Hal Heiner lost a close election in 2010 for Louisville mayor. He hasn’t sought political office since then, and his most prominent public role has been as an advocate for charter schools. During Saturday’s Republican breakfast before the Fancy Farm Picnic, Heiner acknowledged that he may try another election—this time, the 2015 race for Kentucky.
Here are some of the responses Heiner gave to the news media regarding his next possible move and the prospects of running in a Republican primary against James Comer, the state agriculture commissioner.
Are you considering running for governor?
I would say there is a certain level of consideration … it’s sort of born out of a frustration [and] concern for the direction of Frankfort, particularly out of the executive branch. You look at the last few years and you see Kentucky’s credit rating dropping four or five notches, we are down in the bottom five or six states in the country on how the rest of the world looks at Kentucky, which has a huge impact on economic development and our finances. When you look at education and the kind of reforms that are going around the states around Kentucky, when you look at what we’re doing here in Kentucky, we’re sort of refusing to look at significant reforms, especially for kids that are not making it in the current system.
Would Comer’s decision influence your decision?
Well, Comer’s been pretty open about his pursuit of the office. My concern is, again, long-term, how can we get there and get there in the shortest period of time.
With the Senate race, are you concerned about trying to fundraise now?
Each effort, in large part the efforts in Kentucky or the needs in Kentucky, are different than the national needs, a different focus. Each need brings its own its own support, so I wouldn’t have any concern about that.
So what have you been up to since the mayor’s race? I hear that you have some coyote issues on your property.
In fact, my 17-year-old … comes running out, ‘Dad, dad, come out here!’ We had two coyotes had just attacked the fawn, and basically killed the fawn, sort of right in front of her. We live in a farm in far eastern Jefferson County. It’s amazing how nature sort of adapts. Some subdivisions nearby, they still survive.
I read a piece in the April Fools’ issue of LEO, and I don’t know who wrote it, but it had coyotes in it. We got the best laugh out of that.
What I’ve been spending my time on, roughly half the time back at my business, and the other half of the time being an advocate of education reform. We started an organization, a 501(c)(3), Kentuckians Advocating Reform in Education, where we’ve been trying to convince the House and Senate, the Senate’s actually passed our parental choice charter school, really limited program, for areas where schools really are failing.
But the House wouldn’t consider it. And when I see that happening, and even though, you know, the testimony at committees is compelling, you see the some of the things that are going on in inner-city Indianapolis, inner-city Nashville, where schools with graduation rates of 40 percent are going to 85 percent, 90 percent, let’s try it! When that doesn’t happen, you know, we’re just working harder, how can we get to that point, especially in education? As adults, it’s sort of our primary responsibility to that next generation.
As governor, hypothetically, would charter schools be central to your governorship? Would education be a defining issue?
I would say education would be one issue. I think another compelling issue is, certainly from an economic development standpoint, these things tie together. Talk about the credit rating for Kentucky dropping, you know, four or five notches during the last few years. Well, what that says to businesses is, they’re likely to have an increase in taxes. So then they see a tax reform commission led by our former mayor [which advocates] $660 million in new revenue, and it’s like, yeah, really what Forbes said, [Kentucky] is going to be one of those 11 death spiral states, yeah, I don’t think … we’ll scratch Kentucky off [that list], we don’t want to be on a list [like that].
You see the moves in some adjoining states — you’re seeing it right now in Indiana, under Mitch Daniels — the kind of attractiveness for business. It’s unbelievable, really, what’s going on there right now. Building relationships with businesses around the country. We have so far to go, you know, jobs for the [next] generation, for my kids and other kids. We already lost one family group to Texas.
So quality of jobs is really a key, but we’re not going to get there without education, and we’re not going to get there without a government that’s not financially secure. And we don’t either right now.
Would you push for charter schools, specifically, as governor?
I would push for different forms of education. Charters are one that’s most well-known. But different forms of education for kids that are in schools that are failing. In Jefferson County alone, we have 18 of the 41. When you see a high school with a graduation rate of under 40 percent, and when you see black students in Kentucky in the fourth grade with 49 percent who cannot read at all, and in eighth grade 42 percent can’t read at all, they don’t have the basic building blocks, we’re not responding to the need. and the need is great. And other people are responding. So, yes, we can’t leave those children behind.
It’s amazing what they’re doing in Ohio with children with intellectual disabilities. And often it’s charters that are doing it, for kids with the most serious intellectual disabilities. Those dollars follow that child. The Cleveland Clinic is a great charter school for kids with high levels of autism. Why aren’t we doing that in Kentucky?
I agree with mainline for kids that can make it, but kids with heavy levels, in that case of autism, there’s a school in Prestonsburg, in fact, that’s sort of modeled after and working with the Cleveland Clinic. They could do so much more. They could serve so many more if the state dollars from education followed those children into those schools into proven programs.
For a lot of kids, our public school system is doing a great job. But for kids that the current doesn’t work, it’s just time to look at other models.
What’s your impression of Mayor Greg Fischer’s effort to drum up sales taxes for Louisville-centric projects? In your governorship, is that something you could support?
I spent some time down in Oklahoma City seeing what they’ve accomplished there. it’s impressive. But the approach is different than what the mayor is talking about now. He talked the other day about local option and said maybe this could be a 15 year, or maybe a forever tax, or could supplement for when revenues are low, which isn’t the model they’re using in Oklahoma City, which is, ‘Here are the four things we’re going to do, this is what they cost, and in four or five years the tax is gone.’ It sunsets. In fact, it’s so many years in so many months, and it’s short-term. So, they’ve actually passed it four times pretty much in a row in Oklahoma City. So with a plan like that, for a community to accomplish certain items, it needs a lot of shaping, but it’s had a lot of strong benefits in Oklahoma City.
The fear we’re talking about in Louisville is, ‘Let’s increase taxes.’ And that’s just the wrong direction.
So when are you running again?
It’s kind of born out of things that attach … to your heart. That’s kind of what happened in the mayor’s race. People kept asking, ‘Well Hal, if you were mayor, what would you do about education?’ And in the early part of the campaign, my response is, ‘Well, you know, we have a superintendent of education, an elected school board with a budget larger than the city’s and that’s really their responsibility.’ And they said, ‘We know all of that, but what are you going to do?’
So you start studying education, it attaches itself to you. That’s why I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years trying to pull people together to make others, especially, in the legislature, aware of what’s possible. The Senate, I think, kind of gets it. The House almost refuses to talk about it. When you think about how many years you have for those children that are in third grade now, that they can get there, it’s not many years. You get a sense of urgency. Somebody needs to do something now.
So what got you interested in running for governor?
I’d say it’s born out of concern and frustration with decision-making in Frankfort. The current tax reform commission, for instance, that has really turned out to be a tax increase commission, just isn’t the answer.
You’re for revenue neutral tax reform, or—
Yeah. [It] should be revenue neutral. At worst, the pension issue; there was some movement forward on the pension issue. But we still don’t have a viable situation long-term.
I don’t know how many years you can imagine a six, seven, eight percent return. I don’t know if any of you guys are getting that on your investments. I’m trying to talk the bank up from .1 percent to .2 percent. It’s like, ‘really? .1?’ So, you just see those things.
I’ve got four children, five grandchildren now. Three are married. The oldest is 33. The youngest is 17, still at home. One’s down in Texas now, unfortunately, with four of the grandchildren. You just look at the opportunity here. Another, her husband’s in graduate school in Vanderbilt, with one granddaughter. And he’s a year away [from graduation], already has an offer in Cincinnati. Can we compete to keep our children in Kentucky? I have one [child] in Louisville that runs a small business here.
Your child who moved to Texas, was that decision an economic opportunity, or college, or—?
The full picture is she’s married to a young attorney in Texas, and he’s from Texas. They actually moved up to Louisville for a year, actually during the year of the campaign, which, he’s an amazing son-in-law, just for support during that campaign, but then moved back to Texas. Quite frankly, the opportunities for him were probably 50 percent higher in Fort Worth than in Louisville, which is sort of an indication of an economy that’s not moving. I don’t hold it against him too much, but a little bit.
As you look at the prospects of deciding to run, is it a disincentive to see half the people stand up in this room and give Comer a standing ovation?
I was one of them standing up … I looked at that last race for agriculture secretary.
Agriculture Commissioner, excuse me. I was very thankful he’s agriculture secretary. he’s doing a good job.
What would you offer Kentucky as governor that Comer wouldn’t? What would be your advantage?
Thank you for that question, but any interest I have is born out of concern for Kentucky, not an analysis of what other people are saying.
If you get into this, are you going to use any of your personal wealth and, if so, how much?
Again, that’s another question that’s [down the road].
What do you think of the job Fischer has done as mayor?
I think in a lot of ways he’s done a good job, I would say improved, from the previous administration. He’ll take a harder look at issues. I appreciated his response on MSD issues. That was quick. [snaps finger]
With jobs, and in some other areas, I’m concerned about. The transparency on the union contract, that can’t really be transparent. I’m concerned, we talked earlier about this, on the local option sales tax and how it may be a revenue booster, rather than a specific, project-oriented, short-term tax. Concerned on some specific policy items. Generally, I think it’s been an improvement from the previous administration.
It seems there haven’t been any Republicans who will run against Fischer. Do you think he’s going to walk into a second term?
I think that may be likely.