Jim Gray reflects on his two terms as mayor of Lexington, and what’s next for him
An overflow crowd jammed into the Lexington council chambers, spilled into the second-floor mezzanine and stood in the first-floor lobby of the government center.
Lexington Police officers, including then-Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard, stood in the council chamber, the lobby and monitored protesters outside.
Six days earlier, a clash between white nationalists and counter-protestors over the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee had turned ugly and deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia. That same day, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray announced he would ask the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council to vote to move two Confederate-era statues from the lawn of the former Fayette County courthouse.
The response from white nationalists was swift. If Lexington moved the statues of former Confederate general John Hunt Morgan and former U.S. Vice President and last Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, Fayette County will be their next stop.
Gray, the city’s first two-term mayor since 1998, began the Aug. 17, 2017, council meeting by reading a statement.
“We must be adults today,” Gray said as local and national television crews filmed from inside the council chamber. “As leaders we must stand up and tell the truth. Enough is enough. Collective madness must stop. People are dying. It must stop. Our actions tonight will affirm that we stand on the side of truth, real truth and telling the real story and that we are true to core American values: fairness justice and liberty. We don’t choose the time to stand up and speak out. The time chooses us.”
The chamber erupted in applause three hours later when the council voted unanimously to move the statues.
The white nationalists never showed. Public comments during the meeting were civil, respectful and at times even humorous.
For Gray, that August 2017 vote and the politically and racially charged issue of moving the statues was the most trying and difficult in his eight-year tenure as mayor, a job he leaves in January.
“It was by far the most difficult issue I faced,” Gray said in a recent interview. “It was difficult, but it was the right thing to do.”
The vote was only the beginning. Gray, 65, soon faced an even thornier problem — he had to find a new home for the two statues that had towered over Main Street for more than 100 years. The council had agreed to move the statues, not remove them from public display.
Eventually, the board of the Lexington Cemetery agreed to take Hunt Morgan and Breckinridge. Both men are buried there.
“I will never be able to thank them enough for what they did and what they did for this community,” Gray said of the cemetery board. “I think we are the only city in the country that has been able to solve this issue the way that we did.”
Moving the statues was also key to another project that will be tied to Gray in years to come -- the renovation and reopening of the former Fayette County Courthouse now called Courthouse Square. The $32 million overhaul took nearly four years to complete and now includes a restaurant, bar, offices, VisitLex’s visitors’ center and an event space on the top floor.
“It’s engaging more people now than it ever did in its previous 100-year history as a courthouse,” Gray said.
A dreamer and a builder
The courthouse is one of many infrastructure projects Gray, the former CEO and current chairman of the board of Gray Construction, is credited with starting during his eight years in office. Across the street from the former court house is the 21C Museum Hotel, which Gray helped lure to Lexington. Also during his term, a new $13 million Lexington Senior Center was opened in 2016 to replace the overcrowded and outdated center on Nicholasville Road. The $241 million expansion and renovation of the Rupp Arena and convention center complex has finally begun. He also pushed and eventually got funding for the Town Branch Commons project, a two-mile downtown trail that will connect the popular Town Branch and Legacy trails. That project is still in its early stages. Gray will leave office without seeing the Town Branch Commons and convention center completed.
“He had the ability to dream big and give us hope again,” said Councilman Kevin Stinnett, who served 12 years with Gray, including Gray’s four-year stint as vice mayor prior to being elected mayor in 2010. “Hope is the hardest thing to give people. He also showed us that sometimes you have to invest and spend money now to get dividends later.”
Incoming Mayor Linda Gorton, who served as vice mayor under Gray from 2010 to 2014, agreed.
“He was able to look at the big picture and think creatively,” Gorton said. “He could also get into the nitty-gritty.”
Vice Mayor Steve Kay said Gray tapped his business acumen to squeeze and leverage city dollars to attract private investment or matching federal and state grants. The courthouse was renovated using state and federal historic tax credits. Federal and state transportation grants will help pay for Town Branch Commons.
“To get people and many members of council behind the renovation of the (former) courthouse was a really heavy lift,” Kay said. “ Most people couldn’t see it.”
Another big infrastructure project started under Gray is high-speed internet. MetroNet, a private company, is currently spending upwards of $100 million to install fiber-optic cable that will provide high-speed internet to residents inside the urban service area over the next three years. When completed, Lexington will be the largest Gigabit city in the country. Unlike other cities, Lexington taxpayer dollars have not been spent on installing fiber, Gray said.
Change and challenges
Gray also gets high marks from council members for tackling some long-standing, entrenched financial problems. He had to cut spending in his first few years in office to offset a budget deficit after revenues plummeted during the recession. That meant freezes on raises and “brown outs” of some Lexington fire stations. He proposed steep increases to city employee health insurance premiums to shore up a more than $10 million shortfall in 2011. The city’s police and fire pension system’s unfunded liability — the amount it needs to pay all current and future retirees verses what it had — was ballooning. In 2013, the city made changes to police and fire pension systems that included increasing the amount the city contributed into the pension system.
Gray got push back from city employees, some council members and the police and fire unions during his first few years when money was tight. Gray said he knew short-term, financial band-aids not only don’t work but can be even more costly to taxpayers in the long run.
Chris Bartley, president of the Lexington Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 526, said, “We’ve had our ups and downs through the eight years. The beginning was pretty rough.”
But Lexington’s police and fire pension is now the best funded in the state, at just over 72 percent and was as high as 78 percent in 2015. Firefighters eventually got pay raises to make up for years when there was a pay freeze, he said.
Jason Rothermund, president of the Lexington Bluegrass FOP Lodge 4, said Gray was always willing to listen even if the two sides didn’t agree. Rothermund said he and Gray worked hard to improve the relationship between the administration and the FOP. When the city’s finances improved, Gray agreed to raise police officers’ pay.
“We are now one of the best paid police departments in the state,” Rothermund said. “We have the best contract that the police officers have had since collective bargaining began in the early 2000s.”
Tommy Puckett, a retired Lexington police officer who has spent 23 years on the police and fire pension board, said it was repeated lawsuits brought by himself and others that drove the city to increase its contribution to the pension fund. One of those lawsuits, over how much the city should have contributed in 2011, Puckett won. But a final determination on how much the city will have to pay has still not been resolved.
“He left that for the next mayor,” Puckett said. “If he cared so much about the pension then why hasn’t he been at the pension board meeting in the last 13 months?”
Both unions backed Gray’s opponent, former Lexington Police Chief Anthany Beatty, in the 2014 mayor’s race. Gray soundly defeated Beatty with 65 percent of the vote, one of the largest margins of victory in recent history. He became the first mayor in 16 years to win a second term. The last mayor to do so was Pam Miller in 1998.
Gray said he doesn’t know if making those unpopular changes won over voters.
“I think we often don’t give voters enough credit,” Gray said. “I think they saw that problem-solving was required and they saw us doing it.”
But by making changes to health care and the pension, the city was able to invest in other initiatives including an affordable housing fund, which was approved in 2014. Advocates had lobbied for nearly a decade for its creation. Also during Gray’s time at city hall, the city created an Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention and put money into new programs designed to keep people housed and stop the cycle of homelessness.
“I met a woman recently who was a caregiver and the man she was caring for died,” Gray said. When the man she was caring for died, she lost both her home and her job. Her husband was a disabled veteran. The two are now housed in one of the more than 1,430 affordable housing units the fund has either created or retained since the affordable housing fund was created four years ago.
“It’s humbling,” Gray said of meeting someone who has a home in part because of city dollars.
Patience and persistence
A big project Gray pushed that fell short was an ambitious $351 million renovation of Rupp Arena and the convention center in 2014. The state General Assembly ultimately decided not to fund the project, The University of Kentucky, Rupp Arena’s marquee tenant, also did not back the plan in 2014. Instead, the university wanted money for academic buildings.
Gray said he learned a lot from that failed attempt to secure funding for the much bigger and pricier Rupp Arena expansion and convention center. UK and the city got on the same page and were able to get the state to back a scaled-back version of the Rupp Arena and convention center expansion in 2016. That $241 million plan includes $60 million in state borrowing. The city, however, had to agree to raise its hotel and motel tax to pay off the $60 million loan.
“It takes patience and persistence,” Gray said of not giving up on the convention center expansion project.
But some on the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council grumbled the council was kept in the dark for too long on how the original $351 million renovation was to be funded despite being asked to pay $40 million of the cost.
“I think every mayor has a learning curve. And every mayor has a learning curve that’s different then the previous mayor. I think Jim did grow a lot in his abilities to work with council ,” said Gorton, who served 16 years on council under four mayors.
Another project Gray pushed but ultimately failed due to lack of council support was finding a new city government center for the outdated city buildings in downtown Lexington. That’s something that Gorton has said she will tackle in her first year in office.
But Gray said he has no regrets.
“We only had a certain amount of bandwidth to get things done,” Gray said.
Gray credits his top leadership, including Chief Administrative Officer Sally Hamilton and chiefs of staff Jamie Emmons and Geoff Reed, with tackling and tracking the many projects Gray pushed in his eight years in office.
“I learned that putting a good team together, a good management team together, is really critical,” Gray said.
City of inclusion and change
Gray said he did change his mind on certain issues.
For example, in 2015 the Urban County Arts Review Board, which had been tasked with taking public comment about the two statues, recommended the statues of Breckinridge and Hunt Morgan be removed from the courthouse lawn. At the time, Gray thought the statues should remain. Additional signage could be placed on the statues to provide better historical context, he said.
Then members of a group called Take Back Cheapside, led by DeBraun Thomas and Russell Allen, changed his mind. They met several times over several months and Gray listened to their argument: Breckinridge and Hunt Morgan fought to keep slavery. Their statues were on the same ground where slaves were once sold in the area known as Cheapside, which is adjacent to the courthouse.
“It didn’t represent our values as a community,” Gray said.
Those values include inclusion, not exclusion.
Inclusion means a lot to Gray, the city’s first openly gay mayor and one of the few openly gay mayors south of the Ohio River. During his eight years as mayor, Gray’s sexual orientation was rarely an issue or discussed during debate at city hall. It could have been a challenge or a distraction. Instead, Gray said he thought it may have benefited the city.
Voters’ willingness to elect an openly gay man told people outside of Lexington and Kentucky a lot — Lexington is a welcoming place, he said.
“Our economy grows when we create a welcoming and inclusive community... and that’s what’s happening here in Lexington. It’s gratifying.”
Good bye to city hall, but not Lexington
Gray ran twice for other offices during his eight years at city hall. In 2016 he ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. In 2018, he was defeated in the Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District seat.
Many thought Gray would have easily won a third and final term as mayor and questioned his decision to run in a race that he lost to political newcomer Amy McGrath, who was later defeated in November by incumbent Republican U.S. Congressman Andy Barr.
“I was confident on the direction of our city but I was not confident on the direction of our country,” Gray said of his decision to jump into the 6th Congressional District race. Gray said he doesn’t regret running for Congress.
Gray’s name has been floated as a possible candidate for a state-wide office in 2019.
Gray declined to comment on whether he would consider another run for office. Gray said he will help raise money for the Town Branch Park, a proposed 10-acre park adjacent to Rupp Arena that will need at least $30 million in private funds to get off the ground. He’s also exploring other possibilities including the nonprofit sector.
He is not leaving Lexington.
“People have asked me if I’m going to move,” Gray said. “I just think goodness gracious, you couldn’t push me out of here with a bulldozer.”
Does he have any advice for Gorton or the council as he moves out of city hall?
“Think big. Start small and move swiftly,” Gray said.
A Glasgow native, Gray moved to Lexington in 1983 to attend the University of Kentucky law school. Eventually, Gray Construction moved its headquarters from Glasgow to Lexington “because it had a vitality to it and we were a growing company and we needed to attract employees.”
The once-small and struggling family business blossomed and grew here. Gray said what he wanted most was for people to see Lexington how he saw it in 1983 and how he sees it now — a vibrant, forward-thinking, welcoming community.
“It’s been the greatest honor of my career to have been the mayor of Lexington,” Gray said. “I am enormously grateful and thankful for the opportunity the citizens gave me to do the job.”