Democrats Andy Beshear and Adam Edelen touted their abortion rights credentials, while Rocky Adkins took a different stance by portraying himself as “pro-life” as the Kentucky gubernatorial candidates reached out to voters in a televised debate Tuesday night.
The three also defended teacher sickouts that forced some school districts to cancel classes as teachers rallied against pension and education measures before the state’s Republican-dominated legislature the past two years. They fielded questions on issues including Medicaid expansion, the state’s pension woes and marijuana policy in the hourlong debate, which comes three weeks before the May 21 primary election.
The debate turned into another mild-mannered, issues-focused meeting, just like a televised debate last week.
State lawmakers have passed and GOP Gov. Matt Bevin has signed a series of bills since 2017 to restrict abortion. The most restrictive measure would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is generally about the sixth week of pregnancy. The law, enacted this year, drew a legal challenge and a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to block its enforcement pending a trial.
Edelen, a former state auditor, depicted those abortion measures as “an experiment by the radical right,” and he said Kentucky has become “ground zero” in the fight for abortion rights.
“To build a modern Kentucky, you have to recognize the full equality of women,” Edelen said. “And you can’t recognize the full equality of women unless you respect them enough to let them make their own health-care decisions.”
Beshear labeled himself “pro-choice” and said he supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. As attorney general, he said, he refused to defend abortion measures that drew court challenges because he considered them unconstitutional.
Taking aim at Bevin, Beshear predicted the Republican incumbent will stress his anti-abortion stance in the fall campaign.
“He’s going to try to talk about this as much as he can because he knows he can’t get reelected on his own record,” Beshear said.
Adkins, a longtime state lawmaker, noted his abortion stance reflects the views of his rural constituents.
“I am pro-life and you express the views of your constituents that you represent in the legislature through your votes,” he said.
He said his position extends to supporting preschool funding and making it easier for people to adopt or become foster parents. Asked if he would sign all anti-abortion bills if elected governor, he replied: “I can’t say that I would do that because I don’t know what ‘all’ would be.”
All three defended the rights of teachers to use sick days to attend statehouse rallies, forcing some districts to cancel classes.
“Well, I was there,” said Adkins, the House minority floor leader who, like other Democratic candidates, showed their support for the teachers.
“It’s a shame that they had to come there to protect their profession,” he said.
Adkins spoke out against GOP-backed measures to draw charter schools to Kentucky and to award tax credits to people who donate to scholarship funds to help some children attend private schools.
Beshear and Edelen said teachers were exercising their constitutional rights to speak out at the Capitol.
“They frankly were left with no other course of action,” Edelen said.
On education policy, Edelen advocated for smaller class sizes and a smoother transition for 11th and 12th graders into the next phases of life.
Beshear noted his many legal fights with Bevin included lawsuits over education and public pension policies. On Monday, he filed a lawsuit trying to block subpoenas issued by Bevin’s administration as part of an investigation into teacher sickouts.
“Everybody is going to talk about how they like public education, but I’ve actually fought for it,” said Beshear, who is widely seen as the front-runner in the primary and has consistently aimed his campaign attacks at Bevin.
One issue in which Edelen saw an opportunity to separate himself from Beshear was on medical marijuana.
Beshear said legalizing medicinal marijuana could generate about $50 million in tax revenue in a state that badly needs the revenue. He also suggested that lifting the ban would help combat the state’s opioid addiction problems.
In response, Edelen said: “Andy’s a good man but we have a difference of opinion. I believe that medical marijuana by its very definition is medicine, and I will never be a governor who believes we ought to tax medicine.”
Efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky have stalled in the legislature.
The other Democrat running for governor is frequent candidate Geoff Young. Bevin’s GOP primary challengers are state Rep. Robert Goforth, William Woods and Ike Lawrence.
Kentucky is among three states electing governors in 2019. The others are Louisiana and Mississippi.