GLASGOW – Heather French Henry aims to put her background to work as the commonwealth's next secretary of state.
First, she has to win the Nov. 5 general election.
The Democrat and her Republican opponent, Michael G. Adams, each fended off three challengers in their respective primaries, but French Henry says she's “extremely well-qualified” to get the job done well.
She stopped by the Glasgow Daily Times on Wednesday afternoon, before heading to a fundraising stop in Cave City, for an interview she had requested.
One of the most common things she's asked about when talking with people around the commonwealth, she said, is the role of the secretary of state's office.
“First and foremost, I think people who have known my history of working for veterans should know that over the past 20 years, I've dedicated my life at the local, state and national level to advocate for our military heroes, and in 2014, I was called to lead the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, as commissioner of that department under Gov. [Steve] Beshear and then asked to stay on as deputy commissioner under Gov. [Matt] Bevin,” she said. “A lot of people may not know the depth and breadth of the services of the Department of Veterans Affairs, so I think it's very important for people to understand what my experience has been at the state level.”
She rattles off the numbers: more than 900 employees, four state veterans nursing homes, five state veterans cemeteries and 120 counties' worth of services for veterans through service representatives and other programs, and a budget of about $102 million.
“So when I talk about my experience in government, it's not only been in advocacy, but it has been in administrative responsibilities for a very large department, really one of the largest under the executive branch,” French Henry said. “I was a legislative analyst for the department under my leadership, so working across both aisles in a very bipartisan way to pass all of our legislative agenda.”
She also worked hand-in-hand with a budget analyst to oversee the fiscal aspects of the department, from which she had to resign to seek elected office.
French Henry said she has worked to get forward movement on a veterans nursing home for Bowling Green, and that process is underway, and she was also responsible for working in a bipartisan way to get grant funding for Kentucky's fifth veterans cemetery, a $6 million facility.
“Most people don't realize that a lot of state agencies do partnerships and cooperative efforts across the lines of their agencies,” she said. “There are three fundamental branches of the secretary of state's office. You have, of course, the elections, then you've got businesses, and then you've got the historical aspect of secretary of state's office.”
She said she's worked with the SoS office to get new polling places in the veterans nursing homes, which gave the residents better access to voting but also brought the community into the facilities. That office also administers the online portal for overseas veterans' voting.
“I'm very passionate about the integrity of our system. I want to make sure we're working with our county clerks, all 120 counties of them ...,” French Henry said.
She said her No. 1 priority as secretary of state-elect would be to attend the Kentucky County Clerk's Association meeting, ensue that some of those bridges are rebuilt and let them know she would be there to help them with what they need.
French Henry said that once voters have a better understanding of what the office does, the No. 1 concern they voice is election security. Improving cybersecurity and also ensuring the transition to paper-ballot voting gets completed before the 2020 presidential election is key, she said.
“Every government agency who handles sensitive information should be concerned about cybersecurity issues,” she said, citing some of the security breaches that have occurred with major companies. “You're always having to be on your guard.”
She said she would like to have a chief information security officer for the secretary of state's office and/or the Kentucky Board of Elections with the first and foremost responsibility of “making sure they're staying on top of the integrity of our infrastructure to make sure that information is safe and secure.”
French Henry said 250,000 businesses and organizations that file their organizational and/or financial documents there every year, and that's actually the largest part of it, with the most personnel and largest budget. She would like to streamline some of the processes for people starting businesses with new technology.
Another common project she worked on from the KDVA with the SoS office over a few legislative sessions was to get free filing fees for veteran-owned businesses for their first few years and to advocate through the Department of Finance, on establishing a service-disabled, veteran-owned business accreditation program.
The historical aspect of the SoS office includes its being the repository for all of Kentucky's original land grant records, and she said she would love to be able to partner with some organizations like DAR, Sons of the American Revolution and historical societies to find ways to better utilize the archives there. That could even possibly involve schools, she said, like other programs she's initiated.
“So it's possible in government to be able to utilize creative resources without really costing the state a dime in order to do so, and what that takes is just partnerships with community-based organizations,” French Henry said, “and I have years of experience of doing that.”
She said she would also love to be able to create more community partnerships for voter registration and other initiatives, and she has multiple ideas about that already that she shared.