Editor's Note: This is the first of three profiles of leading candidates in the Democratic primary to represent Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray hopped in and out of a black SUV one recent Sunday in a Republican-leaning neighborhood not far from Lansdowne Shoppes.
At each stop, he checked a list of the registered Democrats he was targeting that day. He said the name once or twice, knocked on the door and asked for their vote in May.
One man who opened the door instantly recognized Gray, but told him he was having a hard time deciding between the three Democratic candidates in Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District. He said he wished Gray had run for another term as mayor, or even governor.
It wasn't the first time Gray has had to justify his presence in a race with two other strong Democrats.
Now, five months into the campaign, he’s worked the answer into his stump speech.
“Lexington is on the right track, our country isn’t,” Gray said in a recent iteration at his Lexington campaign headquarters. “There’s a lot going on in the country that deserves experienced people and seasoned people.”
Gray has been in charge since he was 19. After his father’s death in 1972, Gray helped run the family business, Gray Construction. He leveraged that business experience into running the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council as vice mayor in 2006 and then the entire local government as mayor for the last eight years.
Now he wants to start over. Should he get elected, Gray would walk into the Capitol a year before he’s eligible for full Social Security benefits as the junior member of the Kentucky delegation. After years of making executive decisions, he’ll be 0.2 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives, forced to work with others to achieve his goals.
Gray said he isn’t daunted by the prospect of coalition building and deal making. He shrugs off a question about whether he’ll enjoy being a legislator after years of being in charge.
“I’ve had that push back before, when I was on the city council,” Gray said. “But over time, if you’re persistent, then you can achieve the results that you hope to.”
A legislator’s role
For four years, Gray presided over the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, working with other people to pass legislation.
“Yes there’s only 15, but it’s still working with others, working together with others collaboratively to achieve something,” Gray said of his time leading the council. “And I know that these skill sets are unique.”
Gray started his term as vice mayor quietly, learning the ways of government, said Don Blevins Jr., who served on the city council for two years with him. There was a lot to learn.
“He gradually got the confidence and knowledge to use his position as a bully pulpit and try to execute change,” Blevins said.
As problems arose, Gray used his role to speak out, often calling for reform.
Shortly after the Herald-Leader published a report about the misuse of public funds by the executive director of Blue Grass Airport, Gray called for the resignation of the board chairman and an audit of the airport.
“He wasn’t so much about bringing legislation as he was steering the legislation of the day,” Blevins said.
Gray asserted himself most during a controversy about the proposed CentrePointe development. After years in the construction business, Gray questioned the plan to build a high-rise hotel and office building in downtown Lexington during the Great Recession. Even though steel frames are now rising from the ground 10 years later, Gray was largely proven right about a project derisively called “CentrePit.”
“He knew from his background building his company,” said Councilwoman Peggy Henson, who served on the council for the last two years of Gray’s term as vice mayor. “He knew what it took to build something of that magnitude and he didn’t see it happening.”
Overall, Blevins and Henson said they are impressed with the job Gray did leading the council and city.
“I think he did a better job as mayor than as a city councilman,” said Blevins, who is not endorsing anyone in the Democratic race because he is the Fayette County Clerk. “I don’t think he did a bad job as vice mayor, but he wasn’t introducing much legislation.”
Mike Scanlon, a Republican who preceded Gray as vice mayor, said Gray isn’t detail oriented and criticized his ability to legislate and govern.
“He’s going to go in there at 65 and he’s going to go in there as a junior with no stick,” Scanlon said. “I don’t think Jim knows how to operate unless he carries a big stick.”
It can take a lifetime for a representative to see his vision for a district come to fruition in a partisan U.S. Capitol that values seniority, but Gray said he’ll be able to make the transition.
“I’ve been able to adjust and adapt and that’s what I’ll be able to do here,” Gray said. “I try to make friends, I try to meet with people. I know that may sound corny and cliché, but that’s how you get things done. And especially in a legislative body.”
An executive’s vision
Gray has a skill set uniquely suited toward urban issues. Aside from his construction background, useful in a time when Lexington is deciding whether to expand into surrounding farmland or build within its existing boundaries, he studied urban planning at Harvard as a Loeb Fellow.
“His ideation skills are very good,” Scanlon said. “He can see things in a pile other people can’t see. He has a good imagination.”
While some have criticized his lack of attention to detail — a 2010 New Year’s message to Gray from the Herald-Leader editorial board shouted “Follow through! Become a details guy…” — almost all have complimented his ability to think outside of the box.
“He’s kind of like a whirlwind,” said Ann Stewart, Gray’s childhood friend who also worked for Gray Construction. “He’d want to achieve something, but how he’d get there might not be the normal way.”
“We often get frustrated trying to compromise,” Henson said. “He is able to find that common ground and be innovative about it.”
Gray has emphasized his mayoral record throughout his congressional campaign. In recent weeks, he has leaned particularly hard on the work he did to address an epidemic of opioid abuse.
While Gray touts his experience, others are busy painting him as an establishment Democrat. Gray has long been involved in Democratic politics in Kentucky, and the campaign of former fighter pilot Amy McGrath has used that connection as a foil to paint her as the outsider candidate.
"Voters like the idea of outsiders and people who can shake things up," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
That isn't to say voters will punish Gray for his experience, Voss said, but his time as mayor may not matter much to them this year.
"Voters don't seem to value experience as they once did," Voss said.
Fitting the role
Jim Gray first represented Kentuckians at the national level in 1972. As the youngest member of the Kentucky delegation elected to the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Gray fought to be taken seriously.
Back home, "some people say I'm not old enough to know anything," an 18-year-old Gray told the Associated Press at the convention.
That home was Glasgow, where Gray played trombone in the high school band, worked at the family's business on weekends and in the summer, and was occasionally called "Mr. Brooks Brothers."
Gray has spent a lot of time highlighting those rural roots this spring. It’s a political strategy — an effort to help the gay mayor with a contemporary art gallery in his home appeal to voters in the district's rural counties. But it also calls back an earlier time, when Gray, in his early twenties, had to prove himself in a cutthroat construction business.
Seven years after his father died, Gray Construction teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. As the company slowly worked its way back to profitability, Gray saw an opportunity with the Japanese market and aggressively pursued Japanese businesses.
"We were omnipresent, we were everywhere," Gray said of the company's effort to recruit Toyota to Kentucky. "We were going to win that contract and we were the only Kentucky contractor on that project. So that was a big inflection point. And that led to building for a lot of the suppliers."
Gray has tried to morph his ability to recruit businesses into an ability to recruit voters. As he learned in 2016, when he challenged Rand Paul for his U.S. Senate seat, there's a big difference between local and federal politics. The spotlight is brighter, there are more voters and most of them don't know you personally.
In his 12 years in politics, Gray still hasn’t perfected the art of the stump speech. He sounds less like Willie Stark from "All The King's Men" on a stump and more like a student giving a presentation; writing answers in his head, then stopping and starting when they don’t come out as he intended.
Gray’s campaign says it’s what makes him authentic, that it shows the people of Central Kentucky that he is like them and not a polished politician.
But it’s unclear how his style would translate to the gloss of D.C., where U.S. Rep. Andy Barr can take a question about how people are angry at him for his support of Obamacare repeal and seamlessly spin it into an answer about why people are mad about Obamacare.
Gray sees the spin from people like Barr and, in a joke he has cracked several times on the campaign trail, says they need “adult supervision.”
“I think we’re at a particularly challenging time where voices of reason, voices of experience and reason will be effective,” Gray said. “And that’s what I’ve got.”