Two Democratic heavyweights in the past week have said they’d campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the 34-year-old Senate hopeful taking on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Former President Bill Clinton will appear with Grimes on Feb. 25 and Vice President Joe Biden told TIME that he’s also ready to help the Kentucky secretary of state. What prompted this A-list support? Not, as one might imagine, hatred for the Republican leader who made it his (failed) mission in life to deny President Barack Obama—and Biden—a second term. Rather, it was love of Grimes’ father, Jerry Lundergan. “Jerry who?” anyone outside of Kentucky might ask. But anyone inside Kentucky would probably be familiar with the outsized former state Democratic Party chief.
A self-made millionaire, Lundergan’s catering business has handled everything from presidential inaugurations—Clinton’s, George W. Bush’s and Obama’s—to papal visits, such as Pope John Paul II’s 1987 trip to Texas. He’s also a renowned philanthropist, sponsoring the Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving Day dinner and deploying fleets of food trucks and RVs to disaster sights across the U.S.
But perhaps most important to his daughter’s campaign is Lundergan’s political past. While Lundergan is undoubtedly an asset, bringing in Clinton and Biden and helping set up lavish Hollywood fundraisers, he isn’t without political baggage. As a state representative and chair of the state Democratic Party in the late 1980’s, he got into an ethical tangle that forced him to resign from both posts, although an ethics conviction was later overturned. And he has waged a legendary feud with the Beshear family, though Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has endorsed Grimes for Senate. Lundergan, Kentucky experts say, is his daughter’s biggest asset and her greatest risk. “I’m pretty certain he’s running [her campaign] and that’s risky. You don’t want a family member running your campaign,” says Al Cross, a longtime political journalist turned community issues professor at the University of Kentucky, who has known Lundergan for decades. “This is a national campaign. You need someone with national experience in the room, not just Kentucky family politics.”
Grimes’ campaign dismisses such criticisms, noting they have on retainer national Democratic consultants such as Mark Mellman, Mark Putnam and Andrew Kennedy. “We’re a family campaign. [Grimes’] mother, grandmother and four sisters are very involved,” says Jonathan Hurst, a senior adviser to the campaign. “Chairman Lundergan is obviously very involved. We feel that that is a very big asset and we’re very very excited and pleased. We feel that having someone who’s been elected chair of the party twice has been very helpful in the campaign.” Lundergan declined to be interviewed for this story.
Lundergan is such a force of nature that a mythology has grown around his childhood: Rumors abound that he grew up amongst carnival folks, that he was once was a carnival barker. There is a kernel of truth to the story. Lundergan was the eldest of five children growing up in Maysville, Kentucky, a tiny town of 9,000 about 60 miles from Cincinnati on the Ohio River. As a kid, he and his siblings would hawk homemade lemonade and fried ham sandwiches at local fairs. Kentucky has a culture of festivals and fairs that spans nine months—from the early spring to the late fall—celebrating everything from local heritage to local celebrities to prize-winning pigs. Their father, Eugene, was a dogged worker who always had “two or three jobs,” says Dale Emmons, an old family friends and longtime Democratic consultant. “Jerry was like him, an entrepreneur who never punched a clock in his life.” When Jerry was 18, his father, then 45, passed away. To support the family, his mother went to work as a clerk for the local sheriff’s office. Lundergan and his siblings fanned out across the state on weekends, parlaying carnival food into a catering empire.
Lundergan met his wife, Charlotte, in high school and married her the year after he graduated from the University of Kentucky. He then went to Washington to work for Rep. John Breckinridge, a three-term Democrat who represented Lexington. By the time Lundergan returned to Kentucky, his political fire was lit. He was soon elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, representing Lexington, as the catering business he ran with his two brothers grew. “Jerry was always a rags to riches sort of guy,” says Terry McBrayer, a former Kentucky Democratic Party chair who’s been friends with Lundergan for 40 years. “They came from absolutely nothing and clawed their way to business success.“
By 1987, Lundergan’s company was hired to cater for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Texas, a high point for the devoutly Catholic family. Lundergan soon rose to become chairman of Kentucky’s Democratic Party, but by 1988 questions about a conflict of interest on a lucrative state contract awarded to his catering company forced him to leave that post. He was convicted of an ethics violation in 1990 but avoided a prison sentence for similar felony charges after the trial was ruled a mistrial because of jury tampering. James Sullivan, a childhood friend of Lundergan’s brother Tom, was later convicted of jury tampering in the trial. In 1991, the Kentucky Court of Appeals overturned the original conviction and said Lundergan should never have been tried on felony charges, but for misdemeanors. By that time, the statute of limitations had run out to file misdemeanor charges.
“It’s a little piece of baggage he carries around with him,” says Cross. “The conviction was a strong motivation for him to somehow find redemption.”
Lundergan began his journey back from the political wilderness when he became an early supporter of Bill Clinton’s upstart candidacy for the presidency in 1992. By 2003, he’d reclaimed his former position as head of the Democratic Party. He did a great job, by most accounts, helping Democrats reclaim several House seats and the governor’s mansion. But Lundergan’s own aspirations to higher office ended with his conviction. “I think he kind of lives vicariously through his daughter, Alison,” says Maysville Mayor David Cartmell, who has known the family for decades.
Indeed, for his daughter’s candidacy, he even managed to make peace with his longtime political nemesis Beshear, to whom he lost two state House races in 1975 and 1977. Lundergan got his revenge by backing Wallace Wilkinson for governor over Beshear in 1987; Wilkinson won, though Beshear finally claimed the governor’s mansion in 2007. In 2011, Grimes herself took out Beshear’s handpicked candidate for secretary of state, Bowling Green Mayor Elaine Walker. Grimes beat Walker by a double-digit margin in the primary. Still, Beshear has backed Grimes’ candidacy for the Senate. “Jerry has really united the party behind Alison,” Emmons says. “He’s done that for her.”
Not being elected to higher office hasn’t stopped Lundergan from getting involved in the community. Maysville, once the second largest barley tobacco market in the country, began to suffer 15 years ago as America moved away from smoking. It was also home to the northernmost cotton gin, which also closed. It was Lundergan who almost single-handedly saved the town. He bought most of the old warehouses and built more to store the emergency vehicles his company deploys for disasters. He bought the cotton gin and knocked it down. He helped launch the Rosemary Clooney Festival: Clooney hailed from Maysville and she started an annual concert series that Lundergan’s company ran that attracted tens of thousands annually. “Being around him he always makes such a point of picking up the phone, ‘Yes, Mr. President,’” Cartmell says. “It’s so impressive. There’s just nothing he won’t try and usually with success.”
Still, it’s not Lundergan on the ticket. “At the end of the day, Alison’s success or failure depends on Alison—and on how much voters in the state see the midterms as a referendum on Obama,” says Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks congressional races. And Emmons discounts the idea that her father dominates Grimes. “A lot of people thought that when she got elected to office he’d overshadow her, but knowing both of them that’s a joke,” says Emmons, who pushed Grimes to run for the Senate. “She is a tremendous talent, able to stand up for herself inside the party, outside the party as well as in her family.”
Lundergan didn’t at first support his daughter’s candidacy, says Emmons. “He didn’t oppose it, but he wanted her to make up her own mind,” Emmons says. “To figure out what she wanted, what are her dreams.”
Dreams are important to Lundergan. “Around here there’s a saying,” says Bob Hendrickson, publisher of the Maysville Ledger Independent, “’Don’t dream small dreams.’ Seems Jerry’s always dreamed big dreams. Seems his daughter’s following in his footsteps.”