Assessing the Lexington mayoral race

Vice Mayor Jim Gray's decision last week to enter the Lexington mayoral race means the field is likely set for next year's election.

Campaigns tend to take on lives of their own. So before the jockeying begins in earnest, here's an assessment of the candidates' records, strengths and weaknesses.

What do I know? I constantly talk to people all over Lexington who have worked with the three major candidates for years, in a variety of situations. So these observations are not just my own.

In addition to Gray, Mayor Jim Newberry faces challenges from the mayor he easily unseated three years ago, Teresa Isaac, and political novice Eric Patrick Marr.

Newberry and his hard-working staff have done a good job of managing the city in a tough economy. He has had the courage to tackle difficult issues he inherited, such as the police and firefighters' pension shortfall and decades-old storm water and sewer problems.

Newberry is solid and pragmatic, a detail-oriented manager who isn't afraid of heavy lifting. He is a clear public speaker, if not a very exciting one. But Urban County Council members and community leaders often complain about his skills at interpersonal communication. He can be stubborn, abrasive and thin-skinned.

Before becoming mayor, Newberry managed a law firm and, like a corporate lawyer, he can be cautious to a fault. He sometimes misses leadership moments, such as his slow response to the Blue Grass Airport scandal.

Newberry is decisive, but his decision-making process often lacks the kind of inclusiveness that encourages buy-in and allows the best ideas to come forward. For example, more inclusive planning and communication could have made the South Limestone Street project less costly and disruptive.

Newberry says the right things about urban redevelopment, but doesn't always seem to understand it. He has been a key champion of the Lyric Theatre restoration, recognizing what a catalyst it can be for the East End. But he has otherwise been hostile to historic preservation, not realizing that it can be a driver of economic development rather than an obstacle.

He has been a strong supporter of trails and making Lexington more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. But he has dragged his feet on two-way streets and opposes design guidelines like other cities use to promote good downtown development.

Perhaps Newberry's biggest misstep was his facilitation of the now-stalled CentrePointe development. And the less popular CentrePointe became, the more he seemed to embrace it.

Meanwhile, Newberry has given lukewarm support to the Distillery District project, which many people think has far more potential for economic development than CentrePointe ever did.

While Newberry talks a lot about the 21st century economy and attracting the "creative class," Gray seems to have better instincts about how to do it.

Gray was squeezed out of a three-way mayoral primary in 2002 by Isaac and lawyer Scott Crosbie, who has endorsed Gray in this race. Gray was elected to council in 2006, becoming vice mayor by receiving more votes than any other at-large council candidate.

Gray is an idea man who is less intellectually rigid than Newberry. While more inclusive than Newberry, he is less decisive. Gray can suffer from a short attention span and a lack of follow-through.

While good at using his bully pulpit as vice mayor, Gray hasn't been as skilled at building coalitions to pass legislation. He can be a dynamic public speaker when he's prepared. When he tries to wing it, though, he can quickly turn esoteric.

Gray is most articulate about development issues, because that's his business. He is trained in architecture and is chairman and chief executive of his family's highly regarded construction company.

If CentrePointe was Newberry's biggest mistake, it was Gray's shining moment. His critiques of the project have proven remarkably prophetic. However, in the year since CentrePointe stalled, council has yet to revise development laws to prevent that kind of debacle from happening again.

People often remark that if we could combine the two Jims from Barren County we would have a great mayor. Each has important skills, traits and sensibilities the other lacks.

Good management is important during times of economic transition. But so is vision and making the right strategic decisions and investments for the future.

In many ways, the voters' choice could come down to this question: Is it more likely that Newberry will become willing to listen to people more visionary than he is, or that Gray will hire good detail people who can help him get things done?

Then there is Isaac, who was turned out of office by a wide margin three years ago.

Isaac got good marks for her leadership during the 2003 ice storm. Otherwise, she was largely a disaster as mayor. She loved the job, but lacked many of the skills to do it. She didn't communicate well, she couldn't work with people and she sometimes seemed reckless.

Isaac is a good campaigner and still has pockets of support. But most community leaders think her time has come and gone.

Marr says he entered the race because he doesn't think Lexington is doing enough to develop a 21st century economy. He cares a lot about Lexington, but there's no evidence he has the skills to be mayor.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader