Seven men hope Democratic voters give them the chance Tuesday to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul this fall, but most of them remain unfamiliar to Kentucky’s electorate.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and former Frankfort City Commissioner Sellus Wilder are the only two candidates who have previously held office. The others include a retail store worker, a steelworker, a retired Army officer, a Navy veteran and a community activist who used online fundraising to pay his $500 filing fee.
Gray is the best known of the candidates and has the most money to spend, reporting at the end of March that his campaign had about $1.5 million on hand. He has been successful financially through his family’s business, Gray Construction.
“Of all the candidates in this race, I have the most experience in the public and private sector,” Gray said.
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He said he wants the Senate seat once occupied by Henry Clay because “a U.S. Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste.”
“Clay was known as ‘the Great Compromiser.’ Rand Paul can be called ‘the Great Obstructionist.’”
He also accused Paul of “spending more time working for Iowa” in his unsuccessful bid for president than working for Kentucky. (Paul’s campaign responded by saying he has held more town hall meetings than any other member of Congress.)
Gray, who is Kentucky’s first openly gay candidate for statewide office, has held town hall meetings across the state this spring.
“There’s a lot of economic anxiety out there, and I have the experience to relieve it,” he said. “My records as mayor and a businessman prove that.”
As a U.S. senator, Gray said, he wants to focus on strategies to build up middle-class families and bring new business to every region of the state.
Gray said he doesn’t think his sexual orientation will be a major factor in the election.
“The race will be about results and performances,” he said.
Wilder was a member of the Frankfort City Commission from 2009 to 2012 and was the city’s mayor pro tem from 2011 to 2012.
He is a farmer and filmmaker who says he is trying “to run an open-hearted and truthful campaign, rooted in compassion for all Kentuckians, unlike anything we’ve seen in generations.”
Wilder, who grew up on a small farm in Henry County, said he is running to “safeguard the health of our commonwealth; the health of our people; the health of our economy; the health of our spirits; and the health of our land, water and air.”
He has been endorsed by the advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a move that Wilder said made him “a credible contender” to Gray.
Wilder supports a higher minimum wage, unions, equal pay for women, legalizing medicinal marijuana, lower interest rates on student loans, and higher taxes on the wealthy.
“For too long, Democratic candidates have been running away from Democratic values,” he said.
Wilder said he certainly wants to win the race, “but this campaign is not about building a political career; it’s about starting conversations on important issues.”
Rory Houlihan of Winchester has worked 18 years for Lowe’s Home Improvement stores.
As a U.S. senator, he said, he would focus on the economy and the environment. He studied economics at the University of Wisconsin.
“I see a lot of ticking bombs out there with the economy,” he said, suggesting that a good place to help the economy is raising the minimum wage.
Steelworker Jeff Kender of Phelps in Pike County says he is “the common man” in the race.
“I’m running to give the people a voice. The people are not heard, especially the poor,” he said.
Kender said he isn’t taking any money from corporations and that he wants to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour.
On terrorism, he gives this warning to the country’s enemies: “Aspire to hurt Americans, prepare to meet your maker.”
Kender also advocates for more drug-addiction treatment centers, term limits, and letting people “marry who you want. Politicians shouldn’t have a say-so in how to choose your life partner.”
Ron Leach of Brandenburg is a physician assistant and a retired Army officer. In 2014, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress against incumbent Brett Guthrie.
He said he thanks Rand Paul for “getting me involved in this race.”
Leach said he was on a combat tour in Afghanistan in 2011 when Paul was involved in a potential shutdown of the federal government.
“I believe that handicapped our military, and I think we can do much better,” he said.
In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, “we have one person who can buy this race — Jim Gray — and I will try to keep that from happening,” Leach said.
“Gray will not have a monetary advantage in the fall against Paul,” Leach said. “He’s a very weak candidate, and I think Democrats can select a more promising candidate.”
On the issues, Leach said he favors raising the minimum wage, reforming the tax code, and spending more on education and infrastructure.
Tom Recktenwald’s campaign slogan is “A senator whose vote cannot be bought.” He said he is “not accepting any funding, not even a nickel” from anyone.
Recktenwald, of Louisville, is a retired technology technician and a Navy veteran. He got 8 percent of the vote in the 2014 Democratic primary election for U.S. Senate, which was won by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Recktenwald worked at the Naval Ordnance Station in Louisville, where he was a union representative for 30 years until it closed. He worked 14 years as the technology coordinator at Notre Dame Academy, a private school in Louisville.
Recktenwald said he backs women’s issues and doesn’t think “good coal jobs will ever come back.”
The Democratic candidate whose friends raised the filing fee for him on GoFundMe.org within a few hours is Grant T. Short of Owensboro.
He is running a limited campaign and was the only no-show at last Monday’s candidate forum on Kentucky Educational Television.
Short’s campaign website says he is a 33-year-old husband and father of four who is president and founder of the Kentucky Center for Public Policy, a non-profit advocacy organization.