For months, the “will he, won’t he” whispers have built around Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and whether he will run for U.S. Rep. Andy Barr’s seat in Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District.
Gray remained noncommittal about his political future Thursday, but his silence shouldn’t be mistaken as disinterest in the congressional race, said Dale Emmons, a longtime campaign manager in Kentucky and the father of Gray’s chief of staff, Jamie Emmons.
“I think a lot of people think he’s not running because he hasn’t made any public statements on it,” Emmons said. “And that’s a mistake.”
Emmons said several people are encouraging Gray to run. That includes Kentucky’s only Democratic congressman, John Yarmuth of Louisville.
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“I’ve had several conversations with him,” Yarmuth said. “He’s definitely considering it and I’m encouraging him to run.”
Gray, though, continues to offer coy answers when asked if he will seek a third and final term as mayor of Kentucky’s second-largest city next year or seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Barr, R-Lexington.
“I have had several people offer encouragement about getting into a race; a race for mayor and a race for Congress,” Gray said Thursday. “When I am prepared to make an announcement, I will let you know.”
State law prevents Gray from seeking both offices simultaneously.
Gray made history in 2016 as the first openly gay candidate to run for statewide office when he challenged U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, but it cost him $2.5 million of his own money over the course of the campaign.
Gray claimed about 51 percent of the vote in the 6th District in that race, and the current political environment appears more friendly to Democrats.
Gray, who ran Gray Construction before turning to politics, has spent most of his adult life in executive roles, creating the question of whether he would enjoy being one of the masses in Congress.
“I think he certainly understands that there’s a huge difference in the role,” Yarmuth said.
Yarmuth said he encouraged Gray to speak with other mayors who have become congressmen to get a feel for how they made the transition.
Emmons said one reason Gray has delayed deciding his political future is because he didn’t want any distractions while handling the controversy over Lexington’s Confederate statues.
The statues of John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan were removed overnight in mid-October from the lawn of the former Fayette County Courthouse. They remain in storage while the city and the Lexington Cemetery finalize details of an agreement to move them to the cemetery, where both men are buried.
With that contentious issue mostly settled, Gray is free to give serious consideration to a campaign, Emmons said.
If Gray doesn’t seek a third term as mayor, it would leave the race to lead Lexington wide open and possibly shake up down-ticket council races. Gray trounced challenger Anthany Beatty in the 2014 race, receiving 65 percent of the vote as he became the first mayor in 16 years to win two terms.
Former Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, the city’s longest-serving council member, said Gray has successfully reformed the police and fire pension system and the city employee health plan, and pushed key building projects, such as the overhaul and renovation of the long-shuttered former Fayette County courthouse.
“I think a lot of people would vote for him for a third term and I know a lot of people have encouraged him to run for a third term,” Gorton said. “He would be very difficult to beat.”
Gorton said many potential candidates for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council are waiting to see what Gray does before committing to their own races.
“There are typically a lot of candidates in the at-large council race,” Gorton said. “If he doesn’t run, one of those candidates may decide to run for mayor.”
The top vote-getter in the at-large race, which is a citywide contest, is the vice mayor. The second- and third-place finishers serve as at-large members.
If Gray enters the congressional race he’ll face an increasingly crowded primary field that includes state Sen. Reggie Thomas, retired Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath and perennial candidate Geoff Young.
Gray would be pulling from a similar donor base as Thomas, who declared his candidacy in July.
“Mayor Gray would obviously be a formidable opponent, but if he were to choose to enter the race, it wouldn’t change our strategy,” said Leo Haggerty, Thomas’ campaign manager. “We are focused on building a strong grassroots movement and a sustainable, Kentucky-based fundraising operation that will beat Andy Barr next November.”
McGrath’s campaign, on the other hand, has received national attention since she announced in August. A former fighter pilot, her announcement video was covered by national media outlets, which helped her scoop up donations from Hollywood stars such as Rosie O’Donnell.
“We think the voters will be more interested in Amy McGrath’s first campaign than Jim Gray’s 6th campaign,” said Mark Nickolas, the campaign manager for McGrath.
Barr’s spokesman, Rick VanMeter, said Barr is more concerned with tax reform than whether Gray will run for office.
“Congressman Barr is not focused on the Democrats’ intra-party fight,” VanMeter said. “Instead, he is focused on passing a big tax cut for middle class Kentucky families, and simplifying the code so that nine out of 10 Kentuckians will be able to file their taxes on a postcard. There will be a time in the future for politics, but now is the time to do the work of the American people.”
Gray has until the Jan. 30 filing deadline to decide if he will run.