After months of will-he, won’t-he whispering among Kentucky Democrats, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray made it official early Tuesday: He’s running for Congress.
“We need to bring people together; we need to reach across partisan lines,” Gray said as he launched his campaign in Berea. “This is why I’m running for Congress. Lexington, fortunately, is on the right path. Our country is not. And this is the time for citizens, for leaders to step up.”
Gray enters the race as the presumed favorite in a Democratic field that includes former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath, state Sen. Reggie Thomas and perennial candidate Geoff Young.
The winner of the May primary will take on U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican in his third term in Congress.
“All of the Democrat candidates running in this race support the extreme liberal Obama-Clinton-Pelosi agenda of more taxes, more regulations, and more government control, which has been repeatedly and overwhelmingly rejected by voters of the 6th Congressional District,” said Rick VanMeter, a spokesman for Barr. “Congressman Barr is not focused on the growing divisions and dysfunction within the Democratic party.”
After taking a brief tour of the temporary city hall in Berea, Gray told reporters that his experience in the public sector as mayor and his experience in the private sector running his family’s company, Gray Construction, would help him address pressing national issues, including health care, the rising cost of education and stagnant wages.
“Those voices from the front lines, there are not enough of them,” Gray said. “There are not enough people with mayor’s experience in Washington. I did my due diligence. I talked to those people who were mayors. And I know from hearing from them, congressmen today, that they feel that they are getting things done.”
Gray’s decision means he won’t seek a third term as mayor of Lexington next year, throwing open the race to lead Kentucky’s second-largest city.
As the first openly gay candidate to run for statewide office in Kentucky, Gray won about 51 percent of the vote in Central Kentucky’s 6th District during his failed 2016 bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. President Donald Trump won the district by 15 points.
National and state Republican officials wasted little time launching attacks against Gray, signaling how seriously they take his candidacy.
“If Jim Gray spent half the time doing his job as mayor that he’s spent thinking about what office he can run for next Lexington would be in much better shape,” said Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky. “Instead, it’s seen a rapid rise in murder rates and has been needlessly divided over social issues. Jim Gray’s track record as mayor is one of big promises left unfulfilled because he’s too focused on climbing the political ladder.”
When asked why he’s entering the race four months after the last candidate announced, Gray said he has been busy taking care of pressing issues in Lexington, including the controversial decision to move two Confederate statues from the Old Fayette Courthouse lawn to Lexington Cemetery. The removal of Confederate statues has been a topic for campaigns around the country, including the race for governor of Virginia, where violence at a white supremacist rally this summer prompted Gray to quickly call for moving Lexington’s statues.
Gray said he thought the process Lexington used to remove the statues will show voters his ability to compromise.
“Clearly it was the right thing to do,” Gray said. “We’ve done it in a way that was unique in the country. We were the first city in the country to actually find a resting place for these confederate memorials.”
Gray has the ability to self-finance a campaign, having spent $2.5 million of his own money over the course of his Senate campaign, but he’s playing catch-up.
“We need to rebuild the Democratic Party and make sure it stands for people from every walk of life, no matter where you live in Kentucky,” McGrath said after Gray’s announcement. “I may not be a big city mayor, but I know we need someone who will fight for people in every city, town and county in this district. That’s the kind of campaign I’m running and that’s the kind of representative I’ll be.”
In a Nov. 21 Facebook post, McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, criticized Gray for the rising crime rate in Lexington, something Gray attributed to the national opioid epidemic.
“I have experience dealing with these issues on the ground,” Gray said. “Firsthand experience. I’ve visited victims. I know how challenging it is for our cities. We’re not getting help from the federal government.”
Thomas, who campaigned for Gray when he ran for U.S. Senate, will remain in the race, said Leo Haggarty, the campaign manager for Thomas.
“We believe a competitive primary is good for the party and will make Reggie a stronger candidate when he faces Andy Barr next November,” Haggarty said. “We have spent the last six months building a Kentucky-based grass-roots movement that we believe will position Reggie as the strongest candidate to beat Andy Barr.”
Gray’s announcement kicked off a tour of all 19 counties in the district over the course of the week.
“I’ve talked to many people in this district. Many of them are mad as hell, many of them are scared as hell,” Gray said Tuesday morning. “That’s why I’m making this race.”