LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Three Democrats running for Kentucky governor wrangled Wednesday evening in a televised debate over issues ranging from marijuana legalization to the future of Appalachian coal, less than a month before the state's primary.
The candidates also emphasized some of their campaign themes during the high-stakes encounter featuring Attorney General Andy Beshear, former state Auditor Adam Edelen and state House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins.
Beshear said he wants to expand gambling in Kentucky and use the proceeds to help fund the state's struggling public pension systems. Adkins touted his plan to provide free community college and job training for adults. Edelen called for creating a new economy for Kentucky and said he has a track record of doing so with his lead involvement in developing a solar power project on a former Appalachian coal mine.
The hourlong debate gave visibility to Democrats who are trying to take back the state's top political post from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who is seeking a second term.
All three candidates said they support legalizing medical marijuana, an issue that has stalled in the state's Republican-dominated legislature.
Adkins, a cancer survivor, said, "there's no question that for certain medical conditions, medical marijuana is the right approach."
Beshear cited addiction woes from opioid prescriptions in voicing support for medical marijuana legalization.
"We have got to have a way to treat chronic pain that doesn't load medicine cabinets up with things that make people addicted," he said.
Edelen took his stand on marijuana a step further. He touted his plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. His plan stops short of fully legalizing marijuana.
"We just cannot afford in a state this broke to spend $50 million a year prosecuting 11,000 people for possession of small amounts of marijuana," Edelen said. "It's dumb, it's expensive and it's also terribly racist in its application."
When asked if there's a future for coal production in eastern Kentucky, Beshear replied that Kentucky needs to diversify its energy production and said climate change "is real."
Kentucky coal production plummeted as power plants moved to other energy sources and mining coal became more expensive. Many people in coal regions blame environmental regulations enacted during Democratic President Barack Obama's administration.
Edelen said Beshear had mimicked a speech he gave months ago about embracing energy diversity, as Edelen pointed to his solar power project as an example of what Kentucky needs to embrace to create jobs in the coalfields.
Adkins said the coal industry will continue to exist but not at past levels. The rural lawmaker said he has a vision to rebuild the state's rural economy.
On another hot-button issue, Edelen criticized a recently enacted state measure that would let people carry a concealed handgun without a permit or training. The legislation was backed by the National Rifle Association.
Edelen said he's a gun owner and defended Second Amendment rights but said the new measure will make Kentucky a "wild west state" and called it "dead wrong."
"I'm the right person to make the case that we need a more common sense approach to guns because I grew up in a gun culture," said Edelen, a native of rural Kentucky.
Beshear, who as attorney general has taken Bevin to court repeatedly to challenge some of his executive actions, called the governor a bully but would not say the same of President Donald Trump, who has been criticized for using his Twitter account to insult people. Bevin is an ally of Trump, who remains popular among many Kentucky voters.
Asked about Trump's behavior, Beshear said: "Name calling is always wrong."
All three were asked about a good thing Bevin has done for the state. Adkins took a long pause and said he has a "beautiful family." Edelen and Beshear, noting Bevin's adopted children, said they respected his commitment to foster care.
In a social media video before the debate, Bevin said his potential Democratic challengers are promoting "tired" and "backward" ideas.
"They're not what's best for us," Bevin said. "We've created more than 50,000 jobs here in Kentucky, because we're looking forward. Looking forward is what the people of Kentucky deserve, and it's what we want."
The other Democrat running for governor is frequent candidate Geoff Young. Bevin's GOP challengers in the May 21 primary 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.