Politics & Government

Bill Vermillion relies on varied life experiences while campaigning

Lt. Governor candidate Bill Vermillion posed for a photo before the annual Louisville Frankfort Avenue Easter Parade on April 23, 2011. Photo by Angela Shoemaker
Lt. Governor candidate Bill Vermillion posed for a photo before the annual Louisville Frankfort Avenue Easter Parade on April 23, 2011. Photo by Angela Shoemaker

FRANKFORT — After filing papers in late January to run on a slate with Bobbie Holsclaw in the Republican gubernatorial primary, lieutenant governor candidate Bill Vermillion Jr. stopped to refuel at a Frankfort gas station.

"I thought, 'Well, I may as well start now,'" Vermillion said.

So he hopped out of the car, approached a woman pumping gas and delivered his inaugural campaign stump speech.

"She just let me have it," Vermillion said of his first voter tongue-lashing.

The woman's husband, who was in the horse industry, had moved to Louisiana because he couldn't find work in Kentucky. She hadn't seen him in seven months, she said.

"Look, I'm not a politician," Vermillion told her.

He was a high school teacher, a 30-year Navy veteran and father to three grown children. He, too, knew what it was like to have family leave Kentucky in search of a paycheck. His son and daughter were living in Texas because they couldn't find work in Kentucky.

Vermillion and Holsclaw want to change the tax structure to make it easier for small businesses, he told her.

"She eventually calmed down," Vermillion said, laughing.

It's his life story that Vermillion, 50, and a first-time candidate, uses most on the campaign trail.

He has never held elected office or campaigned before this spring, and he admits he has yet to perfect the two- or three-minute campaign speech — a centerpiece of Republican Party Lincoln Day dinners.

But his military career and time in front of a classroom give him an ease with people, said Holsclaw, the Jefferson County clerk.

"A lot of people really relate to him," Holsclaw said of Vermillion. "It's his military experience and because he's a teacher."

A Bracken County native, Vermillion joined the Navy after graduating in 1979 and spent the next 30 years in the service. He was stationed around the country and was deployed overseas five times. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

During his stint in the military, he received a bachelor's degree and a master's in business administration and was also ordained as a minister.

Two years ago, Vermillion decided he would like a permanent address.

"It was just time," Vermillion said of his decision to retire in 2009 as a command master chief.

His wife of 31 years, Lois, a Mason County native, was itching to return to Kentucky. The two bought a farm in Grayson County, and Vermillion started to look for a second career. A friend was teaching high school in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and told Vermillion he should think about teaching.

The ROTC position he applied for and received was at The Academy at Shawnee in Louisville, just shy of 100 miles from home.

Vermillion wakes up at 3 a.m. each weekday to reach school on time. He has been making the nearly 200-mile round trip each day for two years.

"We have some awesome kids," Vermillion said.

But some students at the inner-city school don't have coats, wear flip-flops instead of shoes in the winter and don't want to leave when the final bell rings.

"School is their sanctuary," he said.

After being away from Kentucky for most of the past 30 years, he thought conditions would have improved.

"It hit me really hard that first year," Vermillion said. "I really needed that hour-and-a-half drive home."

He makes every student shake his hand when they enter class. He doesn't do fist bumps.

"Some time in their life, they're going to have a job interview, and they're going to need to know how to shake someone's hand," Vermillion said.

At the Fleming County courthouse one day this April, Vermillion took his own advice and stopped every person walking into Fleming County Clerk Jarrod Fritz's office to shake hands.

But Vermillion, who recently took an unpaid leave of absence from his teaching job to campaign, also spent a lot of time listening as Fritz and Fleming County Judge-Executive Larry Foxworthy explained some of the county's problems — which include high unemployment and escalating costs to house county prisoners.

Later that day, Greg Wells, one of the owners of GreenTree Forest Products, told Vermillion one of the biggest problems in the rural, agricultural county is drugs — particularly prescription drug abuse.

Only one out of 10 potential job applicants at GreenTree typically pass a drug test, Wells said.

"It's a huge problem," he said.

Vermillion says he is not only worried about the prescription drug problem but also one of the side effects of Kentucky's high addiction rates — the increasing number of children who are abused or neglected by their parents.

"We're number one in the country in child abuse," Vermillion said. "No one is talking about that."

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