Tom Eblen

Where were the Democrats? Gray fights alone at Fancy Farm

2016 Fancy Farm Picnic serves up barbecue, politics

It's a big day for barbecue and politics at the annual picnic in Western Kentucky.
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It's a big day for barbecue and politics at the annual picnic in Western Kentucky.

Kentucky’s few remaining Democratic statewide elected officials skipped the 136th Fancy Farm Picnic in deep-red Western Kentucky on Saturday, but that didn’t keep Lexington Mayor Jim Gray from coming out swinging.

Fancy Farm, hosted by St. Jerome Parish, is the traditional beginning of the political campaign season in Kentucky.

“I want to introduce myself to Sen. (Mitch) McConnell, because earlier he referred to me as nobody,” Gray said, looking across the stage at the Senate majority leader.

“I am Jim Gray, and I am the guy who is going to beat Rand Paul,” Gray said of the first-term Republican U.S. senator he is challenging for re-election.

Gray said Paul “has been using the people of Kentucky as a stepping stone since day one” for his presidential ambitions,” noting his failed campaign this year.

“This year, Kentucky voters have a choice between a lifelong Kentuckian who has built a family business around creating jobs or a candidate whose family business is all about running for president,” Gray said.

Gray touted his record as a successful mayor and a businessman whose family-owned construction company has built factories and other projects in 58 Kentucky counties.

Just before Gray spoke, Paul used most of his five minutes on stage to bash Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. He began with a poem: “How doth Hillary hate us? Let me count the ways.”

Paul never mentioned his own party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump. McConnell mentioned Trump only once.

But Gray mentioned Trump, as Democrats in the audience held up “Rand Paul for President 2020” T-shirts that included a Trump quote from the primary campaign: “Rand Paul is using the people of Kentucky.”

“The Donald went on to ask, ‘How does this guy get re-elected in Kentucky? I don’t get it,’” Gray quoted Trump as saying. “Well, Donald, I don’t, either. Folks, a U.S. Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste.”

Paul said nothing in his speech about his own accomplishments and little about Gray, except to chide him for Lexington’s long-stalled CentrePointe project, which has left a big hole where an underground garage is supposed to be.

“I heard the real reason he stopped work on the big hole,” Paul said. “Because he heard there was coal in it.”

It is ironic to hear Gray blamed for CentrePointe, since he has been the project’s biggest critic since it began in 2008. If then-Vice Mayor Gray had had his way, the block would never have been demolished and the hole never dug.

As expected, Republicans in the crowd were tough on Gray. But there was no gay-bashing, which was admirable. Gray is the first openly gay man to run for high office in Kentucky, where many conservatives oppose same-sex marriage.

Fancy Farm is always Kentucky’s most-colorful political theater. It is a shame no other prominent Democrats showed up to speak. Former Gov. Paul Patton and state Sen. Reginald Thomas of Lexington were on stage, but neither was eligible to speak. Most of the speakers were Republicans, including McConnell and Gov. Matt Bevin.

Prominent Democrats may not have wanted to defend Clinton in a part of the state Trump is sure to carry in November. But Trump didn’t seem too popular, either. I saw only a few “Make America Great Again” caps or other Trump campaign items.

It was telling, though, that no Kentucky Democrat had the guts to speak for Clinton when it came time in the program for presidential surrogates. That job was left to former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Really? North Carolina?

Where were the Democrats? Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Attorney General Andy Beshear offered lame personal excuses for not attending. House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he boycotted because picnic organizers chose GOP campaign operative Scott Jennings as the emcee.

“I think it violates the spirit of the picnic. We’ve never seen that before,” Stumbo told the Associated Press. “If they want to have a Republican rally, let them have a Republican rally. We’ll have a Democratic rally.”

Jennings followed last year’s Democrat-leaning emcee Matt Jones, the Kentucky Sports Radio talk show host. Both were poor choices who diminished the Fancy Farm Picnic’s credibility. Most emcees in the past were either journalists or elected officials of both parties who, though partisan, had records of elected service.