What makes a good mayor? Someone with both good ideas and the political and management skills to make them happen. Jim Gray has demonstrated both qualities during his four-year term.
Gray has two challengers for re-election in the May 20 primary: Anthany Beatty, who became a University of Kentucky vice president after retiring as Lexington's police chief, and Danny Mayer, an English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College who for four years published the community newspaper North of Center.
Beatty has demonstrated good management and political skills, but he doesn't seem to have many ideas. His campaign website and public statements have offered only vague generalities about city issues and what he would do as mayor.
Mayer has little political or management experience, but he has developed a detailed issues platform. While some of his proposals are controversial, there are good ideas there worth discussing.
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The Gray and Beatty campaigns have raised well into six figures. Mayer said he has taken only three contributions totaling $250 and has loaned his campaign a few hundred more. He hasn't even invested in yard signs, which he admits was a mistake, and is mostly campaigning door-to-door and online.
"A lot of my work has been trying to plan out alternative visions and ideas; I look at it as the end point of what I did with North of Center," Mayer said. "But rather than just talking about what we are doing wrong, this was a way to flesh out a positive vision for the city."
Among Mayer's proposals is a $15 hourly minimum wage for city employees and contractors, as Seattle is considering. He also wants to decriminalize marijuana use, which probably would require state rather than just city action. Both moves, he said, would strengthen low-income neighborhoods by putting more money in families' pockets and fewer people in jail.
Mayer's two main proposals are less controversial, and they make so much sense that they should be part of the election conversation whether or not he is the candidate who emerges from the primary to challenge Gray in November.
Mayer said that as mayor he would strategically invest in growing Lexington's local food economy and developing the city's "greenways" — abused and neglected urban streams and watersheds whose restoration could improve overall water quality, create recreational opportunities and provide paths for walkers and cyclists.
Lexington developed an extensive Greenways Master Plan in 2001, which was approved by the Planning Commission. But Mayer said too little has been done to implement and expand on that plan.
Under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lexington must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to correct long-ignored water quality problems caused by suburban development. That provides the perfect opportunity to make the most of our natural greenways, Mayer said.
Greenway development could help connect Lexington's fragmented trail system, making it easier for suburban residents to get around on foot or bike. Modest infrastructure investments at key connecting points around Lexington could make a big difference, he said.
More walking and biking trails, along with investment in Lextran to expand routes and service hours would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution and increase mobility for low-income residents.
Mayer also said that as mayor he would budget $1 million for investments in local food, which has been growing in popularity. Growth in that sector will be important as climate change and rising transportation costs erode the nation's industrial agriculture models of the past few decades.
Nutritious local food also fights obesity and other health problems that are contributing to rising health care costs, Mayer noted.
Investment in local food projects would create work for the growing number of UK and BCTC students graduating with sustainable agriculture expertise, as well as lower-skilled people who need jobs. It also would allow non-profit organizations such as Seedleaf and Food Chain to build on work they already are doing.
Some unused city park land could be used for expanding greenway trails or producing food, Mayer said, and the city could do more to promote backyard and community gardens.
"I see that as a 21st century economy," he said. "These markets and segments are growing, but we haven't talked about how we could legitimately scale them up. You just need models and an emphasis, like we did with Victory Gardens in the 1940s."