New Kentucky Project hosts first 'ideas conference' to push back against "hard-right" agendas

02/04/2017 08:18 PM

LEXINGTON — The New Kentucky Project held the first of what could be many “ideas conferences” on Saturday as co-founders Adam Edelen and Matt Jones laid out their vision for the group that wants to develop the next generation of Kentucky leaders.

Edelen, a former Democratic state auditor who lost his re-election bid in 2015, and Jones, an unabashed Democrat who has hosted politicians from both parties on his Kentucky Sports Radio show and “Hey Kentucky!” television program, said more than 600 registered for the event, far surpassing their initial expectation of around 150.

They say the 501(c )(4) will promote idea-based campaigns and recruit candidates for offices in all areas of government, with representatives in each of the state’s 120 counties. So far, about 1,000 have joined the group, Edelen said.

They’re planning a statewide tour after this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and at times the co-founders’ opening remarks were specifically targeted at the administrations of newly elected President Donald Trump and first-term Gov. Matt Bevin, both Republicans.

“This is very much a movement,” Edelen said. “It’s one that brings together folks who believe there ought to be space in the political realm for people who feel left out by the radical, hard-right agenda that we’re seeing in Frankfort and Washington, D.C.”

Republicans were noticeably absent from a conference agenda featuring Democratic speakers such as Sen. Morgan McGarvey, Reps. Chris Harris, Attica Scott, James Kay, Dean Schamore, Russell Meyer, Angie Hatton, McKenzie Cantrell and John Sims, and Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley.

They and others covered topics like winning in difficult political environments, the state economy, the future of technology in government and politics, and higher education.

In his remarks, Jones said the New Kentucky Project’s platform should appeal to liberals, moderates and conservatives as part of its 120-county effort. He predicted that 80 percent of Kentuckians agree on 80 percent of important issues based on his travels throughout the state.

“If we’re going to win elections and make an impact, we have to get conservatives on our side,” said Jones, who also said the group would launch a news blog in the vein of The Huffington Post and Drudge Report in the coming weeks after it hires an editor.

But so far, the group billed as a post-partisan entity has failed to attract any GOP officeholders. Republicans won the Governor’s Office in 2015, the second time since 1967, and wrested control of the state’s House of Representatives from Democrats for the first time since 1921, taking a 64-36 supermajority after winning 17 seats in last year’s election cycle.

Jones says he has heard from a pair of Republican lawmakers who wanted to work with the New Kentucky Project “but were essentially told not to.”

“I mean, when people sort of have absolute power they don’t really have an incentive to go reach to the other side, and so that is an issue, but ultimately we are kind of doing this at a grassroots level,” he told reporters afterward.

“We do have some Democratic legislators involved but not a lot of them because I don’t believe this is representative-based, I believe it’s people-based, and I think you see that with the crowd. There are hundreds of people in there, but a lot of them are not the kind of people you see at these events.”

House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, like Edelen, said Trump’s executive orders and Republican-led efforts such as repealing the state’s prevailing wage law and passing a right-to-work law have irked not only Democrats, but also moderate Republicans.

Issues like improving the state’s economy and investing in infrastructure and public education stretch “across party lines,” he said.

“Yes, I would like to see that,” Adkins said when asked about Republican support for the New Kentucky Project. “I’d like to see really a very inclusive group of Democrats and Republicans, and I think you will see that.”

But Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said not to expect any GOP officeholders to join the New Kentucky Project’s initiative.

Republicans have no reason to “get involved with an organization that is blatantly a crutch for two very liberal politicians in Adam Edelen and Matt Jones.” Jones, who considered a run for the 6th Congressional District last year, described himself as a moderate Democrat on Saturday.

“I think Republicans are loathe to get in the middle of what’s essentially an internal Democrat party feud between the varying factions of Democrats in this state,” he said in a phone interview with Pure Politics.

“They’re at the lowest point of power in over a century in the state of Kentucky. They don’t know what to do, and there’s going to be some in-fighting. That’s only natural, and I am standing by to see the outcome of this internal party squabble that they’re having.”

Edelen says he thinks that issues-based campaigns can work in Kentucky. Speaking to reporters, he criticized recent Democratic campaigns for running “in opposition to the people at the top of the ticket and didn’t go out and promote an agenda.”

He also stressed his belief that new political leaders need to be found, alluding to Kentucky Democrats.

“The extremism of the team that is in charge right now will guarantee that we get a second look in the future, but when we get that second look, if it’s nothing more than the same old, same old, it’s nothing more than a couple people that everybody knows, that second look won’t last longer than a glance,” he told the audience gathered inside an Embassy Suites conference room.

Jones quickly dismissed the idea of launching a political campaign of his own, but Edelen brushed the question aside without shutting the door on his political future.

“This is so much about building capacity,” he said. “It’s new ideas. It’s new leaders.

“We have got to get away from who’s the next savior, a look into the sky to save us approach to politics, and understand that in the future we’re going to win elections whether we have 50 or 100 or 150 or 600 people who are actively out there articulating a positive vision for the future of the state. We go around looking for a savior, that’s not going to happen.”


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