Politics & Government

Some ‘Business Leaders for Jim Gray’ slow to pull out their checkbooks

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, at the Fancy Farm Picnic August 6, 2016 at Fancy Farm, Ky.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, at the Fancy Farm Picnic August 6, 2016 at Fancy Farm, Ky.

If money talks in politics, some of the “Business Leaders for Jim Gray” are staying noticeably silent.

Gray, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate against Republican Sen. Rand Paul, announced last week a bipartisan group of 27 Kentucky business leaders who support his candidacy. One third of those business leaders, though, had not donated to Gray as of June 30, the date of the most recent campaign finance filings.

One of them, Mike Bellissimo of Humana, has made bi-weekly donations to a political action committee that contributed $10,000 to Paul for the 2016 election — the maximum allowed by a PAC.

Two others have contributed to PACs in past years that supported Paul in 2016, while another donated both to Gray and the Kentucky Republican Party. Two donated to Gov. Matt Bevin in 2015.

“That’s fine with me,” Gray said. “There was no litmus test associated with contributions. I invited people who I felt like are leaders in the business community and represent diverse leadership within the community.”

Gray said he believed most of the group had donated to his campaign, noting that it is possible they have donated since June 30.

At the time, Paul was leading Gray in cash on hand by more than $1 million, even though Gray had loaned his campaign $1 million of his own money.

Through June, Gray had received about $63,000 from the business leaders on his list. One third of them had donated the maximum a person can contribute, $5,400.

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said donating to campaigns is a strategic decision.

“Ponying money up for a candidate is a strong and credible sign of support,” Voss said. “The fact they didn’t put money up means they’re not sending that strong signal. It doesn’t mean they’re not for him, but it does send a weaker signal to other people who are trying to decide to get on board.”

Voss added that some in the group probably just haven’t gotten around to donating yet.

Drura Parrish, the CEO of a startup machining manufacturing company called MakeTime, is one of them.

“It’s all just a matter of timing, personally,” Parrish said.

Parrish plans on donating before the Nov. 8 election but said the social capital provided by the group of business leaders is just as important.

“Words and presence have increasingly more currency,” Parrish said. “And from a business perspective, the true capital that we represent exudes jobs, which is more than just money.”

Bellissimo, the enterprise vice president for commercial service operations at Humana, has a picture of Hillary Clinton as his Twitter avatar and Facebook profile picture. His old Facebook profile picture was a picture of Donald Trump that said “Nope.”

Bellissimo, though, has contributed to the Humana Political Action Committee since July 2015.

The 2016 Senate candidate who has received the most support from Humana’s PAC nationwide is Rand Paul.

Bellissimo, who did not return phone messages seeking comment, had made no donation to Gray as of June 30.

Humana’s PAC donates to both Republicans and Democrats, but has spent more on Republicans in 2016. The House candidate who has received the most support from Humana is U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington.

“It shows that there’s independent thinking within those that work for Humana and that’s a good thing,” Gray said. “It’s no surprise that big companies, big health care companies, those who are in health care are supporting incumbents right now. There are a lot of big problems that have got to be fixed in health care right now and it’s going to affect everybody.”

Throughout the campaign, Gray has attempted to play up his business background to win over voters. He has been mayor of Lexington since January 2011 but previously ran his family’s construction company. On Labor Day, he released a plan detailing how he would create jobs if elected.

Voss said Gray is in a perfect position to tout his business background, partially because of the lack of establishment money coming into his campaign.

“Because the party is not really focused here, they’re focused in Ohio, they’re focused in some of those more promising areas for Democrats, it seems that he can do what wise candidates always try to do, which is to try to go for the middle-of-the-road voter,” Voss said. “I mean those are the ones that ultimately decide elections. And it’s usually those outside donors and those party officials that keep a Democrat from trying to appeal to the middle of the state where they need to do so.”

The majority of Business Leaders for Gray have a long history of donating to Democrats, but a few of them have consistently donated to Republicans, including Ray Ball, the president of Ball Homes; Warren Rosenthal, the founder of Long John Silver’s; and Craig Turner, the CEO of CRM Companies and MedPro.

“People support candidates in various ways and that’s up to them,” Gray said. “One of those ways is to write a check. Another way is to give counsel and advice.”

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics