Candidates for Paducah’s mayoral office and the District 3 State Representative seat faced off in a candidate forum today hosted by the Paducah Chamber of Commerce. Each responded to a range of issues posed by commerce members and local media.
The three candidates vying for Paducah’s mayoral office, a nonpartisan office, are: Richard Abraham, a multi-term Paducah city commissioner who’s currently serving as mayor pro tem; George Bray, a local businessman who serves as board chairman of the Barkley Regional Airport Authority; Dujuan Thomas, an entrepreneur and business owner who has served in the Army National Guard for more than five years.
Abraham positioned himself as the candidate with experience in city government. He said he believes the mayor “sets the tone” for the city, both inside and outside City Hall, and he offers a personable and encouraging tone “that will reverberate throughout the county and region, and they will know that Paducah is a place that they want to be because the people here in the city love their city.”
Bray positioned himself as the candidate with the most business experience whose platform centers on economic development, both nourishing current business and attracting new business, which he said will result in population retention and growth. He said he has a successful track record in business and would prioritize “more collaboration among our citizens, neighborhood groups, and add[ing] energy and experience to our local boards.”
Thomas positioned himself as the “common sense candidate” who would prioritize infrastructure repair and maintenance, with a special interest in the Southside and “giv[ing] the people their voice back” regarding citywide decision-making.
Below are highlights from the candidate forum:
What is the number one issue facing Paducah and what is your plan to turn this challenge into an opportunity?
Abraham said the number one challenge facing Paducah right now is operating the city’s government “the way it's supposed to be operated.” He said he would focus on rebalancing operations.
“When we do that, then we can focus on exactly what our job description entails, which is laid out in KRS [Kentucky Revised Statutes]. I think a lot of times what happens with a city hall is we get outside of our lane,” he said. “We have a lot of partners here in the city. The city wasn't designed to do everything.”
Bray said the number one challenge facing Paducah is long-term population and jobs growth. He said the city could do better at locating positive opportunities and then seizing those opportunities. He said Paducah has a strong financial team which he believes contributes to growth moving forward.
Thomas said the number one challenge facing Paducah is the “shrinking” population and “shrinking revenue” as a result. He said a focus on improving infrastructure such as the storm water drainage issue, and retaining Paducahans’ heritage and traditions are among his ideas for addressing those issues.
Some are predicting slow economic growth following this pandemic, what can the city do to help local economic recovery?
Bray said the city should use its resources wisely in aiding citizens and businesses, and believed websites offering comprehensive information that directs citizens to locally-owned businesses would be helpful.
“First would be to develop an umbrella branded website, listing all the hours of operation, the mask requirements, curbside services offered in a unique online ordering, brand that website for all the businesses in Paducah so people understand what the opportunities are, and then focus on directing our local peopleto buy local,” he explained. “A second idea might be a COVID website, to list the COVID resources and where those resources are located.”
Thomas said the city has already used the CARES Act relief funding and thinks the city should wait for more assistance from the state and federal governments. In the meantime, he said the city should advocate for community members and community partners to share resources, support each other, and buy local.
Abraham noted the city offered a grant program for locally-owned businesses to “help them through the dark time.” He said Paducah also has several local business partners and lending institutions who are willing and able to help small businesses.
The city has seen success and revitalization efforts in Lower Town, Fountain Avenue and Midtown. How will you work with partners to continue neighborhood redevelopment in other areas of the city?
Thomas said a portion of the funds from the payroll tax collected by the city could be better utilized to focus specifically on the “minority occupied areas, the Southside and other underrepresented or underdeveloped areas in our city.”
“And what I can do to foster that is by contracting with local construction businesses or local businesses that deal with infrastructure, and we can use them to help refurbish our deteriorated infrastructure,” he said. “And if we're not able to refurbish some of those dilapidated buildings that are spread across our city, then we can just demolish them and start anew.”
Abraham said it’s important for the city to notice when partners, such as the Midtown Alliance with the Fountain Avenue project, do a good job with neighborhood revitalization and then choose smart partnerships for work in other areas of the city that need it. He noted spending the city’s funds wisely is important as well.
Bray said Paducah “wrote the book on neighborhood redevelopment,” recalling successes such as Fountain Avenue, but said the city has lost its momentum and now other areas such as the Southside “are crying out for redevelopment.” He said if elected, he would provide more focus and push for financial support for increased efforts in neighborhood redevelopment.
Describe any experience you have in uniting people behind a particular cause or concerted effort.
Abraham noted the success of an inmate job training program at McCracken County Jail, which he said started as a conversation with McCracken County Jailer David Knight, who was a candidate for office at the time.
“That program is the shining star in the state of Kentucky. We just received a grant of $280,000 for it. We had 14 guys graduate that welding program; out of the 14, one is returning to jail. Twelve are working, 12 are changing the lives of their family because they have a skill. And that whole project started with a conversation,” he said. “So we talked about changing lives, that's a life changing.”
Bray, who’s the current chairman of the Barkley Regional Airport Authority, pointed toward the construction project for a new terminal and apron which recently began officially. He said that project is the result of collaborations that extend more than six decades. He also noted he initiated the Paducah Tip Jar which was a fund to assist restaurant workers during the initial phases of the pandemic shutdown.
Thomas said he co-hosted “one of the largest peaceful protests Paducah has ever seen” which inspired community unity against racial injustice. He said more than 500 people attended a protest which remained peaceful and he believes leaders should be able to set that example.
District 3 State House of Representative Candidates
In his opening statement, incumbent District 3 State Rep. Randy Bridges said his two primary goals have been to “defend our values and promote our economy.”
“As a freshman, I have been elevated to positions of leadership that many tenured legislators have not had the opportunity to do. And I want to continue to use that influence in Frankfort to promote our economy, to promote our families and to promote our attention to get us here to Kentucky.”
Bridges said as a candidate he brings experience as a businessman and leader. He said he’s served two terms as president of the Paducah Board of Realtors and just finished a term as president of the Paducah Rotary Club. He said those relationships formed through these experiences have given him “a foot up” in the legislature. Bridges said he served as the vice-chair of the Transportation committee and is co-chairing a special task force on property valuations.
“That is powerful and that gives me the skillset to continue,” Bridges said.
Democratic challenger Corbin Snardon said many people across the Commonwealth are suffering amidst these “unprecedented” times.
“It’s not hyperbole to say that we have some difficult times ahead. In my running and going for office, I believe it’s time for some new faces and new blood in Frankfort...Frankfort needs people who understand the common man and the Commonwealth and I’m about those things,” he said.
Snardon said he’s about supporting economic development, turning the state into an “economic powerhouse” and putting Paducah first.
Snardon said he’s a decorated educator and community advocate. He said he’s done a lot of work with the NAACP and served on various boards like the Maiden Alley Cinema Board of Directors. He said he’s in touch with the community beyond his inner circle and is “comfortable being uncomfortable.” He said he knows how to bring people together, rather than tear them apart and knows how to work towards a common goal in spite of frustrations. Snardon also said his conversations with Bridges have been very cordial and he means no disrespect when saying that he has “youth on my side, as well.”
What do you see as the solution for the state pension crisis?
Bridges said the pension crisis is a battle that’s been going on for several years.
“I think first and foremost, what we’ve done since the first day I stepped into office was to fund the pension. You know, make the required contributions and focus every extra dollar we can toward that and we’ve done that,” Bridges said. “But even with that, the required funding--it’s not significantly reducing the debt.”
Bridges said the state is still looking at a 30-40 year payout, which is “not acceptable.” He said the state is going to have to find a more balanced retirement plan for new hires. Bridges said this plan would have to be equal and comparable to that of other state employees. He said adding more people to an unsustainable system will only worsen the problem.
Snardon said he agrees the state has some “underfunded liabilities” and needs equitable pension plans. He said he believes the state should honor the agreement of an unviable contract and make sure pensions are fully funded.
“I would look forward to, in the legislature, making and restructuring different investertures and trying to see how we can get the best bang for our buck,” he said.
Snardon said he would also want to look at different retirement options and allow organizations to opt out and seek other opportunities.
What do you believe should be the top priority in the upcoming session?
Snardon said COVID-19 is currently at the top of everyone’s list for things to address. He mentioned COVID-19 relief for businesses and schools and said he knows personally as an educator the difficulty of making adjustments because of the pandemic.
“We’re all adjusting to a new normal, so I think the very first top priority that anything the state legislature has to look at is definitely how do we recover from COVID-19, whether that be in relief in the business sector, whether that in the education sector and as well as within the public sector, too,” Snardon said.
Bridges said the mandated priority for the legislature is the state budget. He said last year was a budget year and had a 90-day session.
“We cut back because we knew COVID was here. We had to make adjustments. We did a one-year budget. So the priority, number one, will be get us a budget in 30 days. It’s going to be very difficult. We can’t stray from that,” he said.
He said the second priority is looking at the effects coronavirus has on businesses. He said Kentucky is learning how to do business in new ways every day “not by choice, but by mandate.” Bridges said he thinks the legislature needs to examine those new ways to do business, look at what’s working and look at statutes to see if they need to change them to “continue the good things” that businesses are doing.
How would you reach across the aisle in bipartisanship to improve the Commonwealth?
Bridges said the legislature has already been practicing bipartisanship. He said Senate Bill 1, a joint effort between the state senate and house, was a bipartisan bill focused on school safety.
“Expungement bills for instance for felons. Expungement bills for those that’ve been charged with a crime that’s not a crime, and we’ve expunged those where it does not hang on to their employment records,” Bridges said. “We’ve passed bills that give time credit to inmates if they are working hard, they’re working on their GED, they’re working on ways to prepare themselves for workforce development afterwards, the harder they work, the less time they have to serve.”
Snardon said he’s not one for partisanship and thinks it gets in the way of the work that needs to be done in legislature. He said Governor Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Micheal Adams collaboration on voting is a great example of bipartisanship.
“But I also think that we need to make sure that we are seeing our legislators and seeing our candidates — Democrat and Republican — coming together, actually listening to their constituents, sitting down at the table and not making everything a red issue or a blue issue,” he said.
Snardon said he thinks more expanded efforts toward bipartisanship need to happen. He said he would certainly be willing to hold forums and town halls including members of both parties across the state “so that they can listen to the constituents and not just party politics.”
What are your thoughts on the emergency powers of the governor?
Snardon said while he thinks the governor has had to make some unique choices and hard decisions regarding pandemic and that emergency powers were needed to respond to this crisis, “emergency powers are for emergencies.”
“And when this crisis has subsided, they should be rescinded and we should go back to as much normalcy as we can,” he said.
Bridges said he gives credit to the governor because the pandemic is something the state has never anticipated, prepared for or faced. But he said the emergency executive powers were granted to the executive branch by legislators for short-term emergencies. Bridges said Kentucky is no longer in a short-term emergency.
“A red flag went up when it first happened that the governor told us, he said, ‘Y’all go home. Close up session. I’ll handle it.’ Now, I’m going to give him credit if it was a safety issue, a health concern, I understand that. But it could also, from a lot of people’s standpoint, it was a grasp for power. I don’t know. I’m not going to judge a man. But I do know it’s been several, several months.”
Bridges said Beshear should have called in the 138 legislators to help address the issue.
“Because a one-size fits all does not work and I feel like it's been a failure,” he said.
Do you support the state allowing a vote on a referendum on a local option sales tax?
Snardon said he supports allowing a referendum and believes cities need the ability to adjust to the needs of their community. He said allowing the referendum gives cities the opportunity and the leeway to make changes and adjustments for their own individual needs. He said he’s seen it work in other states and cities.
“Tennessee has a sales tax option where cities have the option to make a little bit of adjustment so they can earn additional revenue,” he said.
Snardon said he thinks a sales tax option would be beneficial for Paducah.
Bridges said he also supports allowing a referendum, just as long as the citizens of that municipality are allowed to vote on it.
“If they want to vote, raise their own taxes, I’m all for it,” he said.
He said it will be up to the local leadership to explain what the details are to make sure it’s fully thought out before actions are taken.
In what ways would you reform the tax code while balancing business growth and state revenue?
Bridges said the state needs to continue looking at ways to broaden and increase the sales tax while lowering the personal and corporate income tax. Bridges said it’s a long term approach that takes several years to adjust. He said the second way is to put in a “trigger mechanism” where each year as the state has overages of the budget, they take that surplus when it meets certain amounts and use it to lower personal and income taxes, rather than spending it.
He said states with lower tax rates have higher economic growth, which “equals additional state revenue.”
“So even though we’re doing revenue neutral, it’s still growing the revenues,” he said.
Snardon said the state needs to allow cities the freedom and ability to take more control over their taxes and levy their tax structures. He said the state tax system is “very antiquated” and has not been reformed to the degree that it can be the most effective for the state.
“But I definitely think adjusting the income tax, sales tax and being able to generate new revenue streams is going to be something going forward that needs to occur,” Snardon said.
How will you advocate for Paducah and West Kentucky particularly given that many of the issues facing the legislature are statewide?
Snardon said he’s running on the platform of putting Paducah first and his advocacy at the legislative level is going to include reaching across the table. He said he wants to make sure he makes those key partnerships at the legislative level so “west Kentucky is not left out.”
Bridges said he wants to continue what he’s done for the past two sessions, being involved in House standing committees that affect both the state and Paducah. He said he’s sat on the House standing committee of Education and the Budget Review Committee of Postsecondary Education as well as Workforce Development. He said he’s worked closely with West Kentucky Community Technical College and Murray State University. He also said he’s also worked with Big Rivers Electric Corp. and Tennessee Valley Authority to lower power rates.
“I can’t force businesses to come to Paducah but I can give our local authorities and community the tools to entice businesses to want to come to Paducah,and that’s what I have done and will continue to do.”
The full forum may be viewed here.