'Unorthodox' and sometimes 'surreal' meeting prompted Grimes to reveal, and possibly to make, decision to run

07/02/2013 11:30 AM

The best-kept secret in Kentucky politics might not have been a secret after all.

Even Alison Lundergan Grimes didn’t know what she would announce to the world late Monday afternoon when she arrived at the building she used as the headquarters for her campaign in 2011. Or, at least, she didn’t let on to the more than 100 supporters she called there that she had made a decision about running for the U.S. Senate until the very end of the meeting.

Interviews with more than a half-dozen people who attended the meeting — several of whom asked not to be quoted — yielded descriptions of Grimes’ approach to the announcement as “unorthodox,” “unprecedented,” “fascinating” and, at times, “surreal.”

Instead of telling supporters whether she was running for Senate, Grimes opened it up for them to tell her what they thought. After the first several people spoke, Grimes began calling on others by name to give their takes. After nearly an hour, a consensus emerged: she should run for the party’s nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

“Whether or not she walked into the room with her mind made up or not, I honestly don’t know,” said Tim Firkins, a former state representative and PVA from Jefferson County. “I’ve got to think she knew what she was going to hear from the people in the room.”

Former Gov. Julian Carroll, now a state senator from Frankfort, told Pure Politics he and former Gov. Martha Layne Collins met privately with Grimes before the larger meeting, and Grimes didn’t let on what she was going to do even to them.

“I don’t think her own father knew for absolute certainty what she was going to do,” Carroll said, referring to former state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan. “There was no question in my mind that she wrestled with this for months.”

Grimes opened the meeting up by thanking her supporters for traveling from urban areas and more rural areas of western and eastern Kentucky. Without tipping her hand about which way she was leaning, she told the group she wanted to hear from them.

Carroll said his analysis was that Grimes was leaning toward running but wanted to make sure her network of supporters would be fully on board and engaged in what promises to be a hard-fought, expensive and all-consuming campaign that the Washington Post already has dubbed the “nastiest” in the country next year — even before it starts.

“What she wanted to see was if there were any reservations out there among the members of her army,” Carroll said. “I think she came with the willingness in her own mind to hear people tell her, ‘Don’t run.’ Because if that crowd had told her, ‘We don’t want you to run,’ she would have been able to immediately evaluate that she is in it by herself.”

At their request

It was Carroll who got the meeting going with a fire-and-brimstone speech urging Grimes to carry the party’s mantle against McConnell.

“He used rather colorful words. I always like it when a lay minister uses words you don’t often hear from them,” said state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington.

Carroll, who has spent much of the last 50 years in state government, told the group that McConnell can be beaten – that he has lost touch with voters and the priorities of Kentucky and that he has been an obstructionist. He told Grimes that she has the smarts, personality and network to beat him.

“She has every section of this state, including the women behind her,” Carroll told Pure Politics. “Even as a new senator, she will have a major challenge making a difference herself. What her achievement will be is to remove the roadblock from keeping things from happening in the United States.”

Stein said Grimes seemed pleased by Carroll’s remarks but kept a poker face for much of the meeting.

Several more supporters, including state House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sannie Overly, spoke in favor of Grimes jumping in the race.

Caution, McConnell ahead

Then three speakers – including Firkins – urged caution. Firkins, according to others who were there, said he thought she was building a network to run for governor and had more of a chief-executive approach. And he said McConnell’s campaign style has been known to end careers of failed challengers.

Firkins declined to talk about what specifically he said in the meeting. “In all fairness to her, the decision’s been made, and I’m 100 percent behind her,” he said.

Grimes didn’t respond to those who urged caution or suggested another race, said Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville.

Marzian said she was hoping throughout the meeting Grimes would announce she’d run for Senate. At one point Marzian spoke, saying she didn’t intend to run for state House nearly 20 years ago but saw an opportunity and took it. Grimes should do the same, she said.

Unique or hasty?

It was a candidate announcement none of the people interviewed said they’d every experienced before or envisioned when they walked into the building at 340 Democrat Drive owned by her father.

“It was very unorthodox,” Stein said.

One key downside to the way Grimes went about the announcement was that Democrats in the room – and across the country – had no way to contribute money to jump-start the campaign. High-profile candidates usually try to use their announcements as a spring-board to begin raising necessary campaign cash. But that groundwork hadn’t been laid.

On Tuesday, two very basic, stripped-down websites, grimesforsenate.com and alisonforsenate.com emerged without links to contribute money. It is not yet clear whether Grimes’ campaign controls those sites.

While Firkins said the process Monday was unusual, it might have fired up Grimes’ core network of supporters more than a standard-issue campaign announcement rally.

“Yeah, I think it does, oddly enough. I think people left that meeting thinking they were a part of that decision and are fully invested in the campaign,” Firkins said.

Plus, it made sure the decision remained a mystery until just before Grimes announced it to reporters at 3:30 p.m.

It wasn’t until the very end of the meeting that Grimes revealed her plans. She referred to a poster her father had that now hangs in her office. It shows a turtle and makes the point that a turtle can’t move without sticking its neck out.

Grimes then told the group that after considering it, “I’m willing to stick my neck out, if you’re willing to stick out yours.”

That was her announcement.

“It’s unprecedented,” Marzian said. “And that’s why she’s going to win. That’s why this woman is so unique. She’s a leader but she also values peoples’ ideas and comments and opinions.”


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