December 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm EDT | by David Placher
Lexington’s gay mayor prepares to take office

Jim Gray, mayor elect of Lexington, Ky. (Photo courtesy of Gray's campaign office)

On Nov. 2, a political earthquake rumbled the heart of Kentucky, when pro-business candidate Jim Gray, who is gay, won the race for mayor of Lexington, a city of about 300,000.

Since his victory, Mayor-elect Gray has been preparing to hit the ground running when he is inaugurated on Jan. 2. His jam-packed pre-inauguration schedule included an interview with the New York Times and a meeting with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I am impressed with Mayor Bloomberg’s philosophy — basically, get it together, work together,” Gray said during an interview with the Blade.

Gray said he shares several political convictions with Bloomberg and cites, “creating jobs, managing efficiently and building great cities.”

“Whether it is New York City, Lexington or Boise, all have the same economic concerns,” Gray said. “What I also share with Mayor Bloomberg is a belief that private sector experience translates into the role of being mayor. Management skill sets acquired in the private sector can be applied to the public sector.”

Lexington residents voted out incumbent Jim Newberry for Gray, a 57-year-old millionaire who made his fortune with Gray Construction, a family-owned business he and his brothers inherited from their father and built into a behemoth that builds large industrial facilities for manufacturers. Newberry, a 54-year-old lawyer, cited Gray’s resources as a factor in the election.

“I don’t mind telling you that this has been a very difficult election season, and it has saddened me to be accused of so many things that were very much out of touch with reality,” Newberry told the Lexington Herald-Leader, a Kentucky newspaper, shortly after his defeat. “But at the end of the day we just did not have the necessary funding to compete with the overwhelming resources of the opposing side. That having been said, I have no regrets.”

The paper said the race was the most expensive race in the city’s history with more than $2 million raised and spent. Gray lent $480,000 to his campaign, which the Herald-Leader reported stood at about $1.2 million citing campaign finance reports. Newberry reported $1,050,000 for the same period the paper said. Gray plans to leave the company’s leadership to one of his brothers as he did during the campaign.

Gray is the first businessman elected to the city’s top post since the city and county merged governments in 1974. Gray is one of only a handful of openly gay big-city mayors in the country. He’ll be mayor of the third-largest gay-helmed city after Houston (Mayor Annise Parker) and Portland (Mayor Sam Adams). Gray came out in 2005 but has said little about his personal life since then preferring to focus on political issues. Newberry did not bring up Gray’s sexual orientation during the race, unlike Parker’s campaign, which found anti-gay fliers being circulated in Houston. Gray wasn’t out when he launched an unsuccessful run for the mayoral job in 2002.

Gray, wanting to focus on jobs, realizes that downtown Lexington can play a major role in helping boost economic development.

“Young people and others alike want to be in a dynamic urban environment where there’s a lot of kinetic energy and vitality,” he said. “It provides the framework for better jobs. Downtowns and suburban centers can both provide that dynamic.

“We can attract great businesses here. With the University of Kentucky, Transylvania University, and our community colleges, all these educational institutions attract employers because we have a skilled and educated work force. Great quality of life here.”

The continued development of downtown, however, is not without problems. Transportation issues are an ongoing challenge.

“I know we have traffic jams, it’s a way of life, but we avoided an interstate that clear cut our downtown and wonderful 19th century neighborhoods,” Gray said. “That’s a bonus to our quality of life.”

Gray is a staunch advocate for preserving the historic feel of the city, while balancing new development.

“It’s all about authenticity, uniqueness, brand differentiation. We got it all here,” he said. When asked what changes he will implement upon taking office, Gray seemed to have the answers stamped in his mind.

“Encourage transparency, which translates into good management and problem solving. Embrace the spirit of open and honest communication. I share Jack Welch’s [former C.E.O. of General Electric] philosophy, that good business practices include transparency and brand differentiation.”
The odds of a gay candidate winning a high-profile race in a state that overwhelmingly elects conservative Republicans might appear slim. But Gray believes that “elections are about competency and experience, and not about other factors.”

When asked if being gay hindered his ability to reach out to certain voters, Gray, the city’s current vice-mayor, firmly said, “No. I was elected because of my experience.”

”I had hundreds of dedicated volunteers, going door to door, a great campaign manager, Jamie Emmons, who will now be my chief of staff, and many supporters writing checks,” Gray said. “As with most campaigns, stressful days and worrisome nights seem to eventually wear on all candidates, no matter how thick their skin. Politics is war without weapons, but democracy is an extraordinary system, and I was fortunate to participate in it. I kept reminding myself of that.”

Gray’s timing for running for mayor in Lexington coincided with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal debate but Gray said he’s focusing on local issues instead of lobbying his state’s two conservative senators, both of whom oppose repeal of the anti-gay policy.

“I haven’t thought about lobbying them,” he said. “Certainly repeal has positive momentum going forward. But I try to focus on local issues and avoid going outside the limits of my authority and jurisdiction.”

There was no congratulatory call from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, but someone from his staff called Gray on McConnell’s behalf. There was no call from Senator-elect Rand Paul, either, but Gray said he doesn’t feel slighted.

“He’s a busy guy today,” Gray said.

As for other gay and lesbian political aspirants, Gray says take the plunge.

“If your heart is in it, go for it,” he said.

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