Lexington to become third-largest U.S. city with an openly-gay mayor

Sexual orientation was never an issue during campaign

amead@herald-leader.comNovember 7, 2010 

The Washington Post carried a story about Jim Gray's victory in Tuesday's mayoral race. So did the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers.

Rachel Maddow mentioned it on her MSNBC program. It was noted by blogger and television personality Perez Hilton, and by numerous Web sites, including the liberal Daily Kos.

Lexington has been choosing mayors since 1832, when Charlton Hunt got the nod. But it is unlikely he or any of the 52 who followed have gotten the nationwide media attention being heaped on Gray.

The reason: Gray, 57, a construction company executive and the city's current vice mayor, is gay, and has publicly acknowledged his sexual orientation.

For the most part, it was not an issue in the heated race that saw Gray defeat incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry.

"Even though there was a lot of negative campaigning, it was more about policy than personal. ... There wasn't anything about lifestyle," said Don Dugi, a Transylvania University political scientist.

When Gray takes office in January, Lexington will become the third-largest American city with an openly gay mayor, behind Houston and Portland, Ore. He is the only such mayor in Kentucky, said Jody Cofer, a board member for the Kentucky Fairness Alliance.

Gray, for his part, said his sexual orientation will not affect how he runs the city.

"The election was about competence and business experience and pocketbook issues," he said. "I think the larger message in an economic sense is that Lexington is an open, welcoming and inclusive place. That's what encourages economic growth and prosperity."

Newberry declined to comment for this article.

In the last few days of the campaign, Gray's sexual orientation got bandied about on talk radio. The conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky ran an article on its Web site about a Colorado gay activist who contributed to Gray's campaign.

"Political observers question how much other money will follow and what the ultimate impact may be," the article said.

But Martin Cothran, a senior policy analyst for the group, said the election indicates that social conservatives are more concerned with issues, such as the economy, than people's personal lives.

"I think that a lot of gay-rights groups portray social conservatives as bigots when in fact they're simply voting on what they consider important public policy issues," Cothran said. "This election is proof of that."

However, if the election had involved gay-rights issues, Cothran said, "I think the result could have been different."

Another social conservative, Jeff Fugate, the pastor of Clay's Mill Baptist Church, said he never heard the sexual orientation issue come up in the mayor's race.

"In years past, it would have been a hot button, but this year, social issues are probably not as important as the economy and others," he said.

There also is a question about how many people who pushed the button for Gray knew that he is gay.

When he decided to be open about his sexuality, in October 2005, there was a front-page article about it in the Herald-Leader. It has been mentioned in a dozen articles since then.

But Dugi, the political scientist, said a student in one of his classes was surprised to read the morning after the election that Gray is gay. He thinks her surprise might have been shared by "a fair number" of voters.

"People who pay attention knew," he said. "People who pay only modest attention may not have known."

Craig Cammack, board chairman of Lexington Fairness, which works for equal rights, acceptance, and fairness for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, said his group doesn't take sides in political campaigns, but "we're always glad to hear about elected officials who are accepting of (our) issues."

Cammack thinks it says something important about Lexington that sexual orientation wasn't part of the debate.

"Mayor (Jim) Newberry didn't bring it up, which was awesome, and Jim Gray didn't bring it up," he said. "You shouldn't vote for someone based on their sexuality. Hopefully you choose your public officials based on the issues."

Because Lexington has since 1999 had a "fairness" ordinance that protects gays against discrimination, the group doesn't have a pressing issue that the mayor or local government needs to address, Cammack said. The group's concerns are instead centered around societal issues, such as student bullying.

(Only two other Kentucky cities have ordinances that protect gays, Cammack said. The other two are Louisville and Covington.)

"What we hope Jim will focus on are those issues he talked about during the campaign," Cammack said.

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based group that endorses and supports openly gay candidates, had named Lexington's contest among the "Ten Races to Watch" across the country.

Denis Dison, vice-president of the Victory Fund, compared Gray to Annise Parker, another openly gay candidate whose election as mayor of Houston, Texas, in 2009 surprised many people.

"But she was very pro-business and pro-development," Dison said. "A lot of people would think of gay candidates as being left of center and that's not always the case. In Gray's case he's a businessman and he runs a large and successful company, and that would give business leaders more comfort."

Unlike the Lexington mayor's race, Parker's campaign was marked by anti-gay fliers around Houston.

"The fact that did not materialize in Lexington is a real credit to Mayor Newberry and to the community at large," Dison said.

The Victory Fund endorsed 164 openly gay candidates in Tuesday's election, and a record 106 of them were elected.

Dison said about 30 cities across the country, most of them small, have openly gay mayors.

The Kentucky Fairness Alliance knows of eight openly gay elected officials across the state, Cofer said, including three in Lexington.

In addition to Gray, they are Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone, who came out in 2003, when he was a state senator, and Urban County Councilwoman Diane Lawless.

Several of the Web sites reporting on Gray's victory called it surprising. One, the Metro Weekly in Washington, D.C., placed Lexington "in the middle of a state that has gone deeply, unshakable red."

But Lexington has long been considered to be accepting of different lifestyles and has drawn gays from rural parts of the state.

The Census Bureau found in 2000, for example, that Lexington led Kentucky in its concentration of households headed by same-sex partners. On a national level, Fayette ranked 153rd out of 3,141 counties.

"People tend to be a little more tolerant in Lexington," Dugi said. "Now, does that mean that Lexington is a poster child for the gay lifestyle? No, I don't think that's true at all. I think it's just being a little more respectful and tolerant."

Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3319.

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