Tom Eblen: Mayor's upbeat speech was also re-election pitch

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 21, 2014 

It was cloudy and snowing outside, but Mayor Jim Gray was all sunshine and warmth Tuesday as he gave his annual State of the City speech.

One reason for Gray's relentlessly upbeat talk is that Lexington is in better shape than most cities, as he pointed out several times. A lot of good things are happening here, and Gray and his administration can take at least some of the credit.

Another reason for the sunny report is that Gray is running for a second four-year term in November. This speech before an annual luncheon sponsored by the Lexington Forum was all about making the case for re-election.

With the Jan. 28 filing deadline only a week away, Gray has no opponent. That hasn't happened for almost 30 years, so somebody is likely to challenge him. But it may not be much of a contest.

Gray is popular and personable. His administration has significant accomplishments, many good things in the works and no major vulnerabilities so far. Plus, Gray's re-election fund already has $180,000 in the bank.

With former Vice Mayor Mike Scanlon's announcement last week that he won't run, the only potential opponent of significance would seem to be Anthany Beatty, who was Lexington's first black police chief and is now assistant vice president for campus services at the University of Kentucky.

Beatty is well-known, well-liked and was an effective police chief. But his candidacy for mayor could be a long shot. Beatty said Tuesday that he will make a decision by this weekend.

There also has been speculation that Beatty might run for an at-large seat on the Urban County Council. But Beatty said he has no plans to run for council.

Even if Beatty doesn't run, Gray is likely to get at least token opposition. Running for mayor is always a good way for people to attract attention to specific issues — or themselves. It can be good for civic dialogue, or at least entertaining.

Still, Gray wasn't taking any chances Tuesday. The closest thing to a controversial issue he mentioned was to urge support for state legislation allowing voters in Kentucky cities to authorize a time-limited, 1 cent sales tax increase for specific construction projects.

Any proposal for higher taxes is controversial among some tax-averse voters, but this one is a no-brainer. Local voters should have the right to approve higher taxes for a purpose they value without being micro-managed by Frankfort.

Most of Gray's speech was a laundry list of accomplishments, good rankings on national lists and feel-good optimism about Lexington. He put his accomplishments in the context of his three goals as mayor, which were posted on banners behind him: create jobs, run government efficiently and build a great American city.

"I am proud to report that the state of our city is strong and getting even stronger," Gray said. "Lexington is today a beacon for other cities."

Borrowing a device recent presidents have used in their State of the Union speeches, Gray recognized several do-gooders in the audiences, as well as two women who wrote public love notes to Lexington, one a letter to the editor in the Herald-Leader and the other a Huffington Post blog essay.

Gray also went out of his way, as he often does, to recognize and praise council members. Unlike some previous mayors, Gray has realized he can be more effective if he tries to get along with council members.

(The day before, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Unity Breakfast, Gray realized he had forgotten to recognize several council members in the audience. So he passed a note to the Lafayette High School student who was acting as emcee and asked him to do it for him.)

Gray made a point of recognizing Emma Tibbs, the influential leader of the Fayette County Neighborhood Council, whose litigation forced the city to agree to fix persistent waste-water problems. And he praised public safety employees, many of whom have been unhappy with pension reforms and other city cost-cutting efforts.

The mayor did his best to leave the Lexington Forum crowd upbeat about the state of the city, no doubt hoping the feeling will last until at least November.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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