When The Rev. Bob Baker was considering moving from a small rural church to Lexington's Calvary Baptist Church 19 years ago, a private conversation with a lawyer named Jim Newberry was a turning point in the decision.
Newberry, who was on the pastor search committee, told the minister Lexington offered a good quality of life, art museums, and educational opportunities, and was a great place to raise a family.
Baker recalled that conversation recently in talking about why he thinks Newberry is a good mayor.
"I see his ability then to sell Lexington on an individual basis carried over into his ability as mayor ... to help sell Lexington to our broader community, to Lexington and to the world," Baker said.
Never miss a local story.
Newberry, 54, now is trying to sell voters on a four-year extension to his contract, with "Moving Lexington Forward" as his campaign slogan.
He points out a number of things going right in Lexington, including the extension of Newtown Pike, a remodeled South Limestone, new downtown sidewalks, and a restored Lyric Theater.
There also have been major controversies during his term, including a failed development, CentrePointe, which left an empty block downtown, and investigations that found spending problems at the Blue Grass Airport and the Lexington Public Library.
His opponent, Vice Mayor Jim Gray, mentions those controversies often, portraying the Newberry years as riddled with scandals. Newberry routinely counters Gray's criticism by challenging him to explain what he's done to solve Lexington's problems since taking office. The answer, Newberry says, is nothing.
When Newberry is asked to name the accomplishment of which he is proudest, his first answer involves something not specifically in his job description: Creation of a "Higher Education Triangle" that would be accomplished by moving Eastern State Hospital to Coldstream Research Park and replacing it with Bluegrass Community and Technical College (the other sides of the triangle are UK and Transylvania University).
"I really think that has the potential for transforming our economy for generations," he said of the project, which he worked with state and higher education officials to get rolling. Newberry joined Gov. Steve Beshear and University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. at a ground-breaking ceremony for the new hospital on Friday.
Barren County farm boy
Newberry grew up on a farm in Barren County (Gray also is from that county) and came to Lexington and the University of Kentucky for his undergraduate and law degrees.
He was president of his high school class and of the student government at the University of Kentucky.
After UK law school and a short stint working in Frankfort, he started his own law firm with two partners. As it grew, he became managing partner, then chair. He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1998, finishing fifth among seven candidates vying for the Democratic nomination.
Newberry then joined Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, one of the state's largest law firms, and became manager of the firm's Lexington office.
It was in that position, Newberry said recently, that he began thinking about the firm's financial health and the city's overall economy. He began pondering a run for mayor.
When he looked at successful cities that are Lexington's size, he said, he saw vibrant business communities with a mayor who made sure sidewalks and curbs were maintained and young professionals felt welcome.
A recent meeting of the Young Professionals for Newberry group was held at the Tin Roof, a live music venue at Maxwell Street and the new, improved South Limestone. After nearly a year of complaints when the street was closed for reconstruction, the sidewalks literally sparkled.
Newberry sipped on a Diet Coke (he said he only occasionally will have a glass of wine), mingled with the sparse crowd, and looked out on the passing traffic.
The Tin Roof is an important new business, he said, "because if we can get kids from campus to come here, it's not much farther to downtown."
A brief honeymoon
Newberry started his first campaign for mayor two years before the 2006 election. He was swept into office with an easy victory over Mayor Teresa Isaac, who had often been at odds with her vice mayor and the Urban County Council.
Newberry and Gray — "the Jims" — were seen as a refreshing change, but only for a while.
Newberry often talks in a low tone and chooses his words with the care of someone trained in the law. He is serious, but as he has become more comfortable in his role as mayor and finds himself "in a situation where circumstances lead me to think a little levity is appropriate," he allows himself to try a joke.
At an event last month at the Town Branch Trail west of town, for example, Newberry held the bullhorn while he was introduced by someone holding a microphone, then they switched.
"I've done many things as I served as your mayor for the last 31/2 years," he said, "but this is the first opportunity I've had to serve as your bullhorn stand."
Before he had children, Newberry said, he loved to play tennis.
Now Drew, 11, and Will, 10, "set the agenda." That usually includes riding bikes with Drew or playing catch with Will. Newberry and his wife, Cheryl Ann, adopted both boys from Russia. The boys have the same birthday, one year apart.
Challenges while in office
It has been a tough time to be mayor in Lexington, with the city, as well as the rest of the nation, gripped by what Newberry calls "some of the most challenging economic times in our history."
Working through a new public-private partnership that includes the city, Commerce Lexington and the University of Kentucky — called the Bluegrass Business Development Partnership — Newberry claims to have created well over 2,000 jobs. Gray points out that employment has decreased during the recession, but Newberry says the new jobs helped offset the losses.
He also has tackled some long-ignored problems, such as putting more money into Lexington's chronically underfunded police and fire pension system, and agreeing to a settlement in a federal lawsuit that requires the city to fix long-ignored problems with its sanitary and storm sewer systems.
The sewer agreement led to a steep increase in sanitary sewer fees and a new fee to pay for storm sewers. But, in a time of high anti-tax sentiments, the higher costs have not become an issue because both candidates agree it had to be done.
Newberry said he changed the local government's attitude about the environment.
"Not only did we have a lot of problems, but we had a bad culture in the Urban County Government when it came to environmental issues," Newberry said. "It was kind of like 'Oh, well, we had another fish kill.'"
Newberry also points with pride to other environmental programs, including an expanded and simplified recycling program, and steps to lower the city's carbon footprint, which has been measured as the largest per capita of any city in the nation.
Newberry's critics question his leadership abilities, and his handling of CentrePointe.
Hayward Wilkirson of Preserve Lexington, a group that tried to stop demolition of the CentrePointe block, said Newberry was too quick to take the side of the developers against citizens opposing the project.
"He tried to brand us as this kind of negative, nay-saying organization," Wilkirson said. "I felt like that made it a more divisive issue."
Newberry said that CentrePointe represented a legal development, and it is wrong for public officials to oppose such developments "simply because they don't like how it looks or who's doing it."
Another of Newberry's detractors, UK historian and Gaines Center for the Humanities director-emeritus Dan Rowland, contends that his background provided comparatively poor preparation for running a city.
"I know that Jim Newberry has a reputation for being a good manager, but his experience is primarily from running a law firm," Rowland said. "Jim Gray has experience running myriad projects simultaneously at Gray Construction."
Supporters talk of Newberry's honesty, sincerity and long-range vision for the city.
"I like his commitment to neighborhood revitalization, which is something I'm very interested in," said Ed Holmes, who has been co-chairman of both of Newberry's mayoral campaigns. "For the first time we have true neighborhood plans that hopefully will guide the revitalization of some of these areas, and he's really created a lot of excitement downtown."