Jim Gray discusses tuition at campus visit

Emma Collins

United States Senate Candidate Jim Gray returned to Bowling Green on Friday to speak with WKU students about issues like college tuition and job creation in an on-campus forum.

Gray, who visited Bowling Green in September for a meet-and-greet at the Warren County Democratic Headquarters, spoke to a crowd of nearly 100 faculty members and students gathered in the auditorium of Grise Hall. His nearly 50-minute speech focused on a range of topics including the price of college tuition, the creation of new jobs and the future of the coal industry.

Gray said throughout his time campaigning around the state, he has heard complaints from both current students and former students about the price of a college education and the large amount of debt students graduate with. He said when he completed college he was able to graduate debt-free and then take risks once he had graduated. He said now students must take risks when they go to college because they are forced to take out multiple loans.

“I think it’s a shame that students have to go to school today to get a college education and leave with a mountain of debt,” Gray said.

During his speech, he proposed two possible solutions for the large amount of debt. The first would be allowing the refinancing of student loans. The second would be encouraging young people to consider alternatives to college such as an apprenticeship or trade school.

Gray focused primarily on the second solution and said he had spoken to a number of employers in the state who described a great need for young people who have the skill sets required for jobs such as manufacturing. Gray said he was also told there are numerous job opportunities for young people who choose to enter such a profession.

“The opportunities to make a good living are significant,” Gray said referring to the available jobs in manufacturing.

Throughout the rest of his speech, Gray talked about the importance of investments for both the creation of new jobs and the future of the coal industry. He said one of the main components of his campaign platform is the need for the government to make more investments. For Kentucky specifically, these investments would add infrastructure to the state which would allow jobs to be created.

He said the new infrastructure and investments would also allow Eastern Kentucky to diversify its economy and move away from the coal mining business.

Gray used his stance on the coal industry to compare himself to his opponent and current United States Senator Rand Paul. Gray said he, unlike Paul, supports the Miners Protection Act which is designed to ensure there is enough money to provide for the benefits to which miners are entitled.

“We have built our country on the backs of coal miners,” Gray said. “This is the wrong time for us to turn our backs on coal miners.”

Student responses to Gray’s presentation differed. Hunter Smith, a freshman from Bowling Green, said overall he enjoyed Gray’s speech.

“I think he kind of got a bit too wordy and kind of got sidetracked a lot,” Smith said. “If you get through that I think he said a lot of good things.”

Smith said he also attended Paul’s speech when the senator visited WKU on Oct. 3. He said Gray seemed more practical than Paul.

Another student, junior Anna Williams from Elizabethtown, criticized Gray’s speech because he did not provide any specific plans for change, unlike Paul.

“He didn’t give me a clear presentation of what his plan was,” Williams said.

Gray, a seventh generation Kentuckian who grew up in Glasgow, first entered politics when he was 19 years old and served as a delegate for the Democratic National Convention. Around that same time, Gray’s father passed away leaving a wife and six children. He also left a small family construction business. Gray said after his father’s death, his mother was encouraged to sell the business; however, she refused.

For the next seven years following his father’s death, Gray said the family struggled financially and eventually became “flat broke.” With the help of family and friends, Gray’s family was able to recover, and the small family business eventually became an international company called Gray’s Construction.

Gray said his experience working in the family business has given him the skills needed to be a politician. One of these skills is the ability to compromise, something of which Gray accused Paul of being incapable.

“In a family business you may have disagreements one day but the next you gotta get up and work together,” Gray said.

Gray started his current trajectory in politics during 2006 when he won a position on Lexington’s city council. Only four years later, Gray beat out incumbent Jim Newberry in the election for mayor of Lexington and became Lexington’s first openly gay mayor.

Gray said when he first became mayor, he was faced with a $30 million budget deficit and a fire and police pension underfunded by nearly $350 million. Since his time in office, he said he has been able to reduce the budget deficit and increase funding for the pension. He has also improved healthcare for city employees and created new jobs.

Gray said since his time as mayor he has made investments for Lexington, and he believes it is this type of government intervention that allows people to succeed. Unlike Paul, Gray said he supports allowing the government to help people achieve success.

“Give people a leg up in life,” Gray said.

Gray also took time to criticize Paul’s recent campaign for president. Paul campaigned in the primaries for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination.

Gray said he, unlike Paul, has no desire to run for president. As a result, Gray said he will be able to focus on Kentucky.

“I will be your United States senator,” Gray said.

Both candidates will appear on KET on Monday, Oct. 31, at 8 p.m. for a debate.

Reporter Emma Collins can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].