Politics

Kentucky Has a Gay Senate Candidate — Does Anybody Care?

America may be closer to a post-gay state of politics than most realize

U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray speaks the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

FANCY FARM, Ky. — Jim Gray walked to the lectern on stage, leaned in to the microphone, and began to speak. Kentucky’s openly gay Senate candidate was making history.

He would say later the boos were so loud he could barely hear his own voice.

No more than 10 yards in front of the Democrat, a teeming mass of yelling, chanting Republicans were trying to intimidate him. A few hundred of them had crammed underneath this pavilion, no bigger than half a football field, to stay dry from the storm soaking the surrounding fairgrounds in this tiny western Kentucky town.

Gray, of course, welcomed this.

Supporters of Republican Sen. Rand Paul wave signs and cheer at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Supporters of Republican Sen. Rand Paul wave signs and cheer at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The St. Jerome Fancy Farm Picnic is an annual showcase for Kentucky’s top politicians to give (they hope) a funny, sharp-elbowed speech at the other party’s expense. While they speak, hundreds of loud-mouthed partisans are encouraged to yell and scream as loudly as they can — as if the American political id was caged in a small pavilion two hours from a major airport.

“I want to introduce myself to Sen. McConnell,” he said, looking over to the Senate majority leader seated a few feet away, who minutes earlier had given his own speech. The Republicans, whose voices drowned out the sound of nearby thunder, chanted “Go away Gray!”    

The candidate continued: “He earlier called me a ‘nobody.’ Well, let me introduce myself, senator. I am Jim Gray, and I am the guy who is going to beat Rand Paul.”

What went unnoticed this recent Saturday afternoon was that Gray was probably first openly gay person to speak at Fancy Farm. Records aren’t easy to come by for something that began in 1880, but veterans of the event say they can’t recall an openly gay speaker.

This is how Gray’s campaign has gone: He’s making history, and nobody seems to notice. Or, for that matter, care.

Gray would be the first openly gay man to serve in the United States Senate, and the possibility that Kentucky would be the state to elect him should be remarkable. This is a Southern state that sits on the buckle of the Bible Belt, where even the Democratic Party is culturally conservative.

It’s a state where, only a year ago, Kim Davis made international news when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the small county where she served as a clerk.

And yet, Gray’s sexual orientation has drawn little interest, from voters, his opponents, or the even the media.

“I’m constantly surprised by what a non-issue this has become,” said Geoff Reed, a longtime adviser to Gray.

"I'm constantly surprised by what a non-issue this has become."

— Geoff Reed
Gray’s campaign is undoubtedly a sign of how far gay and lesbian candidates have come. It even suggests that in the year 2016, they may not have all that much further to go.

Voters have certainly moved past their bias and prejudice before. Catholics, for instance, once faced imposing barriers to office that, about the time John F. Kennedy won election in 1960, simply ceased to exist.

The LGBT community isn’t there yet. Even among Gray’s allies, beliefs that have been pushed to the boundaries of mainstream society — like whether being gay is a choice — persist.

But his candidacy suggests that only a year after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, this country might be closer to a kind of post-gay politics than many realize.

“You always hear that politics is a function of timing and pacing,” Gray said the day before attending Fancy Farm, seated not far from the stage where he had just delivered a speech in Paducah, Kentucky. “My being here, at this time, gives me the opportunity.”

Old news?

If Gray’s sexual orientation hasn’t received much attention in Kentucky, it might be because it’s old news there.

Gray publicly announced he was gay 11 years ago, in a 2005 front-page story of the Lexington Herald-Leader. He was contemplating a run for office and didn’t want whispers about his personal life to slow him down.

“We live in a small community,” he told the newspaper. “I’m active in it. I want to stay active in it. So if folks deserve to know more about me, I’m OK with that.”

"... If folks deserve to know more about me, I’m OK with that.”

— Jim Gray in 2005

Gray had run for mayor of Lexington three years earlier, in 2002, and lost. In part, according to some, because of rumors about his sexual orientation.

Some of his friends aren’t sure that’s true, but they’re crystal clear about the personal cost of keeping his sexual orientation hidden from public view. 

“I can tell you it affected him personally,” said Ben Chandler, a former congressman and longtime Gray ally. “I can tell you it was unfortunate for him to be a candidate and feel like there was something that people didn’t know.

“He didn’t feel like he was presenting his entire self and it made him uncomfortable,” the congressman added.

So when it came time for a new campaign in 2006, Gray knew he wanted to try to put questions behind him.

That didn’t make the decision easy: George W. Bush had just won re-election after pushing a series of state-based amendments banning gay marriage. In Kentucky, such a measure passed with 75 percent of the vote.

That same year, in the state’s highly competitive Senate race, the former president of the Kentucky state Senate said the Democratic nominee Daniel Mongiardo had a “limp wrist” — part of an orchestrated effort to insinuate he was gay.

Coming out “was probably the most single important thing I’ve done in my life,” said Gray, who won that 2006 race for an at-large city council seat and then was elected mayor in 2010.

He added: “It was also the single most difficult thing.”

U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray, center right, speaks with supporters at the 11th annual Alben Barkley Dinner hosted by the McCracken County Democrats in Paducah, Kentucky, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray, center right, speaks with supporters at the 11th annual Alben Barkley Dinner hosted by the McCracken County Democrats in Paducah, Kentucky, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Gray is of slight build and looks younger than his 62 years, with only flecks of gray hair near his temples. He’s seemingly one of the few politicians left who prefers thin-wired glasses over the thick, hipper type preferred by politicians like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Befitting a Democratic candidate in red Kentucky, his stump speech sounds like a Republican’s. He talks a lot about budget and pension reforms he undertook as mayor. He mentions good-paying jobs, working families, and cracks jokes about Paul spending more time in New Hampshire coffee shops than Kentucky’s towns and cities. When he can, he notes the successful and well-known family business, Gray Construction, he once helped run.

He’s also thoughtful in interviews. Asked during a sit-down if he considered himself a role model for the gay and lesbian community, he requested time to think about an answer.

Four days later, he called to offer one.

“I still have kids come up to me and tell me how meaningful it is to them that I am doing this.”

— Jim Gray

“I still have kids come up to me and tell me how meaningful it is to them that I am doing this,” he said. “That I have taken an out, public role.”

Gray, notably, mostly declines to talk on the record when asked about how being gay shaped his life before entering public service. But the native of Glasgow, a small town in southern Kentucky, offered one telling anecdote about how much society has changed: At about age 15, in the mid-1960s, he visited his local library to read the Kinsey Reports, a landmark study about human sexuality. It was then that he learned what the word “homosexual” meant.

In 2005, Gray said, reaction to his decision to come out publicly was universally positive.

But he knew that, even after more than a decade of social change, running statewide in Kentucky would be different.

Gray and his advisers, a team that included Chandler and Reed, debated the issue, before eventually deciding a campaign was worth it. The candidate's sexuality couldn't be written off entirely, but the team concluded it would have a minimal impact on the bottom line.

“There is always going to be bias and prejudice out there,” Chandler said. “But in this case, he wasn’t going to benefit from the votes of those people anyway.”

Gray explains it in a different way. To him, the decision to come out was also part of a political calculation to be totally honest with voters at a time when they were distrustful of their elected leaders.

In his thinking, being forthright with his personal life would yield more votes than being gay would cost.

“If I can convey an authentic character in that way, then that’s a very big deal politically,” Gray said. “Public trust in congress is at a low point. So in a sense, as a candidate I’m putting myself on the line for trust.”

In interviews, about a half-dozen other Democrats expressed a deep conviction that a gay candidate could not have run statewide a decade earlier. The state, they said, had come a long way since Gray's Herald-Leader coming-out story.

“Ten years ago? No way,” said Sam Gaskins, the Democratic Party’s nominee for Congress in Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District. “You have to think, you’re in the buckle of the Bible Belt here.”

Post-gay politics

The evidence that America is marching toward a state of post-gay politics is mounting, and not just in Kentucky.

Public opinion about same-sex marriage moved comprehensively in the last decade, precipitating the Supreme Court’s landmark decision last year. Already, the culture war appears to have moved on to a new flashpoint: transgender rights in bathrooms.

Voters, meanwhile, have already elected one gay senator, Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, way back in 2012. Another gay candidate, Democrat Angie Craig in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, is running this year with even less fanfare than Gray.

Even on the GOP side, attitudes are changing. When Sen. Rob Portman announced in 2013 that he would support same-sex marriage, social conservatives vowed the incumbent Republican from Ohio would pay the price.

But Portman was effectively unchallenged in his primary this year, easily defeating a little-known opponent.

Donald Trump, the GOP presidential nominee who has insulted everyone from Muslims, Latinos, to women, has conspicuously avoided singling out gay men and women.

During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump vowed to protect gay men and women — and then complimented the gathering of Republicans when they applauded.

SameSexAttitudes-01

Republicans still don’t have an openly gay elected official serving in federal office, and until they do, it’s a stark signal that being gay remains a real barrier for some politicians.

But the GOP has come close: Dan Innis nearly won a Republican primary in New Hampshire’s 1st congressional district in 2014, losing by fewer than 10 points.

“It’s within reach,” said Tyler Deaton, a senior advisor to the American Unity PAC, a well-funded group that promotes gay rights within the GOP. “I think the benchmark will be when LGBT Republicans are able to win Republican primaries.”

Two other gay House GOP candidates, Carl DeMaio and Richard Tisei, also nearly won during the 2014 election.

When it comes to gay candidates, the media appear to have moved on as well. Gray’s candidacy has hardly attracted attention from major national outlets.

In one of the few national stories written about Gray, The Huffington Post suggested Gray needed to be more gay. (The mayor bristles at the implication that he’s trying to cover up his sexual orientation.)

On the campaign trail, Gray’s aides and friends say, his sexual orientation is almost never discussed.

“I haven’t had one person ask me about it,” said David Ramey, who is the chairman of a county Democratic Party in the western part of the state.

SameSexAttitudes-02

Unstuck in time

Political gatherings in western Kentucky can feel as if they’re unstuck in time. So it was Thursday night before Fancy Farm, when Democrats assembled in the town of Paducah, about 30 minutes north, for the 11th annual Alben Barkley Dinner.

Barkley, who also has a street named after him here, was Harry Truman’s vice president and the favorite son of this small town. A portrait of him hung over the lectern in the building where more than a dozen Democratic candidates, including Gray, would speak to an audience of about a hundred people munching on fried chicken, sliced tomatoes, and chess pie. At one point, everyone was led in a rousing rendition of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s political theme song, “Happy Days are Here Again!”

U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray, left, and former Gov. Julian Carroll, now a state senator, speak with fellow Democrats at the 11th annual Alben Barkley Dinner hosted by the McCracken County Democrats in Paducah, Kentucky, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray, left, and former Gov. Julian Carroll, now a state senator, speak with fellow Democrats at the 11th annual Alben Barkley Dinner hosted by the McCracken County Democrats in Paducah, Kentucky, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Julian Carroll, who served as governor in the mid-to-late 70s and is now 85, didn’t even need a microphone. His booming voice might have carried all the way to the nearby Ohio River as he spoke about how he had known Gray’s family for decades, how great they all were, and how well Jim had performed as mayor.

It made his response all the more telling when asked if he thought being gay is a choice.

“I know my Christian friends don’t approve of it,” he said. “And quite frankly, it’s not a choice I choose to make.”

Carroll said that people had tried to explain to him that whether someone is gay is not a choice, and he emphasized that he respects their opinion.

But as a Christian, he added, his view was unwavering.

“You can choose to ask God to convert you and heal you of that choice,” Carroll said.

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story said they thought Gray’s sexuality hadn’t affected the campaign. But even if things have changed, and are poised to change further still, that doesn’t mean the past has been shaken off quite yet.

The mayor’s own political advisors acknowledge that how he talks about his sexuality, and how often, matters a great deal.

Although they believe the mayor can be a candidate who is gay, he cannot be the gay candidate. A candidate whose identity is rooted in liberal social values, rather than support for middle-class families, stands no chance of winning in Kentucky.

“He happened to be a gay man, but he’s not running as a gay man,” Chandler said. “He’s really running as a businessman on issues that are important to the people of Kentucky.”

It’s a line Gray himself struggles to walk sometimes, simultaneously proud of who he is but cognizant of political necessity.

Other Democrats aggressively avoid the subject all together.

U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray, center, and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, left, stand during the Pledge of Allegiance at the 11th annual Alben Barkley Dinner hosted by the McCracken County Democrats in Paducah, Kentucky, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray, center, and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, left, stand during the Pledge of Allegiance at the 11th annual Alben Barkley Dinner hosted by the McCracken County Democrats in Paducah, Kentucky, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Take for example Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state and the Democratic nominee for Senate who lost to McConnell in 2014. She attended Thursday’s dinner in Paducah but skipped Fancy Farm because her husband was about to begin a lengthy business trip, she said.

When asked in a brief interview if being gay was still an impediment to higher office in Kentucky, Grimes said Gray was running on his record.

Asked if attitudes had changed about sexual orientation, Grimes said the Supreme Court had “laid down the law” and started talking about Paul’s rhetoric.

And when asked if an openly gay candidate could have run in Kentucky 10 years ago, she laughed nervously and said she hadn’t run a statewide campaign back then.

“It takes a lot to put your name on the ballot regardless of your background,” Grimes said.

Gray said he recognizes how swiftly and deeply attitudes have changed. With one exception (which he declined to discuss), the wide variety of people he has met on the campaign trail have been uninterested in his sexual orientation.

But, he said, in the course of his life, he still confronts prejudice.

“It’s still not easy,” he said. “It’s still not easy.”

It is easy to lose track of just how many social mores of all types have evolved in recent years. Greg Stumbo, the Democratic speaker of the Kentucky House, was holding court for a labor lunch in the same building as the Barkley dinner the next afternoon.

In an interview, he recounted how he never thought he’d see a gay mayor of Lexington. But that wasn’t all.

He also said he never thought that, in this heavily Christian state, the president of the University of Kentucky and the president of the school’s board of trustees would both be Jewish. Currently, both are.

“Even in places like this,” Stumbo said, “change has come.”

Bigger problems

In an interview the Friday before Fancy Farm, Gray was incredulous when told about Carroll’s comments on sexual orientation being a choice. In a follow-up phone conversation last Tuesday, he made a point of responding to the governor’s critique.

“I would answer that by saying, who would choose to make their life harder or more challenging?” he asked.

Even still, he said his time in public office has taught him not to personalize these kinds of controversies.

“I’ve been out now for so many years that I am not surprised at what someone may occasionally say,” Gray said. “It really doesn’t faze me. I’ve earned a level of confidence now in where I am and who I am.”

He emphasized that it was not representative of his experience in Kentucky.

“I am very proud of who I am, and what I’ve been able to do and accomplish for my constituents,” Gray said, in a point he would emphasize repeatedly. “And I’d go on to say, I’m proud that the vast majority of Kentuckians think this is a non-issue.”

Gray’s campaign team is aware that if his race against Paul tightens, some quiet attacks against his sexual orientation might emerge as they have in other close races in Kentucky’s recent political history. But they say they’re not worried about them.

A Democrat in Kentucky has bigger problems, the advisers say, like an association with President Obama or Hillary Clinton. Ties to the national Democratic Party are more harmful than sexual orientation.

“We have numbers to back that up,” Chandler said. “There are numbers that suggest that being allied in any way to President Barack Obama is much more damaging than being gay.”

It was a sign, he would add, that Kentucky had “moved a long, long way in a short amount of time,” he said.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 6: Jim Gray for Senate supporters wave signs and hold up t-shirts in the Democratic seating area at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Jim Gray for Senate supporters wave signs and hold up t-shirts in the Democratic seating area at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Back at Fancy Farm, Gray, like all the major candidates, had only six minutes to deliver his speech. It was enough time to pull a gag with his relatively small group of supporters, who held up shirts touting Paul’s hypothetical 2020 presidential campaign.

“Rand and I have the same goal: to get him out of the Senate,” Gray said.

By now, Paul’s supporters had moved on to a “Stand with Rand” chant, which was loud enough at times to make Gray’s speech almost inaudible.

Even as Trump’s poll numbers crater nationally, Paul remains in strong position to win re-election in a state that hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1996. To Washington Democrats, Kentucky only becomes a viable opportunity in case of a historic blowout the country hasn’t seen since the days of Ronald Reagan.

Still, after the event, even some Republicans privately applauded Gray’s appearance, especially given the absence of many key Democrats. In addition to Grimes and Stumbo, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear also didn’t attend. (He said his two children had their play that weekend.)

Later, Gray would acknowledge that it was difficult to participate in the event “knowing that your allies should be there and they’re not there.”

But, he said, it’s something he won’t have a problem moving past.

“After you go through a number of things in life, adversity and trials and so forth, something like that is just not that big a deal,” Gray said. “It’s not easy, but it’s not life-threatening.”

Being a gay candidate isn’t easy, either. But even in Kentucky, it’s no longer career-threatening.

Kentucky Senate Race - Images by CQ Roll CallContact Roarty at alexroarty@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @Alex_Roarty.

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