Trey Grayson: New Northern Kentucky Chamber president coming home for 'perfect job'

First order of business: 'Get up to speed'

FORT MITCHELL, Ky. – Dish up the Skyline and start scooping the Graeter’s. Trey Grayson is coming home.

The Northern Kentucky native on Wednesday was named the new president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. He starts the job July 1.

“This is kind of a perfect job for me,” said Grayson, who has confessed to missing his hometown chili and ice cream in previous interviews. “The job is to essentially improve the quality of life.”

Grayson, 42, is well known in the region. He grew up in Edgewood and graduated from Dixie Heights High School in 1990 as valedictorian. He got his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and then went to University of Kentucky on scholarship to get an MBA and law degree.

Grayson was elected Kentucky Secretary of State in 2003 in his first run for public office. He was re-elected handily four years later.

He and his wife and two daughters moved to Massachusetts in early 2011 after he was named director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. The move came after he lost to Rand Paul in the 2010 GOP primary for the U.S. Senate seat that was open after Sen. Jim Bunning retired.

Grayson spoke with WCPO about his plans for the chamber, what lessons from his unsuccessful senate campaign he plans to apply to the job and whether he wants to run for political office again someday. Excerpts follow.

Q: The region is facing plenty of challenges. I’d like to get your thoughts on a few. What’s your first order of business when it comes to the Brent Spence Bridge project?

A: The first order of business – really on anything – for me is to get up to speed. I’m from Northern Kentucky. I’ve been following what’s going on. And I have some opinions. But I need to know a lot more.

One of the things that’s pretty clear is that we have to engage in a conversation that starts from the premise that the bridge needs to be upgraded. It’s not safe, there’s too much traffic, it’s getting worse. Then walk through what are the solutions, how do you find funding for the solutions. I think we’re selling the community on the need for a replacement and to pay for it in whatever way we need to pay for it.

It’s pretty clear that the community’s not there yet. They’re not ready to say we need a bridge, we need tolls to get them done, and that’s the reality.

The first order of business is to have those conversations and identify the facts.

It’s a lot of talking and listening, but it’s important for the region so it’s going to be one of the first conversations we start.

Q: How about the airport?

A: On the one hand, the airport, even with Delta’s realignment with its hub system, still offers more nonstops than any other airport in the region. So that’s good. But we have the highest fares in the country so we’re paying for that. We’ve seen an increase in nonstop flights from other airlines. Frontier, Allegiant – I know there are some efforts to recruit some of the other carriers, such as Jet Blue. Those kinds of efforts need to continue. Candace McGraw seems to be a good leader for the airport. It can be a regional asset.

It’s exciting to see the success of Frontier. That’s a great sign for all of us in the region.

Q: How about recovering from Toyota’s announcement?

A: My sister’s a contractor for Toyota. Her first job was at Toyota in Erlanger, and she was in one of the first group of hires. She may have to move to Dallas. On a personal level, this is impactful. The good thing is Toyota’s been a great corporate citizen, paid a lot of taxes, given a lot of money to charity. And we still have a couple more years of that.

It’s the time and maybe an opportunity to look at our business climate – look at the state, the region. What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? That’s still a great building. How can we fill it? What are the laws we need to change to make our community a better place? And let’s focus on our existing companies. Let’s help them grow more. Out of this, often comes an opportunity to improve.

I know those conversations are going on right now.

Q: You’ve talked about the importance of education and economic development. Education has been a focus of the chamber for a long time now. What should the chamber do differently in that regard?

A: One is, I’m a believer in the common core. One of the things that seems to be going on is that there is a concerted effort to undermine it. That framework that was adopted by states and based in the best practices of education is something we need to continue to focus on. About 20 years ago, Massachusetts adopted standards that were very strong. They held the schools accountable, and they held the students accountable. Over the last 20 years the schools in Massachusetts are better than in most states. It’s not just, oh, they’ve got Harvard and

MIT and a bunch of smart graduates who live in the region. Across the state, they’re better. I think it’s become a bit of a bogeyman for anything that’s wrong with a school. Some of the criticisms are not factually based or are not common core. I think that’s something where we’re going to have to be vigilant over the last couple of years because it’s just starting and we need it to succeed.

The other thing that’s interesting is to hear people up here talking about Strive. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Kennedy school had an exercise for new graduates. I was struck by the number of teams that talked about Strive as a national model and something that Boston ought to learn from. So I think the message there is let’s keep doing it. Let’s continue to push Strive and take pride in the fact that other regions in the country are wanting to model after our efforts there.

Q: You have deep local roots and good relationships with business and political leaders. How important is that going to be in this job?

A: It allows me to hit the ground jogging. I do know people and have pretty good relationships. At the same time, I’ve been away. In some respects, I’m going to try to act like I don’t know anybody so I don’t make assumptions that something that was true four years ago or 10 years ago is true today.

One of the things we were able to do in Frankfort is even when there wasn’t agreement between legislators and our office, we could respectfully disagree. I’m hoping that reputation and those relationships at the local, state and federal level will be helpful.

Q: What are the things you’d like to accomplish in your first 100 days as chamber president?

A: One is a reintroduction. Already people are wanting to schedule appointments and meet. I need to figure out where the chamber is from a staff standpoint. Meeting investors, community leaders on both side of the river.

The second thing would be to send the message to everybody, and I mean this with all respect to all the former leaders of the organization, that it’s a new day. And we’re going to do things differently. We’re going to do things better. And one is to develop those advocacy pieces.

Something I’ve observed in Boston and on campus is the role that startups are playing. I know with UpTech and ezone we’ve got a good start. Let’s try to help them. When I graduated from college if I’d told my parents, I’m going to go work for a startup, they would have freaked out. Having the mindset shift where parents would say, ‘That’s great,” that’s great for the economy. We have some institutions that are working on that. Even if you’re not a startup, thinking like a startup is beneficial. I’d kind of like the chamber to think a little that way, too.

The other thing is, what can we learn from other organizations? Any job I’ve ever had, I’ve really learned from others’ best practices. I think having a new president gives you that opportunity to have that fresh start. Hey, what would you like to do if you could?

I think the conversations about Toyota will really continues so I think that will be something – the post-Toyota future – what does that look like – that will probably start to crystallize.

The last thing is to have a conversation and to do a lot of listening.

Q: What lessons did you take from your Senate campaign and can any of them be applied to this job?

A: One would be just in the aftermath of it. I lost. I worked really hard, wanted to win and thought we had a good strategy and thought I was a good candidate, but the voters disagreed. But rather than dwelling on that failure for a long time, I dusted myself off, and thought what’s next. What am I good at? Who do I know?

With the post-Toyota – it’s a blow. The tax loss for the city of Erlanger – it’s a huge part of their tax base and extends way beyond the services that Toyota needed. Another piece of that is don’t hold any grudges. One of the things that was really meaningful to me during the search was getting the support of Sen. Paul and Congressman (Thomas Massie) and others who were on the other side. The reason for that was, we moved on. I endorsed Rand on that election night. We did some unity rallies. Congressman Massie – back then was helping out Rand. When he (Massie) won the primary, I remember talking to him for 90 minutes about how he could develop relationships in Northern Kentucky.

You reach out to everybody. And as a Republican, keeping up relationships with the Democrats. Making sure we’re all focusing on what’s in the region’s best interests rather than a competitive business deal where you’re on the other side. That’s how you move forward.

Q: You told me in 2012 that you wanted to run for political office again someday. Do you still want to do that?

A: Way, way – way several times – down the road, sure. If the opportunity presented itself. But one of the things that’s exciting about this position is that my desire to serve, which motivated my interest in politics, I’m going to do that. I don’t need to look for a

time on a personal level or political level to run for office.

The selection committee asked me that. It was one of the first questions. I told them, "I’m not going to run the chamber with an eye toward that." Besides, I think my wife and daughters would kill me.

I look forward to a great run as the head of the chamber and working with a lot of elected officials, and they don’t have to fear that their next opponent is across the table from them. Because that’s not going to be the case.

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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