NICHOLASVILLE — Neal Cassity is going out on top. The 76-year-old Democrat, who never lost a political race, announced last year that he would not seek re-election as Jessamine County judge-executive. After 24 years as the "mayor" of county government, he prepares to hand the baton to David West, a Republican who defeated State Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville.
Cassity's public service goes back to 1972, when he was a member of the Jessamine County Board of Education. After eight years on the school board, he ran for judge-executive in 1989 and won, then took office in 1990.
During his time, things got done. Water lines were extended. Sanitary sewers came to mobile home parks with failing septic systems. A central dispatch for 911 calls was created. High Bridge Park was restored. Camp Nelson — a recruiting and training center for black Union soldiers — was restored as a Civil War park.
But more than the physical face of Jessamine County has changed in 24 years. The county was once a Democratic Party bastion, but this year, for the first time in decades, more voters registered as Republicans.
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Cassity sat down Thursday for an interview. Here are some excerpts:
Q. What was your proudest moment as judge-executive?
A. I've had a lot of good moments; I guess obtaining the grants for the water lines and sewer lines in the northern part of the county. We had such a bad situation there with sewage on top of the ground. I was scared to death there was going to be some type of outbreak of some kind of disease from it....
The only thing I said I was going to try to do when I came in here was to get water to people in Jessamine County. There were hundreds of homes that didn't have (municipal) water. We're one grant away from having (almost) everybody on water. I'm real proud of that. I know what it's like to be without water. When I was coming up, we didn't have water in the house....
Q. What was your lowest moment as judge-executive?
A. Well, it started right at the beginning, when the fire truck had a wreck and two firemen got killed. (Jessamine County Fire Chief William Mike Wheeler, 37, and Cecil Fain, 27 — brother of current Jessamine Circuit Court Clerk Doug Fain — died when their water truck rolled over and struck a tree in January 1993.) I was on my first trip to D.C., and I canceled my trip and came home because I knew both families well. I thought I needed to be here, so I flew back home.
Q. Many politicians have egos so big they need their own area codes. That manifests itself in two ways. First, they don't want to share credit for achievements. Second, they can show volcanic tempers. You don't exhibit either trait. Do you hide it well or are you just wired that way?
A. (Chuckles.) I came up that way. My mother was very patient. ...My dad always said when I was little, "Son, you've got to have compassion and patience and common sense if you're going to succeed." And that's what I've always tried to live by....
Q. So I'm curious: What makes you angry? What was it about this job — an issue, a person, a situation — what made you angry?
A. Well, there was a fellow around Nicholasville; I'm not going to tell you his name. And I really liked the guy, but he'd come in here every now and then and throw a little fit. He came in here one day and he was talking ugly in front of the girls (in the judge's office), and I told him he's going to have to quit that or he was going to have to go. He said, 'Well what are you going to do about it?" And I said, "I'm going to throw you out the damn door." And I grabbed him by the back of his belt and shirt collar and right out through those front doors we went. (Laughs.) And I worried about it because, going down that last set of steps, he fell. And I thought, "Oh, I'm going to get sued over this." Nothing ever happened.
Q. Did he ever come back?
A. Oh, yeah. ...He probably would have done anything for me, if I asked him.
Q. Why did you believe in restoring Camp Nelson? Some might have thought it was too painful a place, given the expulsion of 400 women and children into sub-freezing weather.
A. Well, I'll tell you what really bothered me about the whole thing. I've been living here all my life. My grandfather, he knew about the Civil War. He talked a lot about it. But you know, everybody in school thought it was just a cemetery. We had no idea about the Civil War part of it. They didn't teach it in school. And I thought, something that significant, even if people died, somebody ought to know the story.
I think it's just like you said. I think people thought it was just best to let it be.
Q. Why didn't you think so?
A. Well, I've always been interested in history. You know, to know what the good times are you've got to know what the bad times were....
Q. Are you concerned that Jessamine County has about 15,000 fewer acres in farms than when you came into office?
A. I'm not really worried about it. A lot of people won't agree with me, but you've got to grow. You can't sit still. You've got to grow. Now, I think we've done a fairly good job of controlling it in the last few years.
Like Brannon Crossing (a shopping center and residential development in northern Jessamine County). To a lot of people that was a bad thing. But ... I tell you, if we hadn't had the income off that in this down economy, we'd all be in trouble. The money off of those jobs (in payroll taxes) and the values of those buildings (in property taxes) really rolled us through this hard time....
I don't want to say I'm pro-growth because I know you can grow too fast. But we've managed to do well. Our biggest problem right now that I see is transportation. The I-75 connector (a proposed road that will connect U.S. 27 in Jessamine County to Interstate 75 in Madison County) will help it.... (Gov. Steve) Beshear said he'd like to see it well under way before he is out of office. He's convinced it's a major thing for Central Kentucky....
Q. What do you say to opponents who say, "Look, we don't want that natural area (in eastern Jessamine County) disturbed?"
A. I've seen people try to hold onto things, and most usually, when your try to hold onto things it's for selfish motives. I remember when they had fights over (starting) planning and zoning. The big land owners used cheap labor, and they liked it to be like it was.
Q. How would planning and zoning affect that?
A. Well, by bringing jobs in. They didn't want any jobs coming in.
Q. Oh, because if you bring more jobs in, that means the price of that labor is going to go up?
A. That's exactly right.
Q. Is there still that mindset in Jessamine County?
A. There's a few. It changes a little bit every generation....
Q. You're a person who's been able to get things done. And it's not just you, but in your time, there are a lot of things that have happened. Cooperation between the city and county as far as 911.
A. We didn't even have 911. It wasn't even thought about. I don't take credit for anything. (Jessamine Fiscal Court Magistrate) Tim Vaughan told me, "As long as I've been around here, it's always somebody else helped you do it." I don't need credit.
Q. What do you think about your successor, David West?
A. I think he's a good guy. He's of a different party, but that doesn't make a difference. I told him the day after the election, "David, I'll show you everything that you want to know. ...I intend to give you all the information you want."
Q. Were you surprised that he won?
A. No. Bob (Damron) is a good guy. Bob has done a tremendous lot of good for Jessamine County. Getting us money, and he works hard. I thought he would beat David bad. But they got into this negative politics. I knew right then that was going to hurt Bob bad....
Q. Why do you think more people now are registered as Republicans than Democrats in Jessamine County?
A. Most Democrats in Jessamine County are probably more conservative than Republicans are nationwide. There's really not that much difference between Democrats and Republicans in Jessamine County.
Q. Did the fact that the county is turning more Republican enter into your decision not to run again?
A. No, because I've had Republican families who told me, 'You just keep on doing what you're doing. We like you there' They just supported me all the way.
Q. Do you shake your head when you look at Washington and see the gridlock there?
A. It makes me so damn mad I don't know what to say, that educated people of both parties can't sit down and work something out. It's a disgrace to our country, is what it is. Politics is giving and taking, is all it is. I found that out by people coming in here and wanting something. Some things I can't do, but I try to find something that I can do for them....
Q. So what do you plan to do after you leave office?
A. Well, I will probably work on the farm. I've got a little bit of rental property. I enjoy doing repair work and fixing things.
Q. Does Joyce (Cassity's wife) have a big "honey do" list for you?
A. (Chuckles.) She had a big one! She told me the other day, "Forget that honey-do list. I don't feel like doing a durn thing and I know you don't either. So just forget it."