The two men vying to represent Lexington’s First Council District in a special election on Nov. 3 agree the city’s minimum wage should be raised, more needs to be done to address affordable housing and speeding in the district is a big problem.
But James Brown, who was appointed to represent the First District in April, says he’s the better candidate because of his long-time ties to the district and leadership as past president of the 16th District PTA and the Radcliffe-Marlboro neighborhood association.
“I have already established relationships at the city-level and at the school district level,” Brown said. “I think I’m an open-minded person who is willing to listen to anyone. I have no problem throwing an idea into the trash if someone has a better idea. I think I’m also approachable.”
Jim Burton, an independent insurance adjustor and first-time candidate, counters he will be a tireless advocate for the people and the needs of the First District, which he says has long been neglected.
“I will push and push hard for everybody in this district,” Burton said. “I’m tired as a citizen of asking for help and not getting it.”
The special election in the First District is the only council election on the ballot Tuesday. Brown was appointed to the seat by Mayor Jim Gray after former council member Chris Ford opted to take a position in the city’s administration.
The First District includes a large portion of downtown and the northeast end, running roughly from Midland Avenue, Second and Georgetown streets to New Circle Road and out Russell Cave Road beyond Man o’ War.
The race was quiet until Thursday when a First District resident filed a lawsuit challenging Brown’s candidacy. The lawsuit alleges Brown did not have the required 100 signatures from First District residents needed to run for office. Brown has denied the allegations. Don Todd, a lawyer for Brown, has dismissed the lawsuit as a political stunt designed to distract voters and discredit Brown shortly before the Tuesday election.
Council district races are nonpartisan. Both Brown and Burton are registered Democrats but Burton switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in April, according to county voter registration records.
Brown, 39, has raised nearly twice as much money as Burton. Brown raised $13,901 this election cycle, according to financial records filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. An Oct. 19 campaign finance report showed Brown with a little more than $7,900 cash-on-hand heading into the election. Burton has raised $6,557 and has $3,324 cash-on-hand as of Oct. 19.
Burton, 35, a Mount Sterling native and Transylvania University graduate, returned to Lexington in 2006 to start an independent insurance adjustment business. He has lived in the district since 2010.
Burton said he would often call city hall to report problems in his neighborhood – derelict buildings that needed to be addressed, prostitutes using the alley behind his house and other crimes. Those issues were never addressed, Burton said.
As an example, Martin Luther King Boulevard — where he lives — has been torn up multiple times for utility work. It still hasn’t been repaired, Burton said.
“If it was a street in Hart-land, that would have never had happened,” Burton said. “There hasn’t been equal representation for the First District.”
Burton said he would like to see the city commit a steady stream of funding to a newly created affordable housing fund. He would also like to increase the number of police officers so they have more time to get to know the neighborhoods they patrol. Burton said he would also like to see the city work with LexTran to ensure the city’s poorer residents have access to transportation they need to get to work.
Both Burton and Brown say they support a recent proposal to decrease speed limits on city-controlled streets downtown from 35 to 25 miles per hour.
“Speeding and safety is one of the top issues in the district,” Brown said.
Brown recently voted in favor of a proposal that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over the next three years. Burton said he, too, supports increasing the wage floor but says the minimum wage should be higher – $11.10 an hour.
Brown, a Realtor and longtime Lexington resident, said he has already made a difference in the First District in his first six months on the job. This year, Brown secured additional funding to hire 75 more youth workers through the city’s Partners for Youth Program. He also got money for much-needed repairs to the historic Morton House in Duncan Park.
Brown also created a centennial celebration committee for Duncan Park. The park has been the site of a lot of violence, most recently a fatal shooting during the annual Dirt Bowl tournament this summer.
“The centennial commission is not just about increasing safety at Duncan Park, it’s about re-instilling some pride into the neighborhood,” Brown said.
Both men say increasing affordable housing is key in the First District.
“I think if you have affordable housing, you can address a lot of societal problems,” Brown said. For example, kids in safe, stable homes do better at school, Brown said. Burton agrees.
Burton said he would like to see more done to address felon re-entry in Fayette County. A bill that would restore voting rights for felons has repeatedly stalled at the state legislature. Burton said the county needs to address the issue and develop programs that will put felons into trades.
“There were so many people who said they could not sign my petition (for candidacy) because they were convicted felons,” Burton said. “We are setting these people up to fail if we don’t provide some type of training for them.”
Brown said the city needs to do a better job connecting job seekers with existing job training programs at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and the Building Institute of Central Kentucky, which trains students in trades such as HVAC, plumbing and electrical training. “We need to maximize the opportunities that we already have,” Brown said.