Democratic Louisville philanthropist Christy Brown to co-host March 30 fundraiser for Sellus Wilder in U.S. Senate primary

03/19/2016 09:09 PM

Louisville philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser Christy Brown will co-host an event for U.S. Senate candidate Sellus Wilder at her home March 30.

Wilder, a farmer and former Frankfort city commissioner, is vying for the Democratic nod in a seven-man field that includes Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who picked up an endorsement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Friday.

Brown will hold the fundraiser at her home alongside Mary Berry, daughter of Kentucky conservation author Wendell Berry.

The event, open to invited guests who RSVP, suggests at least $50 donations, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by Pure Politics. The co-hosts serve on the board of The Berry Center in New Castle, which focuses on agricultural and land-use advocacy.

Gray has secured support from many within the Democratic power structure nationally and in the state, and his public remarks mention incumbent U.S. Sen. Rand Paul almost exclusively. Gray’s campaign declined to comment on the fundraiser or Wilder’s comments for this report.

But Wilder hinted that some Democrats in Kentucky are supporting both his and Gray’s campaigns simultaneously in order to coax the primary’s dialogue to the left.

“A lot of folks are supporting me or supporting both of us because they see the value in kind of pushing a more progressive message,” Wilder said in a phone interview Saturday while driving to a Bernie Sanders rally in Pikeville.

He referred questions to Brown on whether she is supporting both candidates or him exclusively. Brown did not return a phone message seeking comment early Saturday.

Wilder said he has known the Berrys for years, dating back to his youth on a Henry County farm, and he caught Brown’s attention for “The End of the Line,” a documentary film he directed on the battle between landowners and the Bluegrass Pipeline, a project in which partners unsuccessfully sought to invoke eminent domain for their natural gas liquids pipeline through more than 200 miles of Kentucky en route to the Gulf Coast.

The March 30 fundraiser has, in part, buoyed Wilder’s hopes at winning the Democratic nomination. He said he has received surprisingly warm receptions on the campaign trail, and he hopes to raise enough money to pressure Gray to release a detailed campaign platform and participate in debates sooner rather than later with just less than two months until the May 17 primary.

“He’s refused to do that, and I think a lot of folks who were already kind of nervous about his electability are getting more so just because he’s not actually running any kind of campaign,” Wilder said. “All he’s been doing so far is raising money.”

“If you’re going to run for this office, you have a responsibility and an obligation to let voters know what you would do if you’re elected, and the fact that he has refused to do that for this far I think is really disgraceful,” he added.

Wilder says he’s hoping to tap into an outsider appeal that helped propel Gov. Matt Bevin to the office last year and Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist and independent U.S. senator, and Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner who has backed Democratic officeholders in the recent past, to far exceed expectations in their respective presidential campaigns this year.

Part of that, he believes, is having an honest discussion about Kentucky’s coal economy. He addressed that topic during a Democratic Senate candidate forum, in which all but Gray attended, at Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg earlier this month, he said.

Wilder said he discussed the various economic and historical factors impacting the state’s coal economy, and although he said federal regulations have had some role in the industry’s decline, their effects are overstated in today’s political discourse.

He said he suggested diversified local economies, land reclamation, infrastructure development and solar farms in economically depressed Appalachia and “talked about what a shame it is that politicians like Rand Paul, but also statewide Democratic leaders do this too, we keep getting statewide leaders who sell this myth that if we can just kill the EPA that our whole way of life is going to come roaring back.”

“And that’s really a shame because they know that isn’t true, and they’re just playing to voters’ legitimate fears and desperation while not giving them any actual new opportunities or hopes to hold onto,” Wilder said.

“They just keep selling this snake-oil myth, and that’s really a shame because a lot of these families sacrificed their land and their lives and their health for our state’s and the nation’s economy, and they have nothing left to show for it. They’ve been abandoned along the way, and we owe them a debt, and we’re not going to pay that debt until we can start having some honest conversations about this subject.”

Paul, whose campaign declined to comment on Wilder’s statement, has proposed economic freedom zones for impoverished areas like eastern Kentucky and Louisville’s West End. His proposal calls for slashing individual and corporate income tax rates to 5 percent in poor cities and counties that would qualify, hoping to attract business investment with the low tax rates.

Wilder said at first he simply wanted some platform to “preach a little bit” when he first filed for the Senate race at the filing deadline, but the Brown fundraiser and the responses he’s heard from voters on the campaign trail have been glimmers of hope for the early long-shot candidate.

“Since I’ve signed up to run I’ve come to realize a couple of things,” he said. “One, that I won’t really have a platform. I won’t really get the media coverage or the funds that I need to get a message out across the state unless I’m really competing, but I’ve also come to realize that I can compete, that I’ll be able to make a play.

“So I’m in it to win it now. We’re going to do what we can.”

Wilder and Gray are also competing against Rory Houlihan, of Winchester; Jeff Kender, of Phelps; Ron Leach, of Brandenburg; Tom Recktenwald, of Louisville; and Grant Short, of Owensboro, in the Democratic Senate primary.

Clarification: This report has been updated to indicate that the March 30 fundraiser is open to invited guests.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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