Meet Russell Coleman, the former FBI agent who is Kentucky’s next attorney general

Attorney General-elect Russell Coleman, November 16, 2023.
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Russell Coleman wasted no time in making clear his desire to be Kentucky’s next top cop.

One day after Kentucky’s sitting attorney general, Daniel Cameron, announced in May 2022 he was running for governor instead of a second term as the commonwealth’s chief law enforcement officer, Coleman shared he was running to be Cameron’s successor.

Fast-forward 18 months, and Coleman, 47, won his race and will be sworn in as Kentucky’s 52nd attorney general Jan. 1.

Over the span of two decades, Coleman has worn different hats in the legal field and criminal justice system, including at the Department of Justice and FBI, as legal counsel to Sen. Mitch McConnell and as a U.S. Attorney.

Coleman traces his desire to work in law enforcement back to when he was a second-grade student in Daviess County.

“I came across these black and white books. Instead of reading the Berenstain Bears books, I looked at these black and white, beat up, pure J. Edgar Hoover propaganda,” he told the Herald-Leader.

“It was Tommy guns and fedoras, fast cars and tracer rounds being fired on the last page. And I knew when I looked at those books, I wanted to be an FBI agent.”

With time and maturity, Coleman said what continued to draw him in was the “mission of law enforcement, the mission of protecting.”

“I love that mission. And it’s not all that different than what parents do,” he said. “Ideally in law enforcement, you prevent harm. ... Everything I did professionally after that point was to someday be an FBI agent.”

After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Coleman worked at the U.S. Department of Justice for three years under attorneys general Janet Reno and John Ashcroft.

“But I realized even then, when I was interacting with smart lawyers that were arguing cases before the Supreme Court, were top-flight legal talent from Ivy League schools, I realized that the people that I identified with the most working at the Justice Department were FBI special agents,” Coleman said.

Coleman returned to UK to earn his law degree and went on to work briefly as a prosecutor in Garrard and Jessamine counties while waiting to be called up at Quantico.

For five years, Coleman lived out his dream of becoming an FBI agent, with assignments in Indiana, Washington, D.C., and Iraq.

“Probably the most rewarding experience I had my entire time as an agent was serving in Iraq for a number of months with the special operations community, the U.S. military,” Coleman said. “We were working cases looking for terrorism there in Iraq, trying to preclude acts of terrorism here by working cases there along with the U.S. military.

“I loved the work, loved being an agent.”

But a spinal cord condition — called transverse myelitis — paralyzed Coleman.

“I went from being a 32-year-old active runner on the National Mall to being a complete paraplegic in a few days,” he said. “We moved home. We had a young child then. We didn’t know how I was going to be a dad, didn’t know how I was going to be a husband and certainly didn’t know how I was going to be an FBI agent.”

The FBI relocated Coleman and his family to Louisville because of the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute, where he would eventually learn how to walk again, though he remains without feeling in one leg.

From there, Coleman would work as McConnell’s legal counsel for five years, and then two years as a partner at the law firm Frost Brown Todd.

After Donald Trump’s election, Coleman was called on to be the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, a role he held until the end of the Trump administration in January 2021.

“(That was) being as close to law enforcement as I could be with with a leg that doesn’t work, being able to lead from the podium, being able to lead from the end of the conference room table, not necessarily wearing the badge and a gun and going through the door,” Coleman said.

“This is my opportunity to get back to law enforcement.”