FRANKFORT — Ralph Alvarado, a Republican candidate challenging state Senate Minority Floor Leader R.J. Palmer, is calling on Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to apologize for touting Palmer last Friday during a Latino festival that was paid for in part with taxpayers' dollars.
"Mayor Gray owes me and the entire Latino community an apology," Alvarado said. "It was an insult. For someone like him who claims to be inclusive, he was not."
Alvarado, who is trying to become the first Latino elected to the Kentucky General Assembly, said he was "surprised and disappointed" when he heard Gray at Friday night's opening ceremony of the Festival Latino de Lexington held at the Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza.
Alvarado, a Winchester doctor, said he was in the audience at the ceremony with his wife and mother when he saw Gray on stage with three other elected officials — Palmer, Democratic state Sen. Reggie Thomas of Lexington and Fayette County Judge-Executive Jon Larson, a Republican.
"All of them spoke, and then the mayor reintroduced everyone," Alvarado said. "He said Palmer has been a good friend for the people of Lexington and Fayette County and something to the effect that he's in a tough race and needs help. It was not proper."
Gray spokeswoman Susan Straub said Tuesday that Gray will not apologize for his comments.
"Senator Palmer has been a friend, an ally to Lexington, from pension reform to economic development," she said in an email. "Mayor Gray believes in supporting friends of Lexington, regardless of party affiliation."
Straub also noted that festival rules say only officeholders can be on the stage. "It would have been inappropriate for Dr. Alvardo to be on stage because he is not an officeholder," she said.
Straub confirmed earlier this week that Gray said Palmer was a friend during the event, but said she had no knowledge of any remarks Gray made regarding Palmer's re-election efforts.
Alvarado said he asked a festival organizer in July if he could put up campaign signs at the festival but was told the event is not political. He also said the festival organizers later told him he could put up a political booth at the festival for $250, but he declined.
Alvarado and Palmer face each other in the Nov. 4 elections to see who will represent the 28th Senate District for the next four years. It includes Clark and Montgomery counties and part of eastern Fayette County.
Palmer, a financial advisor from Winchester, has been in the Senate since 2001 and was a state House member from 1999 to 2001.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson said Gray was wrong for publicly acknowledging Palmer at a taxpayer-funded event, while ignoring his opponent in the audience.
"I certainly believe that Mayor Gray should apologize not only to the people in attendance but to the taxpayers of the city of Lexington," Robertson said.
Palmer recalled that Gray "said I was a friend of Lexington," but Palmer did not remember "if the mayor said anything about my race. It all happened so quickly."
Palmer added that he had "no idea" what the mayor was going to say. "I've worked with him a great deal and consider him a friend," he said.
Thomas, who was elected to the state Senate in a special election last December, declined to describe what Gray said at the festival.
"If you want to find out what Mayor Gray said, ask him. I'm not going to speak for him," said Thomas. "I will say R.J. Palmer is my friend and I'm working hard for him."
Larson, who is running this fall for an at-large seat on the Urban County Council, said Gray "told the crowd that Palmer was a friend and he'd like for them to support R.J. in his tough race for his support of the Latino community."
"I was shocked," Larson said. "I have nothing against R.J. Palmer but I thought afterwards that I would like to apologize to Dr. Alvarado and his wife for what happened. I had seen her earlier but I couldn't find them."
Freddy Peralta, chairman for the festival, said he thinks Larson's account of what the mayor said is "correct."
But, he added, "we do not control what anyone says at the festival and we clearly understand that this is a public, non-partisan event."
Peralta confirmed that the festival only invites "officeholders who have helped Latinos."
"That is why Dr. Alvarado was not on the stage for the opening ceremony," he said.
Peralta also said he hoped the media would "not focus on 10 seconds of someone's comments and ignore how beautiful the festival was." He said it attracted about 40,000 people over two days.
Neither Peralta nor Straub said they were aware of any video or audio recordings of the mayor's remarks.
The festival is sponsored by Lexington Parks & Recreation, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Emergency Management and a few businesses.
Straub said the Urban County Government provides resources for about 10 downtown Lexington events each year, including Festival Latino.