|Mayor Grayson Vandegrift speaks at the Kentucky History Center|
as Kirsten Hawley of Brown-Forman Corp., right, listens.
By Austyn Gaffney
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media
Mayor Grayson Vandegrift told an audience in Frankfort Wednesday night that Midway’s fairness ordinance, prohibiting discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, has been good for business.
“The argument as to whether fairness laws are bad for business is over,” said Vandegrift, one of three invited speakers at an American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky legislative reception. “And with every new job we create and every business that opens its doors and every person that feels that they and their loved ones are welcomed we will continue to show that fairness is good for business.”
Vandegrift led the City Council to make Midway the eighth city in Kentucky with the anti-discrimination measure, known by advocates as a “fairness ordinance.” Although state and federal civil rights laws ban discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, marital status, disability or national origin, they do not include sexual orientation and gender identity. In Kentucky, it is still legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodation, such as a business or restaurant. Fairness ordinances make discriminatory practices illegal within city or county limits.
“Like a lot of people, I assumed those protections already existed,” Vandegrift said. “When I ran for mayor it wasn’t on my radar.” Just three weeks into his term, the Woodford County Human Rights Commission presented the issue to him, and he quickly agreed to push it.
Opponents argued the ordinance would drive people out of business or drive businesses out of town. But instead, according to the mayor, the opposite happened, and businesses sought out Midway.
A year after passing the ordinance, the city projected a 33 percent increase in occupational-tax revenue and the Midway Station industrial park transformed as two new businesses announced their plans to open plants, Vandegrift noted. American Howa Kentucky Inc., an auto-parts manufacturer, promises to employee 88 full time workers. Lakeshore Learning Materials, an educational supply company from California, will open its first eastern distribution center, employing 262 full time workers and 140 seasonal workers.
“We’re about to experience a nearly 100 percent increase in jobs in a matter of a few years,” Vandegrift told supporters of the Kentucky Competitive Workforce Coalition, which favors fairness ordinances and a statewide law.
“So as not to appear disingenuous, I am not claiming all this growth is the because of a fairness ordinance,” the mayor said. “But it is indisputable that the ordinance did not cause hardship to our existing businesses, it did not drive employers out of town, and it did not keep companies from coming to Midway. And I’m happy to add that Lakeshore Learning Materials has expressed their support for our ordinance and laws like it.”
The Midway Messenger asked Lakeshore if its decision to locate here had anything to do with the fairness ordinance. The company declined to comment.
The coalition is a group of over 200 businesses, from small, locally owned businesses to large Fortune 500 Companies like PNC Bank, United Parcel Service, Humana and Brown-Forman. Kirsten Hawley, senior vice president and chief human resources officer of Brown-Forman, explained why her company is committed to the coalition’s work: “We know through 145 years of experience talent doesn’t come in one shape, one size, one color, one religious background, or one type of sexual orientation or identity.”
But the coalition recognizes it faces a long, uphill battle.
“A non-discrimination ordinance has been introduced for 17 or 18 years now, and has not gained enough support for passage,” said Michael Aldridge, director of Kentucky’s ACLU. “We were building and building more support over the years but with the November elections it looks unlikely within the General Assembly that a statewide anti-discrimination law will pass in the near future.”
In fact, bills with an opposite vision have been introduced in the 2017 General Assembly. House Bill 105, commonly known as the “religious freedom” bill, says no law or court shall take the place of “a person’s right of conscience” to stand by their religious beliefs. The bill threatens to reverse fairness ordinances, but leaders of the newly Republican House have indicated it won’t be heard.
Vandegrift finds it ironic that Rep. Rick Nelson, a Democrat from Middlesboro, filed the bill and one to ban transgender people’s use of bathrooms for the gender with which they identify.
“When he was running for state treasurer,” said Vandegrift, “I co-hosted a fundraiser for him. What’s funny is that the ordinance had just passed, and I find it funny he didn’t have a problem raising money here but then turns and files a bill saying we don’t have the right to govern ourselves on laws like this. You just can’t write this stuff.”
Vandegrift’s push for Midway to move towards fairness is noticed not only by the coalition, but by Woodford County citizens as well. Dan Brown, secretary of the Woodford County Human Rights Commission and a retired school teacher, shared a personal story.
“For 27 years I drove to school and almost every morning I worried a little bit that I could be fired for my sexual orientation,” said Brown. “That loss of energy and that amount of worry would give more vibrancy to city if you didn’t have to be concerned. It makes a city more welcoming to all people.”
He also shared that when he and his husband go out to eat now, they do so in Midway. “We’ve been together about 33 years. We’ve lived through a lot of being hidden just to survive but we feel very comfortable in Midway,” said Brown.
Aldridge said Midway was always a welcoming community, but attributed the success of the ordinance to Vandegrift.
“I really applaud his leadership,” said Aldridge. “I think he’s a leader we really need in other parts of the state.”