Former Miss America among 19 candidates seeking office

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A former Miss America is among 19 candidates running in down-ballot races in Kentucky that include secretary of state, agriculture commissioner, treasurer and auditor.

In several races where the candidates agree on most issues, biography likely will weigh heavily in voters’ minds.

Heather French Henry, who was crowned Miss America in 2000, has said her experience running the state Department of Veterans Affairs, with its 900 employees and $100 million budget, has given her the experience she needs to run the secretary of state’s office.

That open seat drew the most challengers for the May primary, with four Democrats and four Republicans seeking to succeed Democratic incumbent Alison Lundergan Grimes. She can’t run again due to term limits.

Henry, a Democrat, was veterans affairs commissioner under former Gov. Steve Beshear and served as deputy commissioner under Republican Gov. Matt Bevin until she resigned to run for office.

Other Democrats in the race include teacher and business owner Jason Griffith, former Air Force Capt. Jason Belcher and comic book artist Geoff Sebesta.

Candidates in the Republican primary include cybersecurity professional Stephen Knipper, who ran against Grimes four years ago; attorney and former Board of Elections member Michael Adams; former general counsel of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Andrew English; and former Secret Service agent Carl Nett, who lost a bid to be listed on the ballot with the nickname “Trump.”

All of the Democratic candidates said during a Kentucky Educational Television forum that they favor making voter registration easier and restoring voting rights automatically for some non-violent felony offenders. They did not support stricter voter identification laws and opposed all or part of a new law that limits the secretary of state’s authority.

Grimes has filed suit over the law, claiming the action by Republican lawmakers amounts to an unconstitutional infringement on her executive authority. The lawsuit warns “confusion and uncertainty” will surround Kentucky’s May 21 primaries unless the law is invalidated.

The suit seeks an injunction blocking the law’s implementation, but a judge hasn’t yet ruled.

The Republican candidates’ stories could be what distinguish them from one another as well. All four GOP candidates stressed the need to clean up the state’s voter rolls and say they support enacting a photo ID law at the polls. A photo ID is not currently required under Kentucky law.

Voters will pick party nominees for three other offices currently held by Republicans: agriculture commissioner, treasurer and auditor.

The only Republican incumbent to draw a primary challenger is Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. Hemp farmer Bill Polyniak says he’s running in part to champion legislation that will benefit Kentucky farmers in the cannabis markets.

Quarles, meanwhile, touts the expansion of industrial hemp production during his four years in office as well as success in connecting famers to new markets and an initiative to feed the hungry.

Democrats vying for the nomination are Scott County farmer Robert Conway and Glasgow City Councilman and farmer Joe Trigg. Conway says he’s an eighth-generation Kentucky farmer who has managed multimillion dollar budgets and a workforce of hundreds as a transportation executive. Trigg is a Glasgow native and business owner who has farmed for decades. Both men say they want to help farmers diversify, including with the production and cultivation of hemp and medical marijuana.

Two Republican incumbents, Auditor Mike Harmon and Treasurer Allison Ball, did not draw opposition for the primary.

The auditor’s race drew three Democratic candidates: Sheri Donahue, a cybersecurity professional; teacher Kelsey Hayes Coots; and Chris Tobe, who served as a trustee for Kentucky Retirement Systems and wrote “Kentucky Fried Pensions,” a book detailing problems with the state’s public pension plan.

Donahue says she’s running to rebuild faith in Kentucky’s government and will focus on protecting elections and rooting out “waste, fraud and abuse,” especially in the public pension system.

Coots says she wants to be “the watchdog that Kentucky taxpayers deserve” and wants to restore trust in the government by increasing transparency and strengthening accountability.

Tobe says he’s the leading independent expert on Kentucky pensions and says his first action in office would be to do an updated audit of the Kentucky Retirement System “to replace the weak work of Auditor Harmon.”

Democrats Michael Bowman, a banker and graphic designer, and business owner Josh Mers are running for treasurer.

Bowman says he can bring fresh perspective and energy to the office and would ensure the proper management of public money.

Mers says he would encourage transparency in the office, call for “true fiscal responsibility” for the governor and advocate for new sources of revenue and fair tax reform.