Gray has the edge on two Lexington mayoral candidates, political science professor says

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comMay 17, 2014 

If you have a deep need to be loved, don't run for mayor, Jim Gray frequently jokes.

Yet, the 60-year-old first-term mayor says he loves his job and wants to keep it.

"I enjoy problem-solving," Gray said. "I love complex, challenging issues that involve different points of view.

Gray has touted his problem-solving acumen and ability to get things done in campaign ads and in stump speeches in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's primary against challengers Anthany Beatty, a former Lexington police chief, and Danny Mayer, a college professor.

Don Dugi, a professor of political science at Transylvania University, said Gray has the clear advantage heading into the three-way race and is certain to advance on Tuesday.

"Incumbents historically have an advantage over challengers," Dugi said. "There were no major catastrophes during the Gray administration, there was no Watergate."

The top two vote getters in the primary will move on to the general election in November.

The former CEO of Gray Construction has the edge in both campaign cash and name recognition against two candidates who are both political newbies. Campaign finance reports show Gray has raised $394,323 total and had $100,909 cash on hand, according to his May campaign finance report. Gray loaned the campaign $10,000.

Gray, who served as vice mayor before beating incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry in 2010, has also run for office several times. His name recognition is high, Dugi said.

Beatty raised more than $141,687, of which $60,000 was a loan to his own campaign, according to reports with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. Mayer has raised less than $2,000 and is focusing on door-to-door campaigning and his online presence.

The primary campaign has largely focused on Gray and his first term.

No independent polls have been conducted in the three-way race. But a poll commissioned by the city administration in 2011 showed that Gray's approval rating was north of 75 percent.

Gray attributes those high marks to key changes he made early in his tenure to address the city's dwindling revenues during a revenue-crushing recession. He made changes to the city employee health insurance plans to control spiraling costs. The health insurance overhaul dramatically increased costs to city employees, including police and fire, and sparked a demonstration in front of city hall led by firefighters.

But a report presented to the Urban County Council this month showed that those changes saved the city $24 million over the past two years. Health outcomes for city employees have also improved, the report showed.

Gray and police and firefighters also inked a deal to make changes to the police and firemen's pension, which had an unfunded liability of nearly $300 million in 2012. An actuarial analysis released in November reported that the total unfunded liability is now $204 million.

"Past performance is the best indicator of future performance," Gray said of the reasons why voters should back him in May.

Renovating Rupp

During three mayoral forums, neither Beatty nor Mayer has attacked Gray about the changes he implemented to correct the city's finances.

Instead, Gray has spent much of the primary defending his plans to revamp Rupp Arena and an attached convention center The total project will cost $351 million and will require $40 million in city bonds.

Beatty, 62, who served as police chief for six years before retiring in 2007 to take a position as an assistant vice president at the University of Kentucky, said he is not opposed to a new arena but questions whether public money would be better spent elsewhere. Beatty, who was at his campaign headquarters off Nicholasville Road, clarified that he was "not speaking in any official capacity for UK."

"I don't oppose a renovated Rupp Arena. I oppose the amount of public funding ... the tax dollars that will be spent on the project and the debt service that will be placed on our community in the aftermath."

Mayer, who teaches English at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, has been a critic of the project since it was proposed more than three years ago.

"Economically it's a bad deal," Mayer said. "That has been demonstrated by the number of arena projects nationally that are costing their cities a lot of money."

Aesthetically it also doesn't make sense, because it's out of scale with the rest of the city, he said.

"We have a small, narrow downtown," Mayer said. "By reinforcing the Rupp Arena and the convention center, we are creating a large blockage in downtown."

Rupp will also cost a lot of money and will eat up about $2 million each year in projected debt payments that could take away from much smaller and more-deserving projects, he said.

Dugi said he's not convinced that attacking the Rupp project will translate to more votes on Tuesday.

"I don't know how much traction that is going to get," Dugi said. "Anything that has to do with UK basketball is pretty sacrosanct in this community."

Gray has defended the project, calling it a "game-changer" that will create thousands of jobs, transform downtown and will keep Rupp Arena and the convention center competitive. A thriving downtown is key to attracting companies with high-paying jobs, Gray said.

Beatty and Gray have also sparred over public safety. Beatty, who spent more than three decades as a Lexington police officer, says a healthy community has to be a safe community.

"Perception is reality," Beatty said. "If you don't feel that it is a safe community, then it's not."

There are fewer police officers now than there were when he left in 2007, he said. That means police officers can't spend time in high-crime neighborhoods. They answer calls and then leave, he said.

"There is no presence of police to detract," Beatty said. "That's something that's got to change."

Gray did not lay off police or firefighters during his past three years in office. The city has had classes to replace officers who leave, but the city has not been able to hire many additional police officers during the past three years due to lean budgets.

That will change with the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"I have included money in my budget for 15 additional police officers," Gray said.

City numbers show that major crimes have actually decreased by 7.8 percent from 2012 to 2013, Gray said.

Establishing recognition

In stump speeches and in advertisements, Beatty also focuses on his deep roots in Lexington. Beatty grew up in the Bluegrass-Aspendale neighborhood, and he and his wife, Eunice, a retired early childhood education professor, have served on dozens of city and community boards and are well-known in Lexington.

Gray is originally from Glasgow.

Mayer was born in New Jersey, went to high school in Alabama, attended college in Georgia and came to Lexington in 2000 to pursue a doctorate in English at the University of Kentucky.

Beatty is the first black to run for mayor and became the city's first black police chief in 2001. He pledges to be inclusive and frequently says he will make sure "all voices are heard."

Beatty's message of inclusiveness will help, Dugi said.

"Beatty has some name recognition because he was a police chief and he's an African-American — in an age of diversity and inclusion, that does help him," he said.

Mayer often calls himself the "other, other" candidate and dresses the part. While Gray and Beatty favor dark suits and ties for forums, the married father of a 3-year-old wears tan pants, short-sleeve button down shirts and no tie. He travels without handlers and paid campaign staff.

Mayer has been teaching at BCTC since 2007.

It was an impulsive decision to get in the race, Mayer said. He has loaned the campaign about $1,300 and has not spent much time raising money.

"I'm learning a lot," Mayer said recently in an interview on the BCTC campus on Newtown Pike. "I should have bought some yard signs."

Mayer ran a community newspaper, North of Center, from 2009 to 2013. But he has no radio or television ads. His name recognition is low, Dugi said.

"Mayer is running an outsider campaign," Dugi said. "It's not that he doesn't have merit," but he's just not that well-known, he said.

Years spent in front of college students have made Mayer a savvy stump speaker. At a forum Tuesday night at the First African Baptist Church, Mayer's replies often drew the loudest applause from the mostly black audience.

While Beatty has given few specifics on issues he would like to address in the next four years, Mayer has a 10-point platform that outlines ideas such as legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage and improving the city's food economy.

Although Mayer says he supports legalizing marijuana, it is not his sole reason for running for public office.

"I'm not Gatewood Galbraith," Mayer said, referring to the late perennial candidate who became famous for his stance on legalizing marijuana.

He's an avid paddler and hiker and wants the city to implement a greenways plan that better connects the county's green spaces and its farmland to its urban core. Lextran should be expanded and improved, he says.

If he doesn't make it past Tuesday, Mayer said he hasn't decided if he will run again, perhaps for a different office.

Many attendees at the three mayor forums have asked Mayer to continue with politics regardless of what happens Tuesday.

"I look at this election as really a test case on whether I want to continue on with engaging in my community in this way," he said. "I am waiting to see how the community receives me to see if it's valuable enough for me to continue."

Beth Musgrave: (859)231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall

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