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Local Politics in a Time of Partisan Divides: An Interview with Jim Gray

Image via Jim Gray

Jim Gray is the current Kentucky secretary of transportation in the administration of Governor Andy Beshear. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet maintains more than 27,000 miles of roadways along with 57 public airports and 33 public transportation systems. Gray served as the mayor of Lexington from 2011 to 2019. Facing immediate deficits on day one as mayor, Gray righted Lexington’s financial ship through a series of major reforms, which included reducing the city’s employee health insurance costs. His reform of the police and fire pension system preserved the retirements of more than 1,000 retirees. Today, Lexington is ranked the third safest city in the United States. As mayor, Gray focused on three core themes: creating jobs, running the government efficiently, and building a great American city. In 2018, Lexington was named the fourth best-run city in the country. At the start of his career, Jim Gray earned a BA from Vanderbilt University and then came home to help grow his family’s construction firm, Gray Construction, accepting a Loeb Fellow appointment at Harvard along the way. Gray Construction is today ranked among the top five US builders within major industry sectors, including manufacturing, automotive, food and beverage, and distribution.

Benjamin Greenberg: Looking back at all the things you’ve done—all of these projects you’ve been doing as secretary of transportation, mayor, City Council member—what area in government do you feel you’ve made the biggest impact on the state or local level? 

Jim Gray: Ben, I struggle with that question because every role I’ve held has involved really talented people and teams of people working together to solve problems. As Transportation Secretary, I view all of these roles, whether it’s leading our family business or doing the same in a city or today in the role of assisting our Governor and working in the administration, as ones that involve problem solving, ones that involve innovation and invention, and often thinking and adapting and adjusting to different challenges and different problems, different opportunities. So, it’s hard for me to say which one that I’ve enjoyed the most. I will say that I remember what Michael Bloomberg said often when he was mayor of New York City. He said that the job of mayor is the toughest in the country. He would often say that to a cohort of mayors that he would bring together and, looking at it in the rearview mirror, it is a really tough job, but it’s a very rewarding job as well.

BG: Given the rise of partisanship and gridlock at the federal level, how is local government unique in its ability to facilitate impactful policy change?

JG: Great question. I would say that we’re seeing the most effective policymaking still occurring at the local level. You see much lower levels of partisanship at the local level. Now, it’s still there and, regrettably, local politics have recently been infected by the national partisanship to some extent. But I’m always looking at the glass half full rather than half empty. I’m hopeful that we can fix the more acrimonious and adversarial relationships at the federal level.

BG: Having grown up in a rural community and then serving as mayor of an urban city, what are your thoughts on the partisan and rural-urban divide right now in our country, not just politically, but also socially and culturally? What are ways we can bridge those gaps? 

JG: I’ve seen up close in Governor Andy Beshear that he has been incredibly inspiring in that respect because his outreach has been to rural parts of Kentucky just as much as to urban parts of Kentucky. His reelection recently really did confirm that you can reach more people and you can reach across and bridge divides and you can come together as, in our case, Team Kentucky, not red or blue. As the governor says, these bridges aren’t red or blue, and you don’t have a left and a right when you’re building a road. You don’t have these divisions when you’re working on projects like this; what you have is a unified effort to work together. And so I’ve actually seen very rewarding and encouraging relationships develop in small communities like where I grew up, in a small community of 10,000 people in Glasgow in southern Kentucky, and in large cities like Louisville. For me, it’s very encouraging to see that we’re working across those borders and those boundaries to create, in our case, a better Kentucky.

BG: Prior to serving as Kentucky’s secretary of transportation, you were mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. You were one of the first openly gay mayors in a large American city. In a deep red state like Kentucky, how have your experiences been with dealing with prejudice? How has your city reacted? How have you dealt with that? 

JG: In 2010, I was elected the first openly gay mayor in Lexington’s history and one of the few in the country at the time. It was rewarding for me. It was encouraging and it was a confirmation for me—and I think for all members of the LGBTQ+ community—that someone could overcome obstacles that were really present then. In the course of my tenure as mayor, I discovered that people really wanted someone who was going to focus on problem solving. They wanted someone who was going to take a responsible view of the work that needed to be accomplished and someone who would get the work done. I was fortunate that Lexington and its people are very welcoming and inviting. I was able to get the job done without really any consideration of me being gay. 

Everyone has things they need to overcome in life—challenges and adversity. Just last week, during the last three days of the governor’s reelection campaign, a young woman came up to me to say that, as mayor, I was a role model for her as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. That’s just an example of a reward of the job that I did as mayor.

BG: When running for mayor, you campaigned on running government like an efficient business and cutting down on spending. Looking back, what do you think was the most effective thing you did to cut spending and make Lexington the fourth best-run city in 2018? 

JG: To give some context, one of the first things I did as mayor was move my office from the top floor of City Hall to an open office on the first floor, the same way Michael Bloomberg did in New York. Now, I didn’t do that as an innovation. I, like Bloomberg, had come out of a business office with an open floor plan and no partitions. I was also spending a lot of time in Japan, so I saw the way this concept operated—it’s designed for people to communicate better. Young people can learn faster when they’re hearing others on the phone. Today, now that we’re doing virtual meetings, that model may not be as efficient as it was when I took office. You’ve got a different learning context and a different method of communication.

In terms of what we were able to do, I said from the beginning of my term that we had three goals: making the government run more efficiently, creating jobs, and building Lexington into a great American city. We had to reduce our costs to do this, so we did a reengineering of our pension plan, which meant bringing all the constituents to the table, especially the fire and police departments. Their pension plans are robust today, but they were really struggling when I took office to meet the actuarial needs. We brought everyone to the table, and after several months, we worked through it. Since that time, the Lexington pension plan has performed really well. My understanding is that today, it’s a fund of over $1 billion, which is working to provide for retirements for our fire and police officers.

Another area that we were overspending on was our insurance program, so we had to do a reform of that as well. And the two of those together meant that we were able to trim our costs and make some investments. We made those investments in public safety and in economic growth projects, like the reinvention of Rupp Arena and a new Convention Center. We’ve been able to activate our downtown and attract more tourists. We renovated an old courthouse that had been abandoned, and it’s now a real showpiece for the city. We put a new park, Town Branch Commons, which is a linear park, through the city and connected 22 miles of multimodal trails. 

All of this together meant a new way of looking at the city of Lexington. I saw the city, in a sense, like a blank canvas where we could really do a lot of new good work. I attribute a lot of that to my business background. In business, you can’t stand still. You have to be continually innovating and looking forward and imagining what it is today and what it could be in the future. That was a real motivation for me.

Now, those were the projects, but we also had a number of challenges. Just like other cities, we have the challenge of those who are unhoused, those who are homeless. We worked hard on addressing these issues to try to find solutions. We created an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that the city has built up over the years since I was mayor. Now, Lexington is creating more housing for those who need it, which is a big deal.

BG: That sounds like a great project. Could you tell me more about it?

JG: The city invests annually in building more affordable housing. When I was mayor, we committed $2 million a year and then we leveraged that money with other sources of funding, like grants. That $2 million gets leveraged into more like $20 or $30 million for a project. We use the language “Trust” but we’re actually utilizing these funds annually. We’re not banking them and holding on to them. We’re investing these into renovation projects and new brick-and-mortar projects.

Ben: As we reflect on the big projects you’ve accomplished in the past, are there any ongoing projects in the Department of Transportation in Kentucky that you feel particularly passionate about? Many projects in Kentucky are highway-focused, but are there any ways that you envision using your role to promote environmentally friendly projects like reducing carbon emissions? 

JG: That’s a wonderful question and one that we’re very much focused on. Innovation in the highway space is especially focused on reducing carbon emissions. Let me say that Kentucky today is building one of the largest electric vehicle battery plants in the world. Actually, two have been announced: one for Ford and one associated with Nissan. The Ford plant in Elizabethtown, Kentucky is almost a $7 billion project. The focus of it is to give us cleaner emissions as we develop the electric vehicle infrastructure. We’re also building out the charging stations around the state; that’s within the Transportation Department. So one of my responsibilities is to build out almost 40 charging stations around our interstates and parkways. All of this is associated with creating a cleaner and healthier environment.

BG: Just last month, Kentucky made headlines for the reelection of Governor Beshear. What was the significance of this win for you and for the future of the state?

JG: Well, Governor Beshear left nothing on the field. If you’ve run a campaign the way I have, you learn that it can be nonstop for the candidate. Governor Beshear worked so hard all the time. Whether it had been a win or not, there was a recognition of this hard work by himself, his campaign staff, and all the campaign volunteers. It’s uplifting to see this. 

Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, our country is so blessed to have this democratic process and to engage in it in a vigorous, sometimes really competitive way, which was the case in this last election. But, then, to get through it and to work together is what is inspiring about our democracy. I know that may sound kind of corny and cliché, but that’s the way I feel. I’m excited about our future in Kentucky.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.