For progressives in 2010, Lexington, Kentucky, was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal election cycle. In the second-largest city in the same state that elected Tea Party–favorite Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate, Jim Gray, a social progressive, was elected mayor, beating incumbent Jim Newberry by 7 points and carrying more than 200 of the city’s 287 precincts.
Besides being the first time an openly gay man has been elected as a big-city mayor in the South, what makes Gray’s victory especially remarkable is that he won with the help of Rand Paul voters. “We were able to use the Rand Paul candidacy to provide Jim Gray the political equivalent of a basketball pick,” says Dale Emmons of Emmons & Company, the campaign’s chief strategist. The Tea Party’s general outrage against government gave Gray an opening to take shots against the guy at the top: Newberry.
A breakdown of results by city council district shows that Gray carried a number of districts that went for Paul. The 6th District, where Paul beat his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, 51 percent to 49 percent, Gray edged Newberry 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent. The conservative 10th District gave Paul a 10-point victory over Conway—and Gray carried it by 4 points. In the city’s most conservative district, the 12th, Paul crushed Conway by 24 points, yet Gray lost by only 6 points— and even carried twelve of the district’s precincts.
Lexington’s municipal elections are nonpartisan, with the top two finishers in the May primary competing in a November runoff. Gray lost the primary to Newberry by 8 points, and polls showed him down 13 points going into the general, making his ultimate win all the more impressive.
The path to Gray’s victory began when Emmons was hired as the campaign’s general consultant following the primary defeat. In this role he was responsible for devising a new strategy and hiring the campaign team to implement it. Emmons, an old friend of Gray’s, had grown concerned during the primary that Gray was not fighting back when Newberry attacked him over his attendance record at city government meetings and called Gray to tell him so. “I just didn’t understand what they were doing,” Emmons recalls.
Gray replied that his pollster had assured him there was no need to respond because he was up by over 10 points. As it turned out, Gray’s lead wasn’t as safe as it seemed. Chastened by the primary results, Gray decided to hand the keys for the general to Emmons, whom he once described as “the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Kentucky politics” for his uncanny ability to anticipate moves by political opponents.
Emmons in turn brought in new team members including pollster Mark Mellman, media consultant Doc Sweitzer and field organizer Lisa Tanner. Jamie Emmons, Dale’s son, left his post with the Kentucky state House speaker to become campaign manager. In addition, a small group of local staffers remained from the primary.
The message
Through focus groups and research the campaign learned that even though Gray had been vice mayor of Lexington since 2006, people didn’t know much about his accomplishments—for instance, that he had transformed his family’s struggling construction business into a successful enterprise with annual revenues of $500 million. Or that, under his leadership, Gray Construction had helped build plants for Toyota, BMW and Toshiba and helped bring thousands of good jobs to Kentucky. Emmons and media consultant Sweitzer agreed that the campaign needed to tell this story.
Polling on the “right track/wrong track” question showed that, while a majority of Kentucky voters thought the state was on the wrong track, a majority in Lexington felt the city was going in the right direction. “We needed to show Jim Gray had the credentials to take over the government and lead it, and we also needed to show people in Lexington why they needed to replace Mayor Newberry,” Emmons says. “Jim Gray told Lexington they needed a businessman running their government. He said he could
use the same skill set he had used to build his family business to create good jobs.”
The campaign’s research also identified wasteful spending as the top issue for voters. In this vein, Emmons focused on two items Mayor Newberry was touting as achievements and cast them in a new, unflattering light. The projects were a costly road reconstruction project, which had closed a major downtown street for close to a year, and a new water plant, which had come with a hefty rate hike.
“A Fresh Start for Lexington” became the campaign’s new theme. Illustrating it was a full-color, forty-page booklet that detailed Gray’s private-sector job-creation record and his “plan for putting Lexington back in business.” Underscoring Gray’s commitment to local industry, the booklet was clearly labeled: “Designed and Printed in Lexington.”

Getting the message out
In the primary, Gray’s largely self-funded campaign split a total media budget of $220,000 equally between mail and television, but in the general the campaign spent ten times as much on television as on mail. Such unusually high spending on television in a municipal election was necessary to stand out in a busy campaign cycle, with plenty of ads being run by candidates in competitive U.S. House and Senate races. “We were in a war zone, and the noise was loud,” says Emmons. “We simply had to increase the gross ratings points to be heard.”
Gray was up on television before Labor Day with early positive messages and had the airwaves to himself for three weeks before Newberry joined in. That three-week period gave Gray a golden opportunity to define himself. Later, Emmons and media consultant Sweitzer would define Gray’s opponent.
With such a heavy television presence—and a largely self-funding candidate—a campaign might be tempted to let the spots do the talking. But Emmons—and the candidate himself—were determined to do everything 100 percent right and leave nothing to chance.
In particular, Emmons felt that Gray’s presence and delivery could be improved and brought in New York City–based public speaking consultant Maxine Albert of Peak Communication Advantage to work with him. After observing Gray interact with people one on one and in front of a crowd, she recognized that he was outgoing and friendly in person but froze when he had to speak in public.
“He needed to connect with that part of himself that was able to sell his expertise to some of the toughest negotiators on earth, which is what he did in his business,” says Albert.
As a result of this work, Gray learned to engage his audience—not just asking for their vote, but inspiring their support. In addition, Albert and her team of writers crafted a stump speech that incorporated Gray’s message and story and rehearsed it with him until he had it down. “She supplied the foundation for everything Jim said in the rest of the campaign—the debates, house parties, even fund-raising,” says campaign manager Jamie Emmons.
Gray ended up spending $900,000 of his own money out of a total campaign budget of $1.3 million. Although he could have paid for the entire campaign, fund-raising was seen as a key element in building his coalition. “Wealthy candidates usually forget to give ownership to others,” Emmons says. “They think they can write a check—Jim didn’t do that.” Gray’s schedule always included ample fund-raising time. “This gave the community ownership,” says Emmons. “It also helped us gauge whether voters were buying what we were selling.”
The campaign’s August tracking polls showed Gray rising and Newberry flagging. During the final two weeks of the campaign, Gray delivered a one-two punch and pulled ahead. His campaign hammered Newberry with an ad on the “$7,000-a-foot” road reconstruction project described above, hitting the wasteful spending theme. At the same time, it rolled out endorsements from the Central Kentucky Labor Council and public employee unions including those representing the police, firefighters and corrections officers.
So what about the two elephants in the room: Jim Gray’s sexual orientation and Rand Paul’s strong, Tea Party–fueled candidacy? In the primary, there were two instances where Newberry pronounced Gray’s last name as “Gay,” once in a forum and once on the radio. Newberry acted as if these were inadvertent mispronunciations and never apologized. Newberry’s supporters made numerous attempts on talk radio to provoke a debate over Gray’s sexual orientation, but Gray’s team members were careful not to take the bait. “Our attitude was his personal life is not an issue,” says Emmons. “We kept on message that the issue was the need to stop wasteful spending, fix the traffic mess and put an end to government corruption.”
As for the Rand Paul voters, focus groups conducted by the Gray campaign showed that supporters of Rand Paul and Andy Barr (the GOP/Tea Party candidate for the congressional seat including Lexington) were receptive to Gray’s message—that he was a businessman who would get control of government spending and end waste and corruption. The Gray campaign “decided early on we would engage with anybody and everybody who was likely to go vote,” says Emmons. When Gray’s field workers saw Rand Paul’s lawn signs, they knocked on the doors and talked to those voters, an approach that bore fruit in November, when Kentucky voters elected Rand Paul along with a gay Democrat.
Curtis Ellis is a political consultant and writer based in New York.