Jim Gray and Jim Newberry met Tuesday night at Transylvania University for a debate sponsored by the Community Action Council, the Urban League and God’s Pantry — all excellent and dedicated community organizations.
The topic: To address the 17% of Lexington’s citizens who live below the poverty line.
The event was moderated admirably by Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper of the Kentucky Council of Churches. Rev. Kemper brilliantly ended the debate by telling both men that there would be no final thoughts — brilliant because the candidates’ final thoughts are so often memorized speeches written by someone else. This night was purely about how they answered the questions.
The questions went Left to Right… with Jim Gray seated on the Left and Jim Newberry on the Right. The order of questions was decided by a coin toss and when Kemper asked Gray to call it, the Vice Mayor offered: “I never win these.” He called Heads and once again, Gray had lost the coin toss. “It’s only going to happen up til’ November 2nd,” Gray said in a moment that set a tone for the evening — the crowd laughed, Newberry looked immovably stone-faced and the scene was set.
The first question was about rate increases and whether the city had the power to negotiate them. Gray said we should have that power, Newberry said we already do (which begged the question why he hasn’t used it) and Newberry went on, as he has done the entire race, to attempt to belittle Gray just as he’s been known to lecture and hector people throughout City Hall and across the city these past three years.
But Gray would not be bullied and did not back down. He pointed out that Lexington has not actively engaged in the process, has not intervened with the water and electric companies. “This Mayor has done very little,” Gray said, “and only when there was opposition…. The Mayor sat on the side of the table with the water company, and I sat on the side with the citizens.”
Newberry, looking annoyed at having to answer questions or listen to such histories, used his usual talking point that Gray was “fundamentally wrong.” (Though obviously the water company just handed us a massive rate increase, so… fundamentally…)
Next up, access to affordable child care!
Gray said that acknowledged that funding for programs was flat and called it symptomatic of the larger economic downturn. “What we can do is to be aggressive, become better advocates, where we can find funding, we need to.”
Newberry called access to child care “vitally important.” Then he said it was “imperative that both parents are working.”
Rev. Kemper pointed out that the average cost of child care in Lexington is $17,000 a year. For an infant. I was left wondering how Newberry could believe it was “imperitive that both parents are working” when he was discussing people — very often single mothers! – living under the poverty line and raising kids — very often by themselves… but, it was he did say it was “imperative” so who am I to question?
Question #3: The Affordable Housing Trust Fund! Rev. Kemper noted that a tax increase would help but obviously there wasn’t much support for that, especially given the economy, so, how about from the recycling revenue?
Newberry didn’t like that. We have to make investments in recycling facilities, he said, before we can start spending that money. Many groups have tried to get that money. So… no dice there and… that was his answer.
Gray went straight to South Limestone — to which Newberry did something other than glower at his hands and the microphone and instead mockingly laughed. But Gray had a point. The project was estimated at $5 million and ballooned to $16 million. “We have capital investments,” he said, “that we make regularly. We must examine the costs and the benefits.” It has been demonstrated that action is needed and we must bring the community into this discussion. “We should not have to move out of our neighborhoods to find affordable housing.”
At this point Newberry went totally off-topic and started railing on South Limestone and Gray’s comment. “His premise is false,” the Mayor said, “It’s borderline preposterous to cite.”
Again, Gray would not be bullied. He said the $5 to $16 million increase was preposterous. “As a trial lawyer, I understand your inability to understand this.” Gray reminded the Mayor that he runs Gray Construction, he’s in this businesses and called the cost “woefully wasteful.”
Now — mind you — there’s a disconnect here. Mayor Newberry is trying to talk up a Herald Leader fact check about a campaign ad. Vice Mayor Gray is talking about the over all cost of the project… not the purpose of the project or the end result of it. Newberry tried to paint Gray as opposed to Limestone revitalization. Gray was simply saying the execution of the revitalization could have been smoother, smarter, streamlined. Anyway, at this point Newberry had moved on to vagueries about revenue streams and I’ll return to that in just a bit.
I should mention here that there was a giant Twitter screen hanging above the stage and audience members could “tweet” responses and questions and every once in a while those were read. Obviously if you have Twitter you read all of this as it was happening so I won’t recount all of them, but…
Question #4 came from Council-At-Large Candidate Steve Kay
, who appeared to be the only other candidate in the building (unless I missed Don Pratt?), and since Steve Kay’s spent a good deal of his professional life working with issues like this, he tweeted his question, which was a good and obvious one given the preceding conversation: What are the possible funding streams?
Newberry fielded it first — the General Fund, a Matching Fund would reflect a commitment… and then he veered right off the tracks and tried to return to South Limestone to the dismay of anyone who wanted to hear the sitting Mayor explain what he’s been doing for the past three years at which point Rev. Kemper stepped in and told them to stop and answer the questions.
“You are the preacher so we will listen to you attentively,” Gray said… again to appreciative laughs.
And then, Jim Gray answered the question. Obviously there’s great community interest in this issue and we must address it. In a $500 million budget, we should be looking carefully at ways to find savings. One half of one percent is half a million dollars. “Business,” Gray pointed out sagely, “is made on percentages.”
At this point Rev. Kemper read a tweet which suggested we might find some extra revenue in taxing political ads. Laughter was shared by all, even Newberry happened to smile. Alas, I don’t know who tweeted that but it’s an awesome, awesome, awesome idea.
Question #5: The importance of pre-K education, affordable education as a value in community!
If only Aqua Buddha would visit this race. But no, seriously, pre-K is important, so, what did they say?
Gray: Our funding priorities on the local level is limited to very basic services. Education is not in local funding. “The Mayor and I both agree and recognize that this leadership role provides us an opportunity to use the bully pulpit.” He talked about the importance of raising awareness across the community of all the benefits in funding and supporting affordable education.
Newberry: For the most part, this was Newberry’s best answer of the evening. In particular, because it had actual human and personal emotion. He talked about his wife and his kids and told the story of raising them and obviously I’m not going to do it justice in the re-telling, but if there’s someway Newberry wins the election on Tuesday, this is the side of him Lexington has been waiting three years to see and so, so infrequently does. His gist: Many people are not aware of the services and we have to make them aware… so, in essence it was the same as Gray’s but in content it was as though he’d, for a moment, taken a page out of Gray’s book of personability.
Next Question: Lexington’s poverty rate in 2000 was 12.9%, now it’s 17.6%. What might you do to address this?
Gray was first again, and began by stressing the importance of first acknowledging the problem. So many of us, he said, in Lexington talk only about what a great place it is and too often we’re complacent. “I’ve spent my life building places that build things, manufacturing plants, and we must do better.” He talked about pushing Commerce Lexington to create a new plan that wasn’t just geared at business interests but “that focuses on working people’s needs.” Gray told the story of meeting a man at a Duncan Park event just weeks ago who’d been laid off from the GE lamp plant… and again, Gray showed the compassion and motivation that has marked his leadership style.
Newberry’s personality blast in the last question had been used up apparently and he began as he usually does by just listing things… but in his list, one might notice a stark difference between he and Gray. “There are a number of barriers,” he began, and then listed them. Some people haven’t achieved the education they need. Others have physical and mental health issues. Some are incapable of increasing their lot because they don’t know how to access the system. “We need to address this holistically.” If they could be functional, if they need medication, they could hold down jobs, so we need to find ways to get them medication.
If you’ll notice, Gray talked about employing people and Newberry talked about the people living below the poverty line as if they were all uneducated or sick. For a Mayor who had was unfortunate enough to preside over the near collapse of our economy, you might expect a focus on the ballooning number of capable but unemployed workers.
Rev. Kemper followed up, pointing out that indeed Gray was talking about blue collar workers and Newberry was address access to services. “We read a lot about acquiring high tech jobs,” she said, “but a large part of the population can’t do them.” How can the city more aggressively market itself to businesses suited to these people’s needs?
Newberry immediately went to Horses, Health Care and High-Tech. He pointed out, quite rightly though somewhat poorly phrased, that each sector employs people “up and down the economic food chain.” (Which, if you think about it, could either be a Marxist description or a Randian one.)
Gray talked about IBM, about Toyota, both coming here and giving good jobs. Newberry had ended his response by talking about 700 call center jobs. “We can’t accept or celebrate $10 an hour jobs with no benefits.” Gray went on, “I can’t wave a wand and get rid of the recession, but now is the time we can best challenge the status quo.” He talked talked about three of his campaign workers who have graduate degrees but who can’t find jobs. He said now was the time to think differently about how we approach the question (and his Commerce Lexington idea above would be a good start, I’d say).
The Final Question of the Evening: Imagine it’s October 26th, 2014… what progress has your administration made?
Again, I was impressed with Kemper. Not because the question was so outlandish but because it provoked such different responses in the two candidates, responses that speak exactly to who they are.
Newberry talked about the future and what his great VISION for it consisted of… by talking only about the past. “We showed up in 2007 and LFUCG was a virtual train wreck.” He talked about deep seeded problems, he talked about preparing for the WEG, he talked about bringing in 3000 jobs (even though the city’s lost 4,600) on and on, and finally he talked about the future: expand the economy, solve traffic problems.
Gray, on the other hand, talked about the future. He talked about Charles Logan again, the laid-off worker from the GE lamp plant. “I hope I can run into Charles again in four years,” Gray said, “and Charles will say he feels better about things, that he will say there are job opportunities for him and people in his neighborhood, that there’s a ray of hope that he can’t see right now.” He talked about working with our senior citizens and having the community reach out to them, to welcome and involve them. He said the key challenges facing his administration would be rooting out wasteful spending and creating job opportunities. You could almost taste the fresh air.
And that was it. It was all over but the hobnobbing, and, well, not my style, so I skipped that part.
As an overall impression though, and one final thought, I’ve heard many people in the media and around town talk about how Gray speaks too often in pretty visions, that his style isn’t grounded in nitty gritty detail. I didn’t think that was true tonight and I could go through all the reasons for that… but I won’t because what really struck me is that it is Jim Newberry who has his head in the clouds, who can’t speak to specifics, who can’t cite concrete accomplishments.
And maybe he can, but he sure did not on this evening. For someone who has been Mayor of this town for almost four years, Jim Newberry lacked specifics. He said things like “we need to look at all kinds of revenue streams” but he could have just talked about what he’s done… the revenue streams he’s uncovered, the ways he’s already addressed these problems. He has the entire city government at his fingertips and four years of experience, but he has no solid, grounded answers.
People talk about Gray like he shouldn’t paint a picture of Lexington. But it was Jim Newberry who stated, “We need to continue to make Lexington one of the finest places in the country for early childhood education.”
I mean, no one’s going to disagree with that. But what does it mean? What has he done? Where does the word “continue” come from? Who is measuring that scale? Where is Lexington succeeding, where is it failing in this rubric?
And Newberry’s responses were littered with that kind of ephemeral what-are-you-talking-about all night long.