculous. Let's just be honest, we’re not a swing state. We are a small state. We don't have a lot of delegates. I just think the likelihood of, of getting that attention is pretty low. And again we shouldn't change the election rules to try to chase the silly goals. They should be free and fair.
Charles Wheatley: I would be in favor of it if it did increase civic engagement and voter turnout. I’m not sure that it would.
Renee Shaw: Anonymous question: Would you keep, quote, President Donald Trump off the ballot in 2024 since he’s been indicted and by the 14th amendment he should not be allowed to run? End quote. Mr. Wheatley?
Charles Wheatley: Well you know I’m not in favor of pulling anybody off the polls. Let’s let the Kentucky voters decide. This is an issue that still might be some things could happen in the courts that are unknown at this point. But, no, I wouldn't pull Trump, Donald Trump off the (unintelligible).
Renee Shaw: Secretary?
Michael Adams: Well, the secretary of state, if he follows the law, does not favor or disfavor candidates. You just let people file and if someone wants to challenge them, they can do that. When Mr. Wheatley filed, he didn't even fill the form out right to run for secretary of state. He left the office he’s running for blank. We still let him run. If someone wants to sue him of that, they can sue him but I’m just going to be neutral on it.
Renee Shaw: A recent Emerson College poll that was released last week also talked about the governor's race but there were other questions in that poll. It said Kentucky voters were asked separately which comes closest to their view on the 2020 presidential election. A plurality of Kentucky voters, 47 percent, think Biden stole the 2020 election, while 36 percent think he won fair and square. 17 percent are unsure. Kentucky voters who voted for Trump in 2020 overwhelmingly think the 2020 election was stolen by Biden at 72 percent. Secretary Adams, I’ve asked you this question before but tonight, for the record, do you believe that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidency fair and square?
Michael Adams: Uh, I do think he won it. Yeah, I do think there were some shenanigans here or there. There were some secretaries of state in other states that were a little fast and loose, but I don't think that there were 7 million fraudulent ballots that all favored one candidate and were against the other candidate. I think Joe Biden’s the president.
Renee Shaw: So, you say what to election deniers?
Michael Adams: Well, I say the same thing I’ve been saying from day one, which is in Kentucky our elections are free and fair. And you know, my opponent is sort of the Democratic Stephen Knipper or Adrienne Southworth. He just makes up this crazy stuff about this myth of suppression. You know who disagrees with him? Andy Beshear. Andy Beshear is running a campaign for reelection bragging about all we've done to expand voting rights the last four years. Well, I had a lot to do with that. So when someone says that I’m slamming the door in voters faces, and someone says I’m a suppressor, and I’m cutting funding, and all this other stuff, it’s just false.\
Renee Shaw: Mr. Wheatley, are you being disingenuous in how you’re characterizing Secretary Adams?
Charles Wheatley: Absolutely not. You know there are people who called Michael Adams’ treatment of the 2022 election, in his own party, called voter suppression. And these allegations that he is just ripping off here, just unfounded, not true. You know, I, I, there's so many things to say that it's simply not true. We know that he represented Kris Kobach and he’s one of the worst election deniers in the country. So to say he doesn't represent election deniers, to say he doesn’t profit off of election deniers, I don’t believe is true.
Renee Shaw: Secretary Adams.
Michael Adams: So my client was the Kobach for Senate Committee in 2020. It was a primary campaign for U.S. Senate. What, what election was he denying? He didn't deny the 2020 election. He lost in the 2020 election and he conceded defeat. So what’s the denier?
Charles Wheatley: He’s been denying the, the Trump – he’s been denying the Biden election.
Michael Adams: Hillary Clinton denied the Trump presidency. (laughs) You’ve got some folks on your own side. But look, he had an issue with the FEC –
Charles Wheatley: Well that was the answer.
Michael Adams: -- He had an issue with the FEC, had nothing to do with the election or who won or lost. It was a reporting error. I helped him with his reporting error. That’s what I do is I help people follow the law. It’s my job --
Renee Shaw: Did this client actually deny –
Michael Adams: Not that I’m aware of, no. I haven’t seen him deny anything. He said that he denied that Trump won. He was in the Trump administration. I don't think he denied that Trump won.
Charles Wheatley: I misspoke: I said he denied that Biden was the president –
Renee Shaw: That Biden, right --
Michael Adams: Not that I’ve seen. Certainly not when I represented him. I represented him in 2020, when he had an issue with the FEC.
Renee Shaw: Another question, this on from Lexington, and one I was going to get to myself. Do you all have a position on ranked choice voting? Mr. Wheatley, you first?
Michael Adams: Well, you know ranked choice voting is interesting. You know, there are different varieties that, that you can do rank choice voting. But I’m not opposed to it. It would take a lot of movement here in the state, and the state, as the secretary has pointed out, moves very slow on election laws. So there are many priorities of opening access to the polls before I would push ranked choice voting, but I’m not opposed to it.
Renee Shaw: We actually got rid of runoffs back in the early 2000s, right, and it would setup that similar situation, right?
Michael Adams: Oh, it's nothing like a runoff situation. We actually have another election that people can go vote in. I think it’s a bad idea. I don't have principled objection in theory but in practice it's a bad idea for two reasons. Number one, it takes much, much longer to figure out who won the election and folks I’ve seen want to know when they go to bed on election night who won and who lost. That’s one thing that people really love about Kentucky and what we’ve done here is people know who won and lost on election night. The other reason is, the last thing I need with all the crazy out here is to have algorithm involved in the process and to make it more complicated. You wouldn't believe how many voters can’t fill out a ballot correctly, and how many voter-intent situations we have to assess when we look at someone’s ballot. If you make this complicated, you’re actually going to hurt turnout. You’re going to make it harder for people to participate. They’re going to be cowed by this notion of this complicated system. They just don’t want to take advantage of it.
Renee Shaw: Does your office work to cure it or the county clerks, you encourage them to cure those ballots as much as they can?
Michael Adams: Yeah, actually that’s something I’ve done that his party never cared enough to do. I actually created a cure program so that voters who have an issue with their ballot will be contacted and given a chance to, to cure the ballot. That’s something that I did. So is early voting, so was a portal to facilitate absentee voting so voters can actually track what they’ve done. These are all things that he never did and his party never did.
Renee Shaw: And you support those things, Mr. Wheatley by and large?
Charles Wheatley: I support anything that opens access to the polls, and there have been minor movement in that way. But, you know, we're talking about going a couple inches when we need to go a couple miles.
Renee Shaw: I’ll give you a minute or so, Mr. Wheatley, to make closing some remarks.
Charles Wheatley: Well, thank you, Renee, and thank you for having us here tonight. You get a chance to really understand what the candidates are like. And we have heard what the candidates are like. I am a 20-year veteran of a firefighting service, Public service is in the blood. Michael Adams is a political operative. That’s all he's been his professional life. You know, we've talked about things tonight from the past. Things that have not really had at all any effect on the current secretary of state's office and what I will do as secretary of state. And that's best for Michael Adams because he can deflect from what’s missing. You know, there is a 30-day delay with our business filings that’s happening. We have Michael Adams threatening to pull us out of ERIC. That’s also happening today. We have the lowest voter turnout in 30 years-long, lines in the 2022 election, the first election Michael Adams was fully in charge of. These are the things we're not talking about. I’ll be a secretary of state for all Kentuckians. I will be there for the -- if whether you live in a city, in a suburb, or a farm, on a farm, or in a small town, you’ll have a safe, secure way to vote when I’m secretary of state.
Renee Shaw: Thank you, Mr. Wheatley. Mr. Adams?
Michael Adams: Well, the key question when you have an incumbent running for reelection is should you fire the guy? That’s the key issue. His signs actually say fire Michael Adams, so that’s a fair, a fair assessment of what this race is about. I would suggest, no, we shouldn't. Should we fire the guy who‘s been more effective in this office than anyone ever has in improving election integrity but also election access for our people. Should we fire the guy that saved the 2020 election? That was the first secretary of state in America to figure out how to run an election safely in a pandemic, who created a model that then other states used so their voters could vote safely with no fraud, with no corruption, with no casualties, and no suppression. Should we fire the guy that brought early voting to Kentucky after decades of empty promises from him and his party? Should we fire the guy that brought new technology, paper ballots that are more secure to our voters so we can do audits, we can do recounts. We didn’t have that before. We have it now because of me. If I lose this race, it’s going to be bad for the country because it's going to show Republicans we can't elect someone like Adams and he’ll lose. We got to have someone who’s a nut-job, we’ve got to have a crank as our nominee. It’s going to be bad for elections in our state. It’s going to hurt the cause all across the country. It's really important nationally that I win this race strong.
Renee Shaw: Thank you, Mr. Adams, thank you, Mr. Wheatley, we appreciate you being here this evening. We hope that you will stay with us because after the break you will hear from Sierra Enlow, the Democratic candidate for agricultural commissioner. That’s next right after this.
Democrat for Commissioner of Agriculture, Sierra Enlow
Renee Shaw: Thank you for staying with us on Kentucky Tonight. We are now joined by Sierra Enlow, the Democratic candidate for commissioner of agriculture. Her Republican opponent is Jonathan Shell. He declined our invitation to appear. We still want your questions and comments tonight. So send those by X – formerly Twitter – at KY tonight KET. Send an e-mail to KY tonight at ket.org, or use the web form at ket.org/KY tonight, or you can simply give us a call at 1-800-494-7605. Welcome, Miss Enlow, thank you for being here.
Sierra Enlow: Thank you, Renee, for having me. I’m super excited to be here today and certainly wish my opponent had been here to discuss issues with us tonight.
Renee Shaw: Well, the time is yours and so we'll allow you to reintroduce yourself to the Kentucky Tonight audience as you did back in the primary but perhaps people need a refresher. Tell us about your background.
Sierra Enlow: Sure, Renee. My name is Sierra Enlow and I’m running to be your next commissioner of agriculture in Kentucky. I grew up on a fifth-generation family farm in Larue County, where I really spent a lot of time in 4H and FFA and learning the ins and outs of the agriculture industry. I continued that, that passion for the industry as I pursued my master’s degree in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, where I worked on projects with the USDA and Cooperative Extension. And that's important and that’s an important part of my background as voters are considering who to vote for in this office because you need two things to be an effective commissioner of agriculture. You need production agriculture experience, which I have from my experience on the farm, and you need business experience. And that's something that I’ve worked really hard over my career to acquire. In my career as an economic developer, I’ve helped facilitate over $1 billion of investment into Kentucky alone, and really think about how we negotiate with the C-suite executives to bring benefit to Kentuckians. And that’s something you’re going to see as a contrast in this race. My opponent just does not have that business experience, and, and when it comes to picking someone to be your choice for this office you, need to look at those comparisons.
Renee Shaw: So for those who wonder whether you’re ready or not to take on the commissioner role, you would say what?
Sierra Enlow: Yeah, I would say I’ve spent my entire life preparing for this, this position and this career. I, it has been my goal since I was an FFA president in Larue County to run for this office. And it's also important to note that Jonathan and I are the same age. Our careers have, you know, really have paralleled each other and that experience I’ve had the opportunity to really pursue things that are outside the agriculture industry, and then learn those business interests so that we know how to bring those, those specific interests back to Kentucky and help them serve Kentuckians. Part of this race for commissioner of agriculture is not just about production agriculture. There’s a reason every Kentuckians votes for race and it’s because every Kentuckian, if they’re not involved in production of agriculture, is involved in some sort of consumption agriculture. And it's important that you have someone who understands, again, that production agricultural experience but understands how people and other citizens of Kentucky interact with the industry in this particular office.
Renee Shaw: So how would you use your business expertise and economic development expertise to help further the office of commissioner of ag?
Sierra Enlow: Yeah. One of the things we're really specifically going to have to look at for the next commissioner of agriculture is how we bring markets to Kentucky. We've told Kentucky farmers a lot of fairy tales about crops that they should raise and things that they should consider looking into without thinking about how we're actually bringing those markets to those Kentucky farmers. And as an economic developer, that’s what you are concerned with. You want to bring the manufacturer here, the processor, the retail operations here. And we have to do that before we can give a good indicator to Kentucky farmers to raise a crop. And I think that’s something I’m looking forward to bringing to this office and really helping drive home not only for farmers but also as we're looking at agriculture and other aspects of the economy. When we look at food access in Kentucky, that’s certainly something that exists in West Louisville but it also exists in counties like Trimble County that don't have a grocery store, and your next ag commissioner should really have some experience in helping recruit businesses to help work on that issue of.
Renee Shaw: Yeah. So in addition to recruiting businesses, what are the top two to three issues you think Kentucky farmers are really facing right now?
Sierra Enlow: Uh, so I think that there are issues that are varied across the state that Kentucky farmers are facing, and I think one of the ones that we really are concerned about is where the new markets are going to come from and what we’re doing to differentiate Kentucky ag products. And that’s where your commissioner of agriculture should be an economic developer because we have to think how we move a bushel of Kentucky soybeans off of the national market and move it into food processing and provide added value for farmers here. It's really true when you look at the distillery industry in Kentucky and when we think about how we're creating value-added benefits for Kentucky farmers, we have to look how we're getting Kentucky grain into Kentucky distilleries and Kentucky’s in a good position for that. And we have farmers across the state that are testing new crops like rye and see how the grow here so that we can make sure we're meeting something that is an established market demand and not selling something that may or may not be a future for Kentucky crops.
Renee Shaw: Medical marijuana. We’re the 38th state –
Sierra Enlow: Sure.
Renee Shaw: -- to legalize, have a comprehensive cannabis law. It does not have a home grow or a growing provision for farmers. Do you think it should? Is that something the, the Kentucky General Assembly should work on next year, and, if you are elected ag commissioner, would you push them in that direction?
Sierra Enlow: I think medical marijuana is providing us a really unique opportunity for Kentucky agriculture because it’s giving us the experience with controlled-environment ag that we need to develop to be able to meet the needs of the agriculture community in the next decade. And by having the legislation setup the way it is, it's really providing us the opportunity to beta test something, and beta test an industry for us before we look at investing in other crops that are in the same controlled-environment ag experience. So I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out and what that looks like for medical marijuana. I always think that it’s a good opportunity to provide opportunities for Kentucky farmers. But again, we have to have that market before we have these home-grow provisions, before we, you know, start flooding the market with a product. So at this stage, I think we're taking the right baby steps to be successful in this industry. And I think that we've done this in a really responsible way.
Renee Shaw: And you favor, of course, that law?
Sierra Enlow: Yes.
Renee Shaw: Let's talk about hemp –
Sierra Enlow: Hemp, yeah.
Renee Shaw: – which a decade on, it's really not lived up to the lucrative promise it was hoped for, right?
Sierra Enlow: Yeah.
Renee Shaw: Several large processors have gone bankrupt and there’s been a downturn over a few years ago, and farmers have collectively lost millions and millions of dollars, driving a lot out of them out of the business. What would you say can be done and what would you advocate for as ag commissioner to help turn this industry around, or can it be turned around?
Sierra Enlow: I think that that this industry is maybe in some ways a misstep for Kentucky agriculture but it’s a misstep we've made for other industries, again, where we have promoted an industry and told Kentucky farmers a fairy tale before making sure that market was in place for that. There are a few things as an economic developer I’d like to see in Kentucky that I think could help transform the hemp industry and help move it in the right direction. I think in particular we need a state R and D tax credit that supports research and development in the state in, in a really robust way. And if we can, you know, even target that more towards agriculture products, you know, I think that would be something great to do. But I think that we're going to have to really think about what we tell Kentucky farmers to grow and how we tell them to grow it because we need to make sure we have those markets in place.
Renee Shaw: Next generation farmers, let's talk about that. I think the average age of the Kentucky farmers is 62, 64, 65? What would you do, and you that have that FFA background, what would you do to encourage younger folks to get into the ag industry and are there off chutes of industries that they should be considering, in your view, and that you would advocate for that are connected to agriculture?
Sierra Enlow: Yeah, and this is a really great question because this is actually the background of part of my research when I was in the master’s degree program at the College of Agriculture at UK because there are a lot of issues to beginning farmer/ranchers. And one of the issues is that we’ve run into is that there's less minority representation there and there’s less ability for those minority participants to enter into the market. One of the things I will do as ag commissioner is work with the Kentucky ag development funds to make sure we’re providing equitable access to the funds and that they’re going out in an equitable way and not just really focus on the quality of access to the application. And that’s really important for minority farmers. And I always acknowledge that I have a lot of privilege within the agriculture industry because I grew up on a fifth-generation farm, which means I knew a banker that could help me walk through my financial statements. I knew an accountant, I knew the right types of attorneys to prepare these applications, and to have success with the programs. Minority farmers don't have always have that access or that success and it’s true with beginning farmers. And that's something we have to work on. We have to provide those wrap-around services to make sure that we have equitable success in the programs, not just equal access to the application.
Renee Shaw: So would you somehow develop a diversity, equity, inclusion program or department within the ag department?
Sierra Enlow: Sure, and I think this is a great opportunity for cross-collaboration. Those resources are already existing, they exist with a lot of our chambers. They existed with a lot of other business groups. My goal is not to reinvent the wheel but it is to make operations more efficient. And I would like to build those bridges and those connections with existing resources, particularly with the business community to make sure that we're funneling those opportunities to help support minority farmers and beginning farmers down to them and that they’re getting access to those types of resources.
Renee Shaw: Do you have any idea what kind of budget you would need in order to carry that out?
Sierra Enlow: I think that we're going to have to start, again, with a pilot program. I mean it's great that we have robust ag development funds and available funds. We've had great success in maintaining those over the years. I would like to thank all of our past legislators and elected officials who protected those. But I think any good pilot would start with something like $1 million to $2 million and that’s what we're seeing with consistent pilots like the Bluegrass Ag Tech initiative. We see that being a good starting point. It's enough to really beta test something and make sure that we're get to go out there but not so much that we are investing in something so heavily that may have flaws when it has a roll out.
Renee Shaw: if you were to ask for an additional appropriation by the Kentucky General Assembly, you’d be working with a super-majority Republican Party. How do you think you’d be able to convince them to work alongside you to carry out some of your agenda items?
Sierra Enlow: Yeah, and I think Republicans are very business minded. And I think a good Republican legislative branch really focuses on how we fix business issues for Kentuckians. I mean that’s where we are meeting on the same page and have the same values is that we are here to make business, real business decisions to help real Kentuckians. And that’s just something that I think most Republicans can get behind. And I in a lot of ways support some of their policies for economic growth and what we are looking at to drive the state to bring more people to Kentucky, to continue to drive our business growth, and that’s all I’m asking is for us to make good business decisions for Kentuckians.
Renee Shaw: You mentioned earlier about food insecurity, I think, very quickly, so let's talk about that. According to a recent report from Feeding America, one in eight people face hunger. One in six children faces hunger. What ideas do you have about addressing the food deserts and quality food deserts that are prevalent across the state?
Sierra Enlow: So that issue is really two separate issues. So the issue of a food desert is truly an issue of food access and making sure that we can provide access to people. One of the issues that I’d really like to see fixed is that we don't have an incentive to help support grocery stores to move into lower-income communities or communities that are underserved. We have some great models in Kentucky for sales tax-based tax incentives with our tourism tax incentive. I mean other states have some great models for some sales tax-based tax incentives and I think that there's some opportunities for us to create some solutions specifically to encourage grocery stores to go into underserved areas to address that food access issue. The other issue of food insecurity and not having enough food to eat takes some other nuances to how we solve it. One of the programs that I would actively support as the commissioner of agriculture is free lunch for students across the commonwealth, both because it helps with the food insecurity issue because it helps with exposure to Kentucky agriculture products. And it’s a twofold solution: I’d like to see programs like farm-to-food banks continue to help, again, with that food insecurity issue. And then several of the other Feeding Kentucky programs, the Double Dollars at Kentucky farmers markets, those are also great examples of programs that I’d like to see continue and funded at a greater scale to be able to solve that food insecurity issue.
Renee Shaw: We know mental health is an issue that affects all kinds of industries and agriculture is no exception. We know the suicide rate among farmers has increased. What would you do to address mental health challenges facing the agriculture community?
Sierra Enlow: Yeah, if there, I tell people on the campaign trail that if there is one thing I would wave a magic wand and fix, it would be to provide reduced health care, some sort of supplemental health care for Kentucky farmers. It is very expensive to purchase health care, health insurance as a farmer and it’s something we have to address if we want to keep growing a robust agriculture industry and growing a entrepreneurship environment around that. With the mental health perspective, that even, you know, gets amplified because farmers are both lacking the access to those mental health resources and maybe even the way to pay for that. And those are certainly something that I’d like to take a deeper look at. I know the foundation has already been laid through the Raising Hope program with the Department of Agriculture, just really start tackling some of these issues. But certainly looking at making sure that we’re delving into that and figuring out how we support our farmers. Farming is such a risky business and it’s really, uh, you know, it’s a really scary business to be part of and to have so many things outside of the control of your operation. And, you know, I’m looking forward to figuring out how we support our farmers better through that.
Renee Shaw: And sustainability, environmental stewardship: Are those also areas that you’re concerned about and hope that more farmers will embrace, even by the types and sources of energy that they use?
Sierra Enlow: Sure. Kentucky's unique in that our organic certification runs through our state Department of Agriculture. We’re the only state where the organic certification runs through the department and it provide, allows us to do a couple of things. It allows us to certify organic farmers but it also allows us to work with the Organic Association of Kentucky to push out education on what we call organic influence techniques and there are about 400 other farmers. Kentucky has about 200 registered organic operations. There are about 400 other operations that are using techniques that are influenced by this research and by their work within the organic association. So looking forward to really supporting that and supporting those types of innovations within the agriculture industry. And it really does come down to figuring out how we support energy and how we do it in a responsible manner. We’re at a stage in Kentucky agriculture where our farmers are getting a lot of, uh, we’re starting to see a lot of interest in solar installations on their farms and we're losing valuable agriculture land to these solar installations. We need that diversity in energy in Kentucky, but we need to do it in a responsible way. And I think that there's some great programs like the USDA REAP grants that support installing solar on existing buildings. There’s a lot of roof space on a lot of agriculture operations, so I would look forward to implementing and encouraging farmers to, to evaluate those avenues to diversify our energy consumption.
Renee Shaw: Last question for the night: Would you support pushing ethanol more and working to bolster corn growth in Kentucky?
Sierra Enlow: Certainly looking forward to supporting corn growth in Kentucky and doing what we can to bolster corn growth, And I think, like that’s something that we’re going to have to really address from a next administration for the commissioner of agriculture, and how we support ethanol and what we have as far as tax incentives, and investment in ethanol and manufacturing in Kentucky and processing. And, you know, that’s something that I think is very important and I’ve never shied away from is saying we need to get more agriculture processing plants in Kentucky in any form or fashion, whether it be ethanol or it’s, you know, focused on the bourbon industry. Those are industries we need to look at and that’s really where my focus as commissioner of agriculture is going to be is in that, that manufacturing, processing space for Kentucky agriculture products.
Renee Shaw: Well, Miss Enlow, we’ll have to leave it there. We do --
Sierra Enlow: Ok.
Renee Shaw: -- thank you for being here with us tonight. We appreciate your time.
Sierra Enlow: Well, thank you for having me. I certainly appreciated being here tonight.
Renee Shaw: Absolutely. Well thank you for watching this evening. Next Monday on Kentucky Tonight, an analysis of the races with just a few weeks ago. So be sure to join us next Monday night at the same time. But also check us out each weeknight at 6:30 Eastern, 5:30 Central for Kentucky Edition. And, of course, on Friday, Bill Bryant and a team of journalists will be here to discuss the news of the week. Thank you so much for watching Kentucky Tonight this evening, I’m Renee Shaw. Take good care and I'll see you soon. Have a good night.