Jim Gray: Points to empty block downtown, controversies

Jim Gray talked with members of Knitters for Gray outside the Sidebar Grill early this month. The vice mayor has taken a leave of absence from his job as CEO of Gray Construction to campaign for mayor.
Jim Gray talked with members of Knitters for Gray outside the Sidebar Grill early this month. The vice mayor has taken a leave of absence from his job as CEO of Gray Construction to campaign for mayor.

Jim Gray never sits at his desk.

That's because there's no chair, and the desk itself is a modern design raised to a height for standing.

"You won't have a meeting with me sitting behind my desk and others sitting on the other side," Gray said. "That's a barrier. I believe in removing barriers."

Gray, who is Lexington's vice mayor, is taking a leave of absence as president and CEO of Gray Construction while he runs for mayor. He recently returned to the company's headquarters to talk with a reporter about the race.

It was a fitting setting because the company, and the East Main Street building in which it is located, are frequently mentioned when Gray talks about why he believes voters should promote him to the top spot.

"This city deserves a level of experienced leadership that someone in business can provide," he said.

Gray is attempting to unseat Mayor Jim Newberry in the non-partisan contest by persuading voters that Newberry has run a scandal-ridden administration and has no vision for the city. Newberry, whose campaign is built around touting his accomplishments over the past four years, dismisses the criticism as Monday morning quarterbacking from a do-nothing vice mayor.

Gray says it is unique for someone his age, 57, to have "managed and led" a business for 38 years.

Gray was 19 and a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta in 1972 when his father, company founder James N. Gray, died. Most of the immediate heavy lifting in running the company fell to Jim Gray's mother, Lois, and to Howard, his oldest brother.

The company ultimately relocated from Glasgow to Lexington and occupied various spaces around town. In 1997, it moved into the former Wolf Wile department store. It kept the original store front, including the name in black letters against white limestone, but dramatically renovated the interior into an open space in which Gray's stand-up desk is out on the floor like everyone else's.

Magical place

Gray mentions the building often, using it to draw a distinction between himself and Newberry, who supported the 2008 demolition of a block of buildings down the street for a high-rise development called CentrePointe. The block now is covered with grass.

The CentrePointe controversy is one where the line is clearest between Gray and Newberry.

Newberry says it is wrong for a public official to oppose a legal project just because he doesn't like it. Gray says that, because of his experience in the construction business, he knew the project was doomed to fail. He also says that as mayor he will speak out when he believes a major project is not right for the city.

"Development in Lexington has not been as special as this place is special," he said.

Gray often speaks of Lexington as an almost magical place. He has put out a 36-page "Fresh Start" campaign platform with details of what voters could expect from a Gray administration.

It includes creating a cabinet-level position that would put more emphasis on planning, preservation and economic development; bringing back the chief administrative officer position; giving local companies preference on city contracts; and moving the mayor's office from the 12th floor to the first floor of the government center.

Gray said it spells out 77 "actionable steps" spread over 13 key areas, such as traffic, environment, public safety, the arts, aging and diversity.

But Gray often sprinkles his talks not with specifics but with words such as "vision" and "imagination."

"A city is full of opportunity, just like a business is," he said recently. "It requires imagination. It requires creativity. It requires the ability to get along with people. It requires the ability to listen, to listen eloquently and listen carefully and process that information in a way that leads to problem solving."

All talk?

Some of Gray's critics say he talks a good talk but doesn't know how to implement his ideas.

Former Vice Mayor Mike Scanlon, who like Gray has a business background, said one of the first things he learned after being elected is that there are two types of officials: policy makers and bosses.

"Jim Gray is a dreamer," Scanlon said. "He's not the boss of anything."

Dr. David Stevens, a former at-large Urban County Councilman, said that, after serving alongside both Newberry and Gray, he considers Newberry to be a good manager "and I don't think Jim Gray would be."

Newberry and his supporters say Gray has missed many meetings, including nearly half the meetings of the Lexington Center Corp. board, 75 percent of meetings about Lexington's part of the federal stimulus package, and 72 percent of the meetings of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which deals in traffic issues for Fayette and Jessamine counties. They also charge that he has taken the initiative on no legislative issues.

Gray counters the latter charge with a list of task forces he has appointed to deal with things such as the Lyric Theater, economic development and the new storm sewer fee.

Gray's friends say Newberry and his supporters are creating an incorrect image of the vice mayor.

"If I wrote a book, it would probably be How to Get It Done, by Jim Gray, said Craig Turner, who owns several businesses, including the local Raising Cane's franchises.

Turner was director of industrial development in the administrations of John Y. Brown Jr. and Martha Layne Collins. The latter was marked by the arrival of a large Toyota assembly plant in Scott County and many supplier companies.

People in Frankfort "didn't even know where Japan was" when Gray Construction opened an office there, Turner said.

"We piggy-backed on what they were doing and the contacts they had made," he said.

Gray Construction got the contract for part of the Toyota plant and became the company of choice for Japanese suppliers looking to move across the Pacific Ocean.

Gray still is ranked No. 3 in the nation for auto plant construction by Engineering News Record.

Dan Rowland, a University of Kentucky historian and director-emeritus of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, says he has heard comments that Gray is a flake, or has a short attention span.

"My own experience is that he gets things done," Rowland said. "And I think it's a lot more important to have a person with vision who can get people around him to implement the vision rather than have a person with no vision."

Personal fortune

Business has been good to Gray, and he is a millionaire. That allowed him to take from his own pocket nearly one-third of the nearly $1 million he spent in an unsuccessful 2002 mayoral race. Just before he filed to run for mayor this time, he wrote off more than $100,000 in loans for the 2006 race that made him vice mayor. He has lent at least $100,000 to his current campaign.

For relaxation, Gray said he likes spending time with family and friends and playing golf, although he has had little spare time lately.

Gray was married for seven years to Cathy Binder, and they maintain a cordial relationship. He has since acknowledged publicly that he is gay. He says there is no significant other in his life.

Gray's campaign has been mentioned on several gay-oriented Web sites, and he has received a $1,000 contribution from Jared Polis, an openly gay congressman from Colorado.

But Gray says the issue never comes up on the campaign trail because "what I hear people talking about is the city's needs ... and the belief that we need a new direction."

Last December, when he announced he would run for mayor, Gray said Newberry was not a bad person but had made bad decisions. That evolved into what he called the "scandals" of the Newberry administration, a list that involves the failed CentrePointe project, spending problems at the Blue Grass Airport and the Lexington Public Library, and a new Kentucky American Water Treatment plant.

In Gray's view, he's been representing taxpayers against the "special interests" Newberry is protecting.

"I've had to do a lot of blocking and tackling," from the vice mayor's chair, he said.

Gray said that, because he is accustomed to speaking frankly when negotiating business deals, he is comfortable pointing out what he sees as Newberry's mistakes.

"This is a city with a rich 235-year history, the 65th largest in America," he said. "I believe with total conviction that we can translate good business practices and principles into government."

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