Several political veterans groups denounced Lexington Mayor Jim Gray this weekend, shortly after he unveiled a campaign ad criticizing former fighter pilot Amy McGrath for seeking to represent Central Kentucky in Congress after living here less than a year.
Three political action committees — With Honor, New Politics and VoteVets — were quick to denounce Gray’s ad, the first negative ad of the Democratic primary in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District. All three groups have endorsed McGrath.
“It’s an attack on her service,” said Jon Soltz, chairman and co-founder of VoteVets. “It’s military discrimination at best. You cannot tell somebody not to hire somebody for a job because of their service to the country.”
McGrath retired from the Marine Corps in July 2017 and moved to Georgetown shortly afterward. She grew up in the Northern Kentucky town of Edgewood.
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Soltz said he first asked the Gray campaign to take the ad down, but when Gray defended the ad to a veteran on Twitter, saying it does not attack McGrath’s service, Soltz said Gray should withdraw from the race. VoteVets has donated about $35,000 to McGrath's campaign.
“It shows that they really don’t understand the military and veterans,” Soltz said.
At a campaign stop in Winchester Monday, Gray said the ad was absolutely not an attack on veterans.
"What we did was we praised Amy McGrath's service," Gray said. "I had a mother and father who were both veterans and I have the highest regard for the military and veterans."
Jamie Emmons, Gray's campaign manager, defended the ad Sunday.
“Out of state donors, out of state PACs and out of state media have all lined up behind McGrath," Emmons said. "It's no wonder they don't have an issue with her never having lived in the district before, because they haven't spent much time here either. Of course it's not up to them, and the people who live here and have known Jim Gray for years just might see it differently.”
Gray wasn’t the first to challenge McGrath over her recent move to the district. State Sen. Reggie Thomas, another Democratic candidate, said people had been calling McGrath a “carpetbagger” during a televised debate and made subtle mention of it in his first online ad.
The ad shows a spinning globe that highlights places McGrath lived while she was in the service, before showing a moving truck headed to Central Kentucky.
“Now she’s running for Congress to represent the one place she’s never lived: here,” a narrator says. “In fact, she moved here from Maryland just last year to run for Congress. We honor Amy McGrath’s service, but shouldn’t she live here for a while before she tries to represent us?”
McGrath brought up the ad unprompted during a Sunday afternoon stop at her Versailles field office, delivering a defense of her biography that included reaching back to high school.
“Let me put this one to bed,” she told supporters, noting that other volunteers had raised questions after the ad. “I did grow up in Kentucky, I’ve spent the majority of my years in Kentucky. So I feel I’m as much a Kentuckian as anyone else.”
She noted she’d been inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame “and I’m pretty sure you have to be a Kentuckian to be inducted.”
And she said she played in the first Kentucky all-girls state soccer high school championship in her senior year.
The remarks in Versailles came after a volunteer at her Frankfort field office asked McGrath about how canvassers should respond to the ad if they were asked.
McGrath repeated her campaign statement calling the ad “sad,” and said the campaigns had agreed not to go negative.
“I’m moving on,” she said.” We’re done with that. We focus on our positive campaign.”
But, she added, “if you’re talking about the substantive response of me not living here, I can’t change that. I can’t do both. I can’t live here for 20 years and serve my country and serve the people of Kentucky in the way I was.”
McGrath has not aired any negative ads about Gray, but she has been critical of him throughout the campaign. She frequently refers to him as the establishment candidate during debates, noting that he was encouraged to run by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, who is a veteran of the Air Force, denounced Gray’s ad on Twitter and asked him to take it down. Lieu was supported by VoteVets.
"Stop attacking military service," Lieu said. "Take the ad down."
With Honor, a PAC that has spent $85,000 in the Central Kentucky district in support of McGrath, also weighed in and called for Gray to take down the ad.
“It would have been more comfortable for Lieutenant Colonel Amy McGrath to be in Kentucky all those years instead of the cockpit of an F-18 over the Middle East,” With Honor cofounder Rye Barcott said in a news release. “With Honor calls on Mayor Gray to put an end to this desperate attack. Our veterans sacrificed for our country and they deserve better.”