Amy McGrath, the retired U.S. Marine fighter pilot considering a run for Congress as a Democrat, won’t easily be pigeon-holed by political opponents.
That won’t stop them from trying, of course.
McGrath, who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Marine Corps on June 1, is considering a challenge to Republican U.S. Congressman Andy Barr in Kentucky’s Sixth District.
So are Democrats Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, state Sen. Reginald Thomas of Lexington and Colmon Elridge, an assistant to former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
She says she hasn’t decided yet and she concedes she’ll likely have to survive a primary before a tough general election campaign against Barr.
But she has lined up a manager in Mark Nickolas, who has run campaigns in Kentucky before, including one for Ben Chandler who won the Sixth District in 2004. Barr unseated Chandler in 2012.
McGrath grew up in Edgewood outside Covington, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and later piloted an FA-18 fighter in combat tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. She also taught political science at the Academy during her 20-year military career.
She came here Tuesday on a “listening tour,” meeting with eight or so Madison County Democrats.
McGrath told them she was an independent for most of her military career and her husband, a retired U.S. Navy pilot, is a Republican.
They and their three young children — ages 5, 3 and 1 — are moving to Georgetown, so she could return to Kentucky and to be near her parents who live in Kenton County.
She didn’t try to disguise her inexperience as a candidate: “I’m new at this. I’m here to listen.”
OK, said Trish Ayers of Berea, what is your top priority?
Healthcare. It’s a right, McGrath answered, noting her mother is a physician and both her parents face health problems.
Another asked why she’s running.
She believes in “servant leadership,” it’s why she joined the military at a time women faced obstacles if they sought combat roles. She wants to continue serving her country.
Too many politicians put party before country, she said, and she hopes voters are ready for someone who wants to serve the country rather than party ideology.
She saw the Congress in action up close when she served as an aide to a congressional subcommittee while in the Marines.
“My background is in the military. I’ve been on the Hill,” she said. “I’ve watched people in Congress make these decisions who just have no idea” about military needs or foreign policy.
Asked if she can raise money, McGrath conceded it’s something she’s never done but added her life has been spent doing things others said she couldn’t – or shouldn’t – do.
She’s expects to be labeled a carpet-bagger, but she said Kentucky has always been her home and the only time she left was to serve her country for 20 years in the military.
She voted absentee ballots in Kentucky elections while in the military — except when the ballots couldn’t reach her in combat zones – and during a four-year station assignment in Florida.
She felt compelled to run after last fall’s election and she’s confounded by the election of Donald Trump and his positions on issues like NATO.
She’s happy to tell you she knows the people of NATO, that she lived in adjacent tents in the Middle East with airmen from Portugal, Italy and Belgium, soldiers who were there because the United States was attacked on 9/11.
She knows Trump is popular in Kentucky, but she worries he’s taking the country in the wrong and dangerous direction.
She’s not afraid to say climate change is real, that the U.S. Navy knows it’s real and incorporates that knowledge into its planning for future needs and capability.
She had a simple response to a question about gender and pay equity.
“I didn’t ask to just be placed in the cockpit of that FA-18 —I asked to compete for it.”
The Second Amendment?
“I own lots of weapons – I’m a Marine,” McGrath said with an off-hand sort of shrug. “I am not about to take away anyone’s guns.”
But she’s also a mother and she’s aware or rising gun violence in cities like Lexington and Louisville.
She thinks Madison County is key to winning the election and said if she wins, she’ll open a second district office in Richmond.
McGrath may not fit the usual Democratic candidate profile, but judging from the reactions of a handful of local Democrats, she fit in here Tuesday.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Follow him on Twitter at@cnhifrankfort.