Recognizing that Jim Gray would be a different kind of Washington politician if elected to the U.S. Senate takes only a brief encounter. In a legislative chamber filled with soapbox orators — arguably including his opponent Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — the candidate stands out with a modest demeanor and a soft-spoken Kentucky drawl.
But Gray — who’s 63 and was twice elected mayor of Lexington — is also distinct because he’s an openly gay candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky, a “red” state in a region where the advances and opportunities enjoyed by LGBT people elsewhere aren’t present.
In an interview with the Washington Blade during one of his visits to Capitol Hill, the seventh-generation Kentuckian said his election to the Senate on Nov. 8 would dispel the notion openly LGBT candidates can’t achieve success in certain places of the country.
“I think there’s a widespread view that in the South, in the Midwest even, that LGBT candidates don’t really have a chance,” Gray said. “And I think what I know is that by focusing on results and performance that I proved that anyone can achieve what they hope to and that we should pursue those dreams.”
In addition to doubling the number of openly gay people in the Senate (Tammy Baldwin is currently the only openly gay person in the chamber), Gray’s election would make him the first openly gay statewide candidate elected in the region that has lagged behind in LGBT rights.
Following a profile of his candidacy in the D.C.-based newspaper Roll Call, Gray received an email from an openly gay aspiring politician in Georgia who was inspired by Gray’s openness. (The Washington Blade redacted the name of the individual who wrote the email upon request from the Gray campaign.)
“I want to thank you for running for Senate,” the email says. “I have been interested in a career in politics for quite some time now, but I never thought it possible to represent a historically red state, Georgia for me, until now. I am gay also, and I just wanted to let you know that thanks to you I am going to pursue my career in politics.”
Amid a contentious election season with name-calling on both sides, Gray said receiving that email makes him want to persevere in the face of challenges posed to his campaign.
“An email like that, or a message like that, provides a lot of inspiration for my candidacy because people are still saying this is a long shot running against Rand Paul, who a year ago was in a presidential campaign, and he has high name ID,” Gray said.
Recalling his decision to come out as gay 11 years ago during his tenure as Lexington mayor, Gray said changes for LGBT people since that time have been seismic.
“Coming out 11 years ago was almost a century ago in some respects,” Gray said. “A lot of change has occurred in 11 years. There was nothing casual about it…especially in the South, especially in a red state like Kentucky. I think that’s where still some of the toughest and most challenging battles are before us.”
But Gray is basing his campaign on his ability to “get results.” His long career in local politics includes election to the Lexington City Council in 2006 and election as mayor in 2010, followed by reelection in 2014. From 2004 to 2009, Gray was president of Gray Construction, a family business previously run by his father, overseeing a 38 percent increase in revenue.
The experience at Gray Construction, Gray said, helped him overcome financial challenges as mayor, including the elimination of a budget deficit of 10 percent, fixing a fire and police pension underfunded by $350 million and reforming health insurance for city employees.
“I proved that you can take good management practices and principles and you can translate those from private sector into government, and you can get results,” Gray said.
In contrast to his candidacy, Gray said Paul — who opposes marriage equality and voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — has exhibited “a pattern of abdication” when it comes to LGBT people — and everyone else.
“I think he claims to be a libertarian, and then he doesn’t support marriage equality,” Gray said. “He claims to be a constitutionalist, and then he doesn’t support the Senate taking up the nomination of the Supreme Court candidate Merrick Garland. So, Paul’s all over the board. He’s certainly not demonstrated support for the LGBT community.”
Aisha Moodie-Mills, CEO of the Victory Fund, said the appeal of Gray, whom her organization has endorsed, is “pitch perfect for Kentucky voters.”
“His campaign is about growing the state’s economy and improving the lives of the middle class because he understands this election is about the concerns of Kentuckians – not about him,” Moodie-Mills said. “His election would be a dramatic victory for equality. For us, his candidacy is so exciting because he would add a unique and much needed perspective to the U.S. Senate.”
But despite the potential significance of Gray’s election to the U.S. Senate, he faces hurdles to winning in a “red” state where Donald Trump is popular and Hillary Clinton is not. According to an August poll from the Kentucky-based RunSwitch PR and Harper Polling, Paul leads with 50 percent of support compared to 38 percent for Gray — a margin of 12 points.
Gray pointed to fundraising numbers — he’s raised $2.9 million and has more than $1 million in cash on hand — and a demonstrated ability to “get things done” as reasons why in a “red” state he could ultimately achieve victory on Election Day.
“And at the end of the day, I have confidence that that’s what the voters want to see,” Gray said. “Somebody who actually wants to get things done. I’ve made a business career where I created thousands of jobs, where I was a problem solver, did the same thing in government. As far as I know, Rand Paul has never created a job in his life and he doesn’t know how to run anything.”
Perhaps to avoid diminishing his electoral prospects, Gray wouldn’t completely denounce Trump when asked if the GOP nominee would roll back LGBT rights as president.
“He said he wouldn’t,” Gray said. “You either take him at his word or you don’t. I think you look at the alliances Trump has and it makes us wonder. It’s not unexpected it would make us wonder. He’s clearly tried to reach out to the community, but he’s doing that with lots of minorities.”
As for Clinton, Gray was also measured, saying advancing LGBT rights has “been her history,” but tempered that by adding “at least recently.”
“If you dial back 20 years, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ a lot of these are Clinton initiatives, defense of marriage,” Gray said. “So they had a change of heart, or change of mind themselves, but that’s not unlike America. I think that’s what we’ve seen in the march toward human rights within the LGBT community. We’ve seen a dramatic change quickly. And I think my candidacy is frankly an illustration of that.”
If elected to the Senate, Gray said the Equality Act — comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination legislation — would be an LGBT rights issue he’d champion.
“I think it’s important to focus on discrimination at every level,” Gray said. “Discrimination at any level is a threat to freedom and justice and equality at every level, and including our transgender community is also important. And that’s a piece of this legislation that’s relevant and certainly legislation that I would support and champion.”
Gray said he discussed the Equality Act — which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — with Baldwin, who’s an original co-sponsor of the bill.
As Lexington mayor, Gray has experience in advancing a pro-LGBT rights initiative: The extension of domestic spousal benefits to city employees with same-sex partners. Although the measure may seem quaint in 2016, Lexington made the decision to extend them before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of same-sex marriage made such benefits mandatory.
Gray recalled working with the city council — which had already enacted a prohibition on LGBT discrimination in the city — to take the next step and advance partner benefits because “it was the right thing to do.”
“We had instituted domestic partner benefits in our family’s business before that, and that was with my encouragement at the business,” Gray said. “And we thought it was the right time for the city to also initiate partner benefits.”
Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky-based Fairness Campaign, said Gray’s election to the U.S. Senate after having worked to advance LGBT issues in Lexington would send a nationwide signal.
“Jim Gray’s election to the United States Senate would be historic for LGBT people nationwide, but especially for LGBT Kentuckians,” Hartman said. “It would signal to so many LGBT youth in rural states that they have the same potential as everyone else.”
Gray said “any place can be a good place” to be LGBT, but living in a state home to Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis — who gained national attention for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — is not without challenges.
“It’s what you make of it,” Gray said. “I’ve always engaged challenges. I think challenges are healthy, so, for me, coming out 11 years ago running for city council was an expression of a dream that I’d always had for public service.”
Over the course of his Senate campaign, Gray said his sexual orientation has “not openly” been a negative issue, but he “had a couple of encounters where it was awkward.” Being gay, Gray said, has received more attention now as opposed to his earlier local campaigns because his bid for a Senate seat is “more of a national race.”
“There’s no escaping that I experienced some concerns about it, some apprehension about it, the extent to which sexual orientation would be an issue,” Gray said. “But I’m very proud of who I am, so any anxiety that I’ve had about it was dispelled quickly.”
That self-assurance as well as recognition of national progress on LGBT acceptance, Gray said, encourages him to seek to break another barrier with his election to the U.S. Senate.
“Ten years ago, I would never have imagined myself sitting here with you doing this interview with you,” Gray said. “I was thinking running for city council and winning would be a big deal, so that shows that things have come a long way.”