FRANKFORT — If you want to be governor of Kentucky, especially a Democratic governor, you must look to the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Despite changes to the coal industry, the economic crisis in eastern Kentucky, and the Republican trend in Kentucky that really hasn’t changed much and proof of it was on display Monday at the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit in Pikeville.
Prospective Democratic candidates Attorney General Jack Conway, Auditor Adam Edelen, and former Auditor Crit Luallen were all there. Taking part in the program were other Democrats who might have gubernatorial aspirations as well: House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, as well as Pike County state Rep. Leslie Combs, who has been mentioned as a possible ticket mate for a gubernatorial slate.
Even Republican Hal Heiner, the former Metro Councilman from Louisville, was working the crowd.
None admitted to campaigning. They were there to show support for the region.
“I’m here to learn,” Heiner said. He said he had ideas about how to address the region’s problems, “but I need to develop a depth of knowledge on what’s needed for the future.”
The candidates must have sensed the excitement about talk of utilizing coal severance taxes to create a regional economic development fund. The issue is a testy one in southeastern Kentucky because half of the taxes remain in Frankfort.
The portion going back has created dependency. Local governments use the money not for long-term economic development but for operational costs. It’s part of the political lifeblood in the region.
“All the elected Frankfort representatives from those counties have come to use it for projects they can send back home,” said Danny Briscoe, a former Democratic Party of Kentucky Chairman who has managed several races for county officials and state representatives from the area.