MOREHEAD, Ky. (KT) – “Rocky Top” isn’t always a welcome tune in Kentucky.
But for one night in Morehead, the Tennessee anthem seemed fitting.
Longtime eastern Kentucky state legislative leader Rocky Adkins made the official announcement Wednesday of what everybody already knew: He will be seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor.
Adkins and running mate Stephanie Horne, a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education, were warmly welcomed.
A bluegrass band played “Rocky Top” at the end of a raucous campaign kickoff at the Morehead Conference Center in front of a packed ballroom who chanted “Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!” as he came from the back of the room to the front following some spirited endorsements.
Adkins was all in and confident with an announcement many have been waiting for years to happen.
He joins Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear in the May primary that could become more crowded before it’s over. Former state auditor Adam Edelen is expected to announce around Thanksgiving, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has shown interest as has state Rep. Attica Scott of Louisville.
Amy McGrath, who had a good showing in a loss to Andy Barr for the U.S. Congressional seat, has been mentioned by her campaign manager as a potential candidate.
But this night belonged to the 59-year-old Adkins, who has been a state legislator since he was 26 years old and served 14 years as the Majority House Leader until the Republicans took over the House two years ago.
Gov. Matt Bevin has said he will be seeking re-election although he has yet to file the papers that aren’t due until January.
“I want to make a promise to you with every one of you as my witness,” Adkins said to the crowd in his opening remarks. “As governor, I will work hard day in and day out, not for myself, not for the special interests, but for you.”
Republican Party Communicans Director Tres Watson had this reaction to Adkins entering the governor’s race.
“Rocky Adkins spent 14 years as House majority floor leader, passing eight budgets, all of which underfunded state pensions. We look forward to hearing his plans to fix the massive pension problem he was one of the leading causes of but, in the meantime, Governor Bevin and our Republican supermajorities will continue our work protecting the funding pensions for teachers, public workers and first responders.”
Adkins, a native of Sandy Hook, described himself as a Kentuckian “from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet.” He considers himself a moderate Democrat who can win votes in some of the Republican counties in rural Kentucky, a key to wrestling the seat away from Bevin.
Former Gov. Paul Patton, a fellow eastern Kentuckian who served as governor from 1995 to 2003, endorsed Adkins during Wednesday’s announcement.
“I’ve known Rocky Adkins a long time and I’ve known him as a hard worker,” Patton said. “We spent eight years in Frankfort together, me as governor and him as a legislator, and we moved the commonwealth together. He’s brought thousands of jobs to Kentucky. He knows they depend on education.”
Adkins also received an endorsement from Wayne Martin, his basketball coach at Morehead State University. Martin said he knew Adkins “since he was a fifth-grader” and was a leader as point guard on Morehead’s 1983 NCAA tournament team.
“Rocky Adkins was born and raised in Kentucky - Sandy Hook, Kentucky to be exact,” Martin said. “He had a very special family foundation that taught him early the values of hard work and good deeds. And he embodies those values and he has chosen to live his life in Kentucky.”
Martin said Adkins never cared who scored or who got the credit but only about his team winning. “Make no mistake though, Rocky Adkins was our team leader on and off the floor and he did so with humility.”
Adkins has been a constant critic of the GOP policies and especially Bevin. He didn’t mind taking a shot at the sitting governor either.
“A governor who declares war on the very people he takes an oath to serve is not only out of order, he should be out of office,” Adkins said.
The pension reform controversy remained a hot button item for Adkins, who was staunchly behind the teachers during protests last spring when the issue was in front of lawmakers.
While Horne doesn’t have state political experience, her experience with education struck a chord for Adkins, whose father, Jess, was in public schools for 50 years, including 39 in the classroom. Horne’s mother was also a teacher.
It was obvious that the pension overhaul was going to continue to be an issue for Adkins.
“No educator, school bus driver, cook, janitor or any other public employee should have to beg for the dignity of the pension they were promised,” Adkins said. “I believe a pension is a promise that must be kept and as your governor I will keep that promise.”
Adkins said he would also fight for veterans and health care along with battling “unfriendly policies” that hurt the workingman.
Beshear has a head-start in fundraising with $664,893 since becoming a candidate in July. Adkins protested that gubernatorial candidates shouldn’t raise money until after the 2018 statehouse races.
Republicans maintained a strong grip on the House after the election last week.
“I want to see all regions of Kentucky do better,” Adkins said. “I want us all to do the best we can do. Yes, I am a proud eastern Kentucky, from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I am proud to be from rural Kentucky whether it’s eastern Kentucky or western Kentucky. Let me tell you this, I am from eastern Kentucky but I will be a governor for all of Kentucky.”
When Adkins was finished speaking and the group photographs had been taken, he was invited to join the bluegrass band for a song. He jumped at the chance and sang and played “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” as dozens held their cellphones up to video the performance.
Adkins has served in the Kentucky House since 1987 and was the House majority leader from 2003 to 2016. Adkins remains the Democrat House leader. He and his wife, Leah, have a daughter, and Adkins has two grown children from his first marriage.