Jerry Lundergan's legal troubles could be fodder during daughter Alison Lundergan Grimes' campaign against Sen. Mitch McConnell.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- On the day his daughter held the flashy rollout for her 2014 U.S. Senate campaign, Jerry Lundergan ambled over to the tent on the lawn of the home in Lexington, Ky., where members of the media were writing their stories.
"You throw a helluva party," one reporter said of the event, which included former governors, dozens of state lawmakers and even a video presentation from Lundergan's close friend, former President Bill Clinton.
"That's what daddies do for their little girls," Lundergan said, flashing a wide grin.
Seconds later, Jonathan Hurst, a key aide to Alison Lundergan Grimes, followed her father into the tent, threw an arm around his shoulder and led him away.
With his political ties, his flair for the dramatic and his deep-pocketed friends, Lundergan is a huge benefit to his daughter, Kentucky's secretary of state, as she embarks on the toughest race of her young political career.
"Jerry has a lot of friends around the country," said political consultant James Carville, who ran Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. "He's a guy that knows half the people in the country, and half the people he knows, nobody else knows. He's an outgoing guy and people tend to like him. ... He's got me going there (for a fundraiser) on the 28th."
But legal troubles that forced Lundergan out of the Kentucky House of Representatives two decades ago, his political activity and just his overshadowing presence make him a potential liability as well — so much so that when U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke last month at the Fancy Farm political picnic, he attacked Lundergan rather than his daughter.
"I want to say how nice it is, how nice it is, to see Jerry Lundergan back in the game," McConnell said to a chorus of hoots. "Like the loyal Democrat he is, he's taking orders from the Obama campaign on how to run his daughter's campaign."
Ted Jackson, a Republican political consultant, said he'd be surprised if the GOP doesn't try to use Grimes' father against her, particularly if he takes a very public role in the campaign.
"Everything gets used," said Jackson. "There won't be anything that is overlooked."
Hurst said the campaign sees Lundergan as nothing but an asset.
"Jerry has been involved with a lot of local elected officials' campaigns, he has built a party organization starting from the ground up and I think that has been really useful and very helpful to this campaign," he said. "Alison has really built on and added to that strong organization."
A working family
Originally from Maysville, Ky., a sleepy river town about 63 miles upstream from Cincinnati, Lundergan, 67, graduated from the University of Kentucky and then went to Washington, D.C., to work for U.S. Rep. John Breckinridge.
But while politics was an avocation, food was Lundergan's vocation.
As kids, he and his brother, Tom, traveled to state fairs with their father, who made a living selling chicken and pork chops out of a booth.
Lundergan said the family wasn't poor, but "we didn't have a trust fund." He said his father worked in a factory during the day, installed furnaces at night and went on the fair circuit in the summer to provide for the family.
People who know Lundergan said he inherited that work ethic and passed it down to his five daughters, who at some point all worked for the family business, Lundy's, selling lemonade at sporting events around the country.
"I have known (Lundergan and his wife Charlotte) for 40 years and they have earned every good thing they ever got," said Lexington lawyer and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McBrayer, who at times has been at odds with Lundergan.
In 1977, Lundergan and his brother created Lundy's, a private company that has catered special events around the world, including Pope John Paul II's trip to America in 1986 and the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500.
Forging political ties
While he was building his businesses and family, Lundergan also was active in politics.
In 1975, he challenged Steve Beshear, now the governor but then a state representative from Lexington, and lost in a Democratic primary by 202 votes out of about 2,700 cast. Two years later, he challenged Beshear again for the seat, losing by 412 votes out of more than 4,100 cast.
Lundergan finally got his chance to serve in 1979, when Beshear became attorney general and Lundergan claimed his House seat.
His freshman class in the state House included current Speaker Greg Stumbo, and the two formed an alliance that has lasted more nearly 35 years.
When Stumbo, as attorney general in 2004, became titular head of the party after a disastrous 2003 election for the Democrats, he turned to Lundergan to be party chairman — a post he had held previously, for a short time, during the administration of former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson.
As chairman, Lundergan raised money and pushed the party to be more conservative. A devout Roman Catholic who attends Mass daily, he pushed for a more religious party and, unlike his daughter, he opposed abortion rights.
"We will no longer allow the Republican Party to identify themselves as the only political party that is considered to be a party of people of faith," he said at the time.
Friendship with Clinton
It was during the 1980s that Lundergan became friends with Clinton, then a young governor from Arkansas.
Lundergan "thought Clinton was a marvelously talented guy and brought him up to Kentucky a number of times. ... He's always had a close relationship with Clinton," said Carville, who has known Lundergan since 1987, when Carville came to Kentucky to help elect Wilkinson as governor.
Lundergan said of Clinton: "We've remained friends because I've never asked for anything, I've just tried to be a friend. ... I talk to him almost like his brother."
When Hillary Clinton toured Kentucky extensively during her 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama, Lundergan served as her state chairman.
And when Lundergan's daughter needed advice about a Senate run, she turned to Bill Clinton, whom she has known since she was a girl.
In 1987, Lundergan forged another key friendship when he became one of the first legislators to endorse Wilkinson for governor over then-Lt. Gov. Beshear and former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.
Wilkinson rewarded him with the party chairmanship, but that ended just 2 and one-half months later when a state audit report raised questions about whether Lundergan had broken a state ethics law when he accepted a last-minute $150,000 contract to cater a state economic development event in Louisville, Ky.
State law prohibits legislators from receiving no-bid state contracts. Lundergan argued that he only accepted to help state officials who were in a pinch with the fast-approaching conference.
Lundergan was convicted of a felony and in the process resigned as both party chairman and state representative. That conviction, however, was thrown out when an appeals court ruled Lundergan's case should have been prosecuted as a misdemeanor. By that time, the statute of limitations had run out and he was never prosecuted again.
In four races to try to recapture his House seat, Grimes and her sisters walked door-to-door with Lundergan and even appeared in radio ads for him, Lundergan said. She learned well, he said.
"Alison is a strong campaigner; she knows how to campaign," he said. "She loves to talk to people and interact. ... To me to stand back and watch that is very gratifying."
Unconcerned about attacks
While Jackson, the GOP consultant, believes Lundergan's history may be an issue in the race for McConnell's seat, state Republican chairman Steve Robertson said he's had no discussions with anyone about dredging up Lundergan's past.
Josh Holmes, an aide to McConnell, didn't return an email seeking comment.
Lundergan said he's not concerned.
"I can't tell Mitch McConnell what to do," he said. "I think if they want to talk about me, the people of Kentucky are smart about that. ... If that's the route they take, I think it backfires."
Carville said obviously Grimes has decided that Lundergan's past doesn't do great damage, or else she wouldn't continue to use the Lundergan name. In some ways, Carville said, he hopes that McConnell does attack Lundergan.
"I would be pretty skeptical about attacking a candidate on her daddy who's never been convicted of anything," he said. "I would think she would have a pretty good response. ... 'There are two things I love more than anything in the world: My daddy and the rule of law in America.' "
Gerald G. Lundergan
Home: Lexington, Ky.
Occupation: Owner of Lundy's catering and other businesses.
Political positions: Former member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, former state Democratic Party chairman, former candidate for state auditor.
Family: Wife, Charlotte; five daughters, including Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Former Democratic Chairman Jerry Lundergan will help his daughter, Alison Lundergan Grimes, raise money, but will his background haunt her? The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal