LEXINGTON, KY. — Only 65 miles separate this small city from the town of Morehead, home of Kim Davis and Ground Zero for the conservative backlash against gay marriage.
Yet here in the Bible Belt, voters surprisingly do not seem to care that their Democratic candidate for Senate, Jim Gray, is gay.
Gray is the only openly gay candidate running for Senate from a major party this cycle, a status that is drawing the spotlight to his otherwise long shot Democratic bid to unseat Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). And he says that his sexuality is simply not an issue in the race.
“It’s been a wedge issue for a long time,” Gray, 62, said in an interview. “But what I find today is that people care about results and performance. I haven’t seen it. I have not seen it as a problem.”
Gray is trailing Paul in the polls, but that hasn’t diminished his role in the 2016 narrative. The Lexington mayor is perhaps the best-known of the record number of gay candidates now running for local, state and federal office, and he is seen as a symbol of the LGBT community’s presence and aspirations in moderate to conservative states such as Georgia, Texas and North Carolina.
There are currently seven openly gay or bisexual members of Congress: six in the House and one in the Senate. Nine more LGBT Democrats, including Gray, are hoping to join their ranks next year along with a few openly gay Republicans. If a handful win — at least three have a clear shot — gay rights groups believe they could disproportionately influence federal LGBT debates.
At the same time, progress for the LGBT community has not been linear.
In addition to explosive measures like North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says he would overturn the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage, despite previous support for some gay rights. Trump’s running-mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), signed a controversial “religious freedom” bill in 2015, only later approving language to prevent businesses from refusing to serve gay and lesbian patrons.
Kentucky was the site of a major battle last year when Davis, the Rowan County clerk, refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples after the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Kentucky Senate then voted to expand a 2013 law to protect businesses that choose not to serve LGBT people. While the state House never took it up, advocates saw the vote as a cautionary tale.
“At this time last year, we were all celebrating the marriage equality victory at the Supreme Court,” Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund President and CEO Aisha C. Moodie-Mills said in a phone interview. “Immediately after that, our opponents went into high gear to figure out how they could either not comply with or dismantle LGBT protections around the country. … State lawmakers have really taken it into their own hands to write discriminatory measures.”
Gray has avoided participating in these conflicts. In fact, when Kentucky was debating its “religious freedom” statute, Gray stopped short of calling for the governor to veto it. He never commented publicly on Davis and rarely discusses LGBT issues in Lexington or on the campaign trail.
“He’s never run as a gay candidate,” said Martin Cothran, spokesman for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a socially conservative group. “It’s not something he’s ever worn on his sleeve. … For that reason, he’s not identified with gay issues.”
Gray’s sexuality is not a matter of public discussion among prominent Republicans, either. Paul and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) haven’t made it an issue. Davis, through her legal team, declined to comment on the Senate race. “She’s not getting into that,” a spokeswoman said.
Republicans are more concerned that Gray’s ideology is a bad fit for the state, which went for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 by a 23-point margin and heavily favors Trump this year.
“Jim Gray has nothing to offer Kentuckians beyond the standard Democratic talking points of anti-coal and anti-business policies and the expansion of an already bloated federal government,” said Tres Watson, communications director for Kentucky Republicans.
Enthusiasm for Trump’s campaign in Kentucky could provide a boost for Paul, 53, who has endorsed the nominee.
While he is independently wealthy — the Gray family owns an international construction firm with $1.1 billion in annual revenue — and has already loaned the campaign $1 million, Gray lacks statewide name recognition. It’s unclear how much his plans for a paid media blitz will affect his chances, though his campaign hinted he is willing to invest more of his own fortune in the race.
Gray is trailing Paul — who has held nearly 100 events across Kentucky since the beginning of the year — by 12 points in an automated poll of registered voters in early August by GOP firms RunSwitch PR and Harper Polling. The poll only surveyed landline phones, a significant limitation as half of Kentucky adults only use a cell phone. Some local observers believe the Democrat is softening the ground for a future statewide bid for office. He had $1.1 million in the bank compared to Paul’s $2.2 million as of June 30.
“Jim’s been shopping for a job in politics since 1998,” Paul told a crowd of voters Aug. 6. “His plan A is to be paid as the mayor of Lexington. … His plan B is to run for Senate at the same time. Sounds like a career politician to me.”
If the whole of Kentucky resembled Fayette County, which voted for President Obama in 2012 by one point, Gray would have a much better chance. He is a popular second-term mayor in Lexington, the county seat where Gray Construction — he serves as chairman of the board — employs 241 people in a building he helped convert from a vacant department store.
“He’s a builder,” said Lexington City Council member Amanda Mays Bledsoe, an occasional conservative sounding board for Gray. “He’s always thinking about it. That’s just where his mind goes.”
On a recent Monday, Gray was coming off the trial-by-fire that is Fancy Farm, Kentucky’s premiere political event and a choice forum for voters to vent rage at candidates and elected officials. (Gray, like many speakers, trained by having people yell at him.) During a stop at Gray Construction, employees congratulated him for beating expectations. “Especially with so few Democrats up there,” one woman said sympathetically.
The former CEO — “Jimmy” to company old-timers — is most at home during these visits. It was here that he embraced the open-office design that has become his signature in business and in the mayor’s office.
Shaking up Lexington’s physical character with an eye toward design is part of what excites Gray about being mayor. From his sleepy campaign headquarters high above the city, he can watch renovations on the old Fayette County Courthouse, a Lexington icon. One morning after a city commissioners meeting, he walked through a nearly finished new senior center, quoting Le Corbusier about how concrete is supposed to crack.
“I know what it’s like to lose,” Gray said at his campaign office. “I lost my first mayor’s race. I lost the primary. But we came back and won that. So I know you’ve got to play to win, but you can’t be afraid to lose.”
One day later, Paul was getting underway at his second campaign event in as many hours, delivering his conservative whiz-kid spiel to a 30-person crowd.
The town was Somerset, Trump territory and about as far as you can get from Lexington politically: Pulaski County went overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney by 61 points in 2012.
Paul managed to quote Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Lord Acton and Margaret Thatcher in the first three minutes of his talk. The crowd was entranced. He barely paused for half an hour.
The person Paul did not mention even once was Gray. Voters, too, reserved their ire.
“He’s a very successful businessman and has done quite well in Lexington,” said John Tuttle, 67, wearing a hat that said “Make America Great Again.” “Lexington seems to be working well. But I just cannot support the liberal causes of the Democratic Party.”
Does the fact Gray is gay affect Tuttle’s opinion? “I do know that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an issue.”