By Loyd Ford
Lexington – So many ideas and so many people packed into a hotel ball room Saturday could have resulted in mental grid lock for the New Kentucky Project. Instead the event nearly became a pep rally for what Adam Edelen and Matt Jones call Progressives, a combination of Liberals and middle of the road moderates who are looking for ways to bring change to Kentucky.
Bobbie Foust, of Calvert City, and her daughter Donna Foust, a Louisville lawyer who also teaches at University of Louisville were two of 600 people in the standing room only crowd in Lexington’s Embassy Suites for the New Kentucky Project’s Ideas Conference meeting.
Bobbie said the meeting had been an excellent conference and that she was delighted to see such a good turnout. She also said, “The election has revived the interest of the public in the political situation.”
Foust who is in her 80s and traveled with her daughter to the event also said, “I wish I had seen more people here from western Kentucky, the Purchase and the Pennyrile.”
Despite a clear liberal stance by most of the organizers of the event and many of the speakers the meeting for most of the day long program stayed informational. One of the missions of the New Kentucky Project is to encourage a grassroots campaign to inform people about the problems and issues facing Kentucky and to discuss it with people on a person to person level.
The topics were diverse and far ranging beginning with a presentation by Ron Couch a Kentucky demographer who gave a presentation of “The Kentucky of the Future”. Following that there was a discussion group that focused on how to connect with “Forgotten People” which in the end included a scathing self-criticism of the crowd for its overwhelmingly white composition. That generated an admission from Matt Jones that they were not attracting minorities and that they were going to have to fix that problem.
Perhaps they already had. The conference host was Lexington Fayette Urban County Government Council Woman Angela Evans, Rev. Adrian Wallace the Co-Pastor of Restoration Christian Church and President of Lexington’s NAACP was a featured after lunch speaker, Kiran Bhatarju the CEO of Arcadia Power and Pikeville native spoke late in the program about the economic opportunities available to eastern Kentucky that could be made possible by embracing solar and wind power.
Human trafficking has prostitution connection
A discussion on human trafficking by attorney and activist Ashley Morgan showed there is a problem with human trafficking in Kentucky. She said Kentucky is a leader in prosecution of human trafficking and that the Kentucky Attorney General’s office had provided assistance in 32 cases and had prosecuted five cases. Morgan, who spent a year in Cambodia working to end human trafficking there, said that there were 45 million people enslaved in the world today, more than at any other time in history.
Following Morgan’s presentation on human trafficking Council Woman Evans noted that prostitution in her city was connected to human trafficking.
Most Kentuckians are making $12 or less an hour
Jason Bailey who heads the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy brought some crucial economic understandings to the New Kentucky Project. First he explained real income has dropped for the bottom 99 percent of Kentuckians by 2.6 percent over the last 35 years. He said that both political parties have to share in that. Bailey said there are not enough jobs and an excess supply of workers was depressing pay for everyone else. He also said that although unemployment levels had dropped it was not reflective of the high rates of unemployment of persons between 25 and 54 years of age.
Bailey also said there was a big employment divide between the urban and rural areas of the state. According to Bailey there are 20 percent fewer manufacturing jobs in Kentucky since the year 2000. Wages grew slightly last year but the level of earnings is still lagging because wages have been stagnant in Kentucky since 2001. He said most workers in Kentucky are making $12 or less an hour.
Bailey was critical of cuts in higher education funding. He pointed to 16 cuts in the budget for higher education since 2007 in Kentucky which resulted in one third less funding for colleges and universities. Those cuts in funding were directly passed along to students. He said the underfunding of education had the effect of cutting jobs for teachers, police and medical workers.
Bailey attacked the new Right-to-Work law and said it was all a bill of goods. He warned about the unraveling of financial regulations and that Wall Street would turn into the “Wild West again.” He also said the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would result in 486,000 people in Kentucky losing medical insurance coverage and predicted 56,000 people in Kentucky would lose healthcare jobs.
Bailey is an advocate for tax reform in Kentucky. He said the state currently gives away more in tax breaks than it collects in taxes. He warned against changes in the tax system that would shift more of the tax burden to middle and lower income people.
Seven of nine candidates supported by the New Kentucky Project won their races in the November General Election five of them participated in a panel discussion on how to campaign successfully against well financed opposition. Among them was Rep. Angie Hatton from Whitesburg who won her first campaign despite the opposition spending $450,000 against her and running half-hour long television commercials against her on two different local television outlets. The panel of five explained the dark money coming into political campaigns is coming from business interest with a profit motive. The other legislators on that panel included Rep. Dean Schamore, Rep. John Sims, Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, and Rep. Russ Meyer.
Rev. Adrian Wallace encouraged the group to be “Salt and light in an arcane world.” Rev. Wallace is the Co-Pastor of Restoration Christian Church and President of Lexington’s NAACP and his topic of discussion was “Communicating Progressive Values to People of Faith.” He prefaced his remarks by saying the value of justice is applicable to all and that “We have to stand on the value of justice.”
Believes next NKP meeting could top 2,000
Matt Jones, who is perhaps best known as a University of Kentucky basketball sports broadcaster, is one of two key founders of the New Kentucky Project. The other is Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen. Jones challenged those in the audience. He said he wanted them to find five people in their sphere who voted for President Donald Trump and talk to them. Give them information and get them to change their mind. He said if they didn’t know five people who voted for Trump they needed to meet new people. This provoked a laugh from the crowd.
Jones also asked them to come back to the another New Kentucky Project meeting and to bring two or three people with them. He said, “I believe we can have 2,000 people next time.” Earlier in the day Jones told the crowd initially they expected far fewer than the 600 people that showed up and the extra people coming had caused them to lose $20,000 on the event. He said the loss wasn’t a problem. He and other said initially they expected about 60 people to come to the conference and later thought they might have between 150 and 200 but the numbers keep growing and they shut off registration after 500 people registered but Saturday there were 600 people there. The ball room was full and several people were standing up in the back of the room during the morning sessions.
In his closing remarks Jones said the most important thing they could do was recognize why they lost the governor’s race to Matt Bevin. “We must recognize the need to get out and contact people,” he said.
Drew Curtis Fark.com founder and formerly a candidate for Kentucky governor discussed technology and the future of government and politics. He offered some interesting insights on technology’s effects on employment and the future of some jobs. He pointed out technological advancement in use today could very soon have a profoundly negative effect on the work force. He said autonomously operated big trucks could within three years displace 29,000 truck drivers. Curtis pointed out Ford Motor Company has said it will have 35,000 autonomously operated vehicles on the road in three years. He said today people arriving at the Pittsburg, PA airport could walk out of the building and get into an autonomously operated vehicle and be driven to their destination. Curtis also related his personal experiences riding in a vehicle along a California freeway with an autonomously operated vehicle in the adjacent lane.
Curtis also told the crowd the U.S. Department of Transportation had already put a letter on file that said autonomously operated vehicles would be subject to the same regulations as vehicles operated by a human driver. He said what that really means is the DOT has already approved the operation of autonomously operated vehicles in the United States. He said they are here, now.
Citing a laundry list of jobs he says will be adversely affected by new technology in the next few years Curtis said it was very possible unemployment could reach 35 percent.
A panel discussion moderated by Krystal Ball, a former MSNBC broadcaster, that focused on some up and coming progressive leaders supplied information about how they garnered leadership roles in local Democratic parties, what strategies had worked for them on the local level and how they kept volunteers. That panel included Liles Taylor, Emily Kay Downey, Clint Morris and Andrea Ewen. Most of them were from Louisville, Woodford County and Lexington. One of the things they cautioned about was making sure volunteers were not over worked and the tasks they were assigned to fit their capabilities. They emphasized the critical need for grassroots campaigning and informed volunteers to get it done.
“Coal has always been a boom or bust” said Kiran Bhatarju. “But this is a permanent bust cycle”, he quickly added. He said this is a reality and we need to get quickly past it.
Bhataraju explained coal was part of the culture of eastern Kentucky and he noted that when you lose your identity, your culture, that is hard. Bhataraju is CEO of Arcadia Power, a native of Pikeville and believes solar and wind power created jobs could lessen the loss of coal jobs in eastern Kentucky.
He said the jobs are already here and are not something in the future. He continued by saying there are three times more solar and wind power jobs in the United States now than coal jobs. In addition to that he said solar and wind power jobs account for only five percent of energy related jobs now but the majority of new power plant begun over the past eight months have been wind or solar.
He said the skilled workers that worked in coal mining jobs could find employment with solar and wind power jobs. He said they needed to get local utility companies to get involved in local community solar and wind power projects. He said utility companies are beginning to invest and take advantage of business opportunities with solar and wind power.
State Rep. Chris Harris and State Sen. Morgan McGarvey gave their perspectives on redefining government. Rep. Harris said, “You need to be involved, people who are interested need to be involved,” he continued by saying, “everything involved with government should be totally open and transparent.”
Sen. McGarvey said it was phenomenal to see the crowd so energized but they had big things to work on that included healthcare, pensions and job creation. He said, “We have to be a disciplined voice of principled opposition.” McGarvey said we should do tax reform but not a country club form of it.
In his further comments McGarvey said he wanted a rational conversation about raising the minimum wage and the same pay for women. He noted he wanted business to come here but qualified that remark by saying, “You can be pro-business without being anti worker.” He also called for non-partisan redistricting across the state and implementation of an overtime rule that requires overtime pay for people making $913 or less each week.
State Representative James Kay took the stage and said he wants a new system of higher education in Kentucky and that they had to fight back on student loan debt. He called the soaring student loan debt now estimated to be $1.2 trillion to be the problem of our time. He said the student loan debt has triple over the past decade and the minority student loan debt is much higher and creating a racial divide among us. Student loan debt according to Rep. Kay is rising faster than medical costs and the increased cost of higher education is eliminating the opportunity for a higher education for some young people which in turn is lowering the number of college graduates in the United States which now ranks 10th in the world in college degrees after high school.
Adam Edelen, Kentucky’s State Auditor, introduced himself to the crowd as a child born to a 16-year-old single mother in Meade County, Kentucky and he told them if they rejected cynicism they could accomplish much together. He said, “The forces of regression want to take us back to a past that never existed,” and that some of the leaders in Frankfort are new but their agenda is not, they want to go back to an old Mississippi.”
Edelen said the group’s goal should be to build networks that show people how to organize and that they should recognized the needs of the people are to be valued over position. He asked them to contribute time or money to the effort, to spread the word and to get new people involved in the organization. He promised there would be more Ideas Conferences in the future and he wanted the events to grow.
Donna Foust probably summed up the Ideas Conference for those with progressive views when she said the energy in the room was what she saw the most. “I haven’t seen this energy in what is going on in probably 40 years.”