A former college basketball player who has spent more than three decades in the Kentucky legislature announced Wednesday that he will run for governor in 2019, hoping his moderate views will convince rural voters to return to the Democratic party ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Rocky Adkins, the minority floor leader of the Kentucky House of Representatives, disclosed his plans in Morehead, an eastern Kentucky city where he played for the Morehead State University basketball team in the early 1980s. The campaign rollout comes one week after Democrats were drubbed at the polls in Kentucky, with Republicans maintaining large majorities in the state House and Senate while fending off a fierce challenge in a central Kentucky Congressional district.
Democrats slowly lost rural Kentucky voters over the decades as Republicans tied them to the national Democratic party on issues like abortion and immigration. Elliott County, where Adkins is from, voted for Donald Trump in 2016, the first time in its 147-year history it had ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate.
Yet in that same year, Elliott County voters also re-elected Adkins to the state legislature with 66 percent of the vote.
"I'm a very moderate, middle of the road, common sense Democrat," Adkins, 59, said in an interview. "I think I can win those voters back. I'm the kind of Democrat they can be for, and I think I'm the kind of Democrat they will be for."
Kentucky is one of three states that will elect a governor in 2019. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin announced in August he would seek a second term, but has not yet filed for the office or begun raising money for a 2019 campaign.
Democrats think he is vulnerable because of his low approval ratings after he criticized public employees who opposed his changes to the public pension system.
Democrat Attorney General Andy Beshear announced his campaign in July and has already raised more than $660,000. Other high-profile potential candidates include Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, former Auditor Adam Edelen, Louisville state Rep. Attica Scott and Amy McGrath, a retired fighter pilot who just raised nearly $8 million and narrowly lost to Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky's 6th Congressional district.
"There is no question that Gov. Bevin can be beat," Adkins said. "His approval rating is in the tank."
In the legislature, Adkins has voted for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. He has supported labor unions by voting against laws that would ban mandatory union dues. When Democrats still controlled the House, Adkins was the floor leader for 13 years, responsible for calling legislation for a vote. But during that time, the legislature consistently did not pay the full contribution to the state's retirement systems, contributing to crippling debts that have them dangerously close to insolvency.
"While Rocky Adkins spent his career voting for record underfunding of the teacher's pension system by nearly $3 billion, Gov. Bevin has been setting new records for Kentucky — record business development, record low unemployment, record pension funding, and record investment in education and workforce development," said Blake Brickman, Bevin's chief of staff.
Adkins said lawmakers from both parties approved the funding requests of previous governors. He also noted that Republicans controlled the state Senate for much of that time.
"It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback," he said. "I've fought hard for public pensions to remain in place to protect the promises that have been made to our teachers and public employees."
Adkins taught high school after his college basketball career ended in the first round of the 1983 NCAA tournament. He was elected to the state House of Representatives at age 26 in 1986.
Kentucky politicians typically sympathize with laid-off coal industry workers. But Adkins sees himself as one of those workers. In the early 2000s, he lost his job at Addington Enterprises, a coal company where he worked in the quality control division.
"I'm qualified to talk about that downturn in the coal economy, I've experienced it, my family experienced it," he said.
Adkins started his own company RJA Enterprises, which he described as doing "project development work for companies in the energy field." He said he has never done business with Kentucky state government.
Adkin's running mate is Stephanie Horne, real estate attorney and Jefferson County Board of Education member. Adkins said he chose her because of her "keen understanding of public education," which he said "will be a top priority of our administration."