GREENFIELD — Three years removed from a political scandal that shook her family to the core, Jeannine Gray is doing something a number of political observers didn’t expect: She’s running for office.
The launch of her own political career, she says, has less to do with reclaiming reputation and more to do with something a strong and independent woman is supposed to do.
“Now is the time,” she says of her candidacy for a county council seat.
Whether that timing is right depends on whom you ask. Her supporters praise her diligence and point to her community involvement as excellent qualifications for public office. These people – and Gray herself – insist Gray is her own person and has never lived in the shadow of her husband, former Sheriff Bud Gray.
“I think my record stands for itself,” Jeannine Gray said. “The thing you’ll see different from me that you’ll not see from other wives (whose) husbands are public figures (is), I never once did something because I’m Bud Gray’s wife. I did it because I’m Jeannine Gray, and it’s the right thing to do.”
But others say memories of the 2010 investigation of the former sheriff are still too fresh. They say it’s surprising that Jeannine Gray would put her name on the ballot when some voters may still harbor ill feelings about the scandal.
Gray, 53, is running for a county council seat against incumbent Republican John Jessup. Monty Zapf is also seeking the Republican nomination in District 1.
A member of several local boards and community organizations, Gray is the mother of two teenagers and is family services and marketing director for Stillinger Family Funeral Home.
“This is something I’ve been thinking about for 10 years, but the time was never right,” she said about running for political office. “The boys were young and not self-sufficient like they are today. Bud was sheriff, and it would have been totally inappropriate.”
The Grays were longtime volunteers in the GOP, active in fundraising, volunteering and recruiting others to volunteer.
But things began to unravel in 2010, when Bud Gray lost in the primary to challenger Mike Shepherd. Later that year, Gray was arrested after one of his deputies told investigators the sheriff had taken money from the department’s drug-buy fund to pay for personal bills.
After a six-month investigation, a special prosecutor declined to pursue the case, saying there was not enough evidence to charge the sheriff.
In the months to follow, Bud Gray was sued by the state’s attorney general. Bud and Jeannine Gray filed for bankruptcy after legal bills skyrocketed.
The Grays in 2012 jointly filed a lawsuit against the city of Greenfield and Chief John Jester of the Greenfield Police Department, accusing Jester of pursuing criminal charges with the purpose of “harassing and maliciously injuring” Bud Gray.
Jeannine Gray says she is no longer a part of the lawsuit against the city, but she was still listed in court records as a plaintiff as late as February.
Her bankruptcy, she added, had to do with unexpected attorney fees and is not reflective of her ability to manage money, which is the primary job of a county council member
“It’s a very private family matter for us,” Jeannine Gray said this week about how her family is now doing. “It’s something that should have never happened, put undue – so much stress on my boys.”
Even with an ongoing legal battle, Gray says now is her time to have the opportunity to serve. She says nobody has asked about her husband’s allegations throughout this campaign season and that the community has moved on.
But there have been some whispers in the community.
Janice Silvey, chairwoman of the GOP, says she’s heard both perspectives. Some say there’s no reason Jeannine shouldn’t run for office. But others wonder why Jeannine is potentially putting her family up for public scrutiny again.
Michael Griffin, who was chairman of the county GOP at the time of the Gray scandal, says he’s heard a buzz as well.
“The situation with former Sheriff Gray is the elephant in the room with her candidacy,” Griffin said. “It’s the unspoken situation that affects the race…. I’ve heard some people say that her race, to some degree, is a referendum on the status of the Gray name in this county.”
Bud Gray’s arrest came shortly after former county Auditor Linda Grass was arrested and charged with bribery, theft and other crimes in a scheme to bilk taxpayers. Both scandals shook the public’s trust in elected officials, and Griffin said Gray’s case dragged on and was confusing for the community to follow.
“An unresolved situation that was only slowly beginning to close now seems to be reopened with this candidacy (of Jeannine), and it’s a real variable,” he said. “I don’t think this is predictable. That’s what makes that race very difficult to assess.”
John Patton, a precinct committeeman and publicity director for the GOP, says perhaps Gray should have waited longer before deciding to run for office.
“Clearly, she’s not responsible for anything that Bud may have done, but on the other hand… I feel like time would have healed some wounds there,” he said.
But Jeannine Gray and her supporters insist her husband’s allegations are simply not an issue today.
“I personally think she’d be a really good county councilwoman because she’s a strong individual; she understands the issues,” said Beverly Gard.
Gard, a retired state senator and influential member of the GOP, occasionally advises Jeannine and hopes the community has moved on, because the local party can always use more strong female leaders.
“People can be pretty blunt,” she added. “I think if it were an issue, it would have surfaced already. The fact that it hasn’t surfaced as an issue – I don’t think it’s an issue. She’s a very strong individual. This whole campaign is about what she can contribute.”
Jeannine Gray is a member of the county’s planning commission and also serves as secretary of the Rotary Club of Greenfield. She’s also on the board of directors for Meals on Wheels of Hancock County and the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen – all evidence, she says, that she cares for her community and is willing to serve.
“I’ve never ridden on Bud’s coattails,” she said. “And I’ve never done anything because I was Bud Gray’s wife.”
District 1 is the largest county council district, spanning the northern and easternmost townships. Gray says she can’t keep up with demand on her pink-and-gray yard signs. Gray says her supporters view her as outgoing, vibrant, and willing to do research and come to all council and committee meetings.
“Now is the time,” she said. “I’m excited about the opportunity. I have an overwhelming amount of support out there.”
Staff writer Noelle M. Steele contributed to this report.