Editor's note: This is the second of four profiles of Kentucky's Republican candidates for governor.
Hal Heiner put his hands up, laughed and modestly recoiled when told of the lofty comparison.
After all, it would have been unseemly for a politician to embrace being compared to Moses.
But that was the comparison offered by Bob Russell, the founder and former pastor of Southeast Christian Church, when he described Heiner, the Louisville businessman and gubernatorial candidate who has been asking Russell for spiritual guidance on his political journey since 2002.
Never miss a local story.
"That would be my analogy," Russell said.
Like Moses, said the pastor, Heiner has been a reluctant politician, embarking on a political career after a lifetime building immense personal wealth as an engineer and the founder of Capstone Realty.
Russell and other friends and allies of Heiner see a man pursuing what Heiner likes to call "a missional life," so when he came to Russell in 2002 to tell his pastor that he was thinking about running for Louisville Metro Council, or in 2009, when he was considering running for Louisville mayor, the pastor was encouraging.
"We talked about it both times," Russell said, "and he just felt compelled to do it because he felt like this was what the Lord wanted him to do to max his usefulness."
Now, Heiner is well over a year into his run for governor, having claimed the title of frontrunner while spending heavily out of his own pocket to finance the message that he's a businessman who can attract jobs to Kentucky.
A reluctant partisan
Each candidate in the intense four-way primary to represent the Republican Party in this fall's general election is bashing President Barack Obama and his policies, trying to prove who is the most conservative among them.
It's a new campaign style for Heiner.
During his 2010 mayoral race, Heiner found himself in the unusual position of being a Republican with a shot at winning a race in Democrat-heavy Louisville.
"I am a Republican, but I am not running as a Republican or based on some Republican ideals or policy," he told the Courier-Journal at the time.
Heiner's frustrations with being a Republican in a city that elects Democrats had bubbled over before.
In 1993, Heiner changed his party registration, becoming a Democrat for three years before returning to the Republican Party in 1996.
Looking back, Heiner told the Herald-Leader he was frustrated with what was happening in Louisville, adding that "as a Republican, you're locked out."
Louisville "had so much potential and it was just going nowhere," he said. "I wanted to become more involved in the community."
Ultimately, Heiner said he decided "it wasn't who I was. And I switched back to Republican."
In his winning bid for a seat on Louisville's Metro Council in 2002, Heiner ran as a Republican, highlighting his business experience. He then parlayed that experience into a chairmanship of the budget committee.
When he ran for mayor in 2010, Heiner lost to Democrat Greg Fischer by fewer than 7,000 votes, and many Republicans believe their guy could have won had he chosen to go negative against Fischer in the closing days of the campaign.
Fischer declined to discuss his campaign against Heiner.
Riggs Lewis, a Louisville-based lobbyist who backed Heiner in his council and mayoral bids, is supporting Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer in the governor's race. But Lewis called Heiner "one of the best guys I know."
Lewis said he was supporting Comer because of his "experience fixing a broken state government system and returning tax dollars."
But when asked if he would get behind Heiner should he win the nomination, Lewis didn't hesitate: "Instantly."
Larry Cox, a longtime aide to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and an informal adviser to Heiner, agreed with the assessment that Heiner is a reluctant partisan.
"Hal is certainly not a fiery partisan," Cox said. "But one of the things I like about Hal is that he is about as well-grounded in terms of being a conservative ... as anybody I know."
'A missional life'
Heiner has been married to his wife, Sheila, for 37 years, and they have four children.
The couple already has burial plots on the 170-acre property they call home, and which they have nicknamed "Dovelyn," a reference to its large dove population and the peace he says those birds bring them.
Sheila and Hal Heiner were high school sweethearts, but when Heiner left for college, they were separated and both married other people.
At 19, Heiner married Elizabeth Napier on June 12, 1971. According to Shelby County court records, a judge found the marriage to be "irretrievably broken," and a divorce was granted on May 10, 1976.
Napier died a few years later.
In 2010, Heiner did not mention his divorce to a Courier-Journal reporter who was writing a profile of him. After the newspaper published the article and subsequently learned of Heiner's first marriage, Heiner explained at the time, "Items that are three or four decades old, and are of no real consequence, don't seem relevant to anything that's happening today."
In his interview with the Herald-Leader, Heiner did not shy away from discussing the chapter from his distant past, saying that he had done "everything I could" to save the first marriage and that the divorce "wasn't my decision."
"We were married for a little over four years," Heiner said. "And then after that marriage, (I) called Sheila's parents to find out whatever happened to her."
Heiner and his wife have been largely inseparable as they've spent 59 weeks traveling the commonwealth in his bid for governor.
Friends and allies say the couple have worked hard through the years to help those around them, including foster parenting the children of inmates at the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women in Pewee Valley.
Heiner sits on the board of trustees at Asbury University, and he has made a name for himself in conservative circles by leading the charge for charter schools as chairman of the Kentucky Charter School Association.
Heiner often says that he and his wife have tried to lead a "missional life."
"Both Sheila and I believe that a life most fulfilled is one helping others get from point A to point B, if you can improve things for them," he said. "We get tremendous fulfillment in that."
Heiner added: "We want to improve things for others, whether they're incarcerated and help them get back in society, or whether they're in school today."
Russell heaped praise on Heiner, saying that "he's a really good family man; he's loyal to his wife and his kids."
"He doesn't just attend church," Russell said. "He's actively involved."
Attraction vs. creation
Heiner founded Capstone Realty, which focuses on commercial real estate, in 1997, and the company's building of Commerce Crossing, a 300-acre industrial park in Louisville, is its crowning achievement.
It is that achievement that has been the dominant theme of Heiner's campaign.
In one of his most recent ads, the park is featured prominently as Heiner, standing on a roof and looking down on the park, says to the camera: "This is Commerce Crossings. In here are 30 different companies from 10 different states, five different countries and over 4,000 Kentucky jobs."
"Growing our state requires truly knowing how to attract and keep jobs in Kentucky like we did here," Heiner says in the ad.
Capstone Realty has fewer than five employees, though Heiner noted that the company uses many vendors.
Heiner's opponents, especially former U.S. Senate candidate and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, have taken aim at Heiner's efforts to portray himself as a job creator.
"Listen to who among us has created jobs and who talks about attracting jobs," Bevin said in a recent debate hosted by CN2. "There is a big, big difference."
"To pretend that you've created jobs by building a building that people who create jobs rent, that is a very different animal," Bevin said. "And it's important for people to understand that."
When asked if there is a difference between job creation and job attraction, Heiner said that he has been "involved in job attraction for the last 25 years of my life."
"What I talk about is, I've been there as the site-search firms are talking about Kentucky and what they like and what they don't like about Kentucky," he said. "And that's what uniquely qualifies me to go to Frankfort and fix the pieces that they don't like so that we can compete with the states north and south of us."
Heiner acknowledged that "there is a difference between someone that has started and grown a business and someone that's been in meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting and then talking with executives after they've made decisions to go to A or B, talking with their site-search firms about what they liked and what they don't like."
He added: "I've been directly involved in that job attraction effort and would lead it as governor as the best governors are doing."
Heiner also has been criticized for moving Kentucky jobs to Jeffersonville, Ind., where Heiner helped build another industrial park called River Ridge Park.
Two companies — and 500 jobs — left Louisville for the southern Indiana site. According to the Courier-Journal, Heiner said in 2010 that "he didn't know who the companies were and where they were coming from when an out-of-state consultant approached his development firm."
In his interview with the Herald-Leader, Heiner recalled that "there was one company that said they'd had it with Kentucky."
"They couldn't stand Frankfort," Heiner said. "They weren't going to stay in Kentucky, and quite frankly I'm proud to have kept them in the region. Those jobs could've gone anywhere. That company was an overseas company. They could've gone anywhere in the U.S. And all of the Kentuckians that worked there kept their jobs. They still brought their paychecks back to Kentucky because it's a metropolitan economy. So no, I'm proud of that effort. But they made it very clear on day one, they would not stay in Kentucky."
Heiner said the episode only proves that his knowledge of what companies want is what makes him the best candidate for the Governor's Mansion.
"If what we need to do in Kentucky is attract 100,000 jobs in the next four years, I believe I'm uniquely qualified to do that because I've been in those discussions the last 25 years of my life," he said.
The $4 million man
Heiner's immense personal wealth allowed him to get a jump-start in the race for governor, putting him in a position to blanket the airwaves with ads over the last year in an effort to grow his name identification outside the Louisville area.
Heiner has raised about $700,000 for his bid, but he gave his campaign $4.2 million last year, an astonishing sum that has led Comer and other opponents to accuse Heiner of trying to buy the election.
When asked about that accusation, Heiner said he is "an unlikely candidate."
"I haven't spent my career building a political organization. I've spent it building a business, and I've had some success at that, and I'm thankful for that," he said. "But I also care very deeply about Kentucky. I care deeply about where I see us today and the tremendous potential that we have."
Cox dismissed criticisms of Heiner's self-funding as "absolutely ridiculous," saying that "self-funding is a great place to start."
"I'm happy that he had that, because quite frankly fundraising is a challenge," Cox said. "I make absolutely no apologies about buying a race because I know it can't be done if along with spending your personal money you're not out there actually asking people to personally support you."
When the latest campaign finance reports were released this week, they showed that Heiner's campaign has only about $1 million left in cash.
When asked if he planned to spend more of his own money, Heiner demurred.
"Those decisions will be made in the future," he said.
With less than four weeks until the May 19 primary, voters will soon know if Heiner will part with more of his own money and if voters will set him apart from the rest of the Republican field.
While both are big decisions, it's a cinch that they are easier than parting the Red Sea.