He spent 15 months shaking hands with voters in every corner of Kentucky – and more than $5 million of his own money on TV ads and other campaign musts.
But Hal Heiner still finished a distant third in the Republican gubernatorial primary in May, ending a political career that started with – and never moved beyond -- the Louisville Metro Council.
Heiner said his unsuccessful bid for governor was “an all-in race” and he would “absolutely not” consider running for office again.
Earlier this month, Gov. Matt Bevin appointed Heiner – his former political adversary – as secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.
The move is unsurprising in some ways. Heiner has been among the state’s foremost advocates of charter schools – which operate outside the confines of traditional public schools. That’s also a policy Bevin favors.
“Policy-wise, there was not an inch difference between us in the campaign,” Heiner said.
Yet, despite the title, Heiner’s new role comes with no direct authority over education. And, having become wealthy from a career in real estate development, Heiner doesn’t need the job.
In an interview at his sparsely decorated Frankfort office last week, Heiner said he sees the cabinet post as an “opportunity to help move the ball ahead faster” on changes he thinks are long overdue in the state.
“My greatest civic passion has been education; I just see such opportunity there,” Heiner said. “…It’s simply time for bold moves and not just gradual improvements.”
Kentucky Republicans have been emboldened lately with Bevin’s election and the possibility of the state House of Representatives coming under GOP control for the first time in decades – which would open the door to conservative policies like charter schools.
“Maybe people looking back 20 years from now, people will say, that’s where Kentucky really leapt forward,” Heiner said. “We’ve seen states like Indiana and Tennessee, they go through a period where they really jump forward on systems and helping people. I think we’re at the point today, and I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
Heiner made it clear that he has broader aims in his new role than charter schools – from making sure local workforce training boards are churning out enough welders and tool-and-dye makers to updating the 1970s-era computer code that runs the state’s unemployment insurance system.
He said the Bevin administration wants “greater parental choice” in public education, and charter schools are “simply one policy that Kentucky needs to give serious consideration to.”
Education reform advocates applauded Heiner’s appointment to the position.
“I’m a supporter of high-quality charter schools. I think in that position Hal is going to be a friend to that movement and going to be instrumental in helping us make that happen,” said Wayne D. Lewis, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky.
Lewis is also chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, which Heiner founded before running for governor.
Terry Brooks, who runs Kentucky Youth Advocates – a nonprofit that lobbies for kid-friendly policies like subsidized child care – called Heiner’s appointment “one of the absolute best news stories of the Bevin election.”
“If you care about vulnerable kids, Hal has a number of ideas that should give folks hope,” Brooks said. “If you are an advocate for the K-12 establishment, his appointment should be a real source of concern.”
From Metro Council to state government
Heiner, who lives with his wife Sheila on a 46-acre farm outside Middletown, cut his teeth in politics by winning a seat on Louisville’s Metro Council in 2002.
A graduate of Atherton High School and the J.B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville, Heiner went on to a successful career in real estate.
He founded Capstone Realty, which built the Commerce Crossings business park near Interstate 65 and the Gene Snyder Freeway and developed land at River Ridge in Clark County, Ind.
Heiner’s greatest political accomplishment may be the race he didn’t win. In 2010, Heiner nearly upset Democrat Greg Fischer for Louisville Metro mayor despite Democrats’ heavy party registration advantage in Jefferson County.
It was during that campaign that Heiner ran a commercial pushing for an end to Jefferson County Public Schools’ school assignment plan and offered other ideas to improve the school district – even though Louisville’s mayor has no authority over schools.
Since then, Heiner has been an outspoken supporter of charter schools. In a 2013 Point of View editorial on WDRB, he took aim at teachers’ unions that oppose “any effort” to add such schools in Kentucky.
“It’s time for all of us to take action and demand a change,” Heiner said at the time.
Heiner then entered what became a muddy primary campaign earlier this year with Bevin and then-Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer.
Comer’s campaign was dogged by allegations that he had abused a girlfriend in college, and Heiner was criticized for running a TV ad that referenced those allegations. A Bevin ad depicted Heiner and Comer engaging in a childish food fight.
Bevin ended up edging Comer by 83 votes.
Political experts said it’s not surprising that Bevin ended up turning to Heiner for a prominent appointment even after the messy primary.
“To able to move beyond politics and into problem-solving speaks volumes for both gentlemen,” said Republican Larry Bisig, a political media consultant in Louisville.
Republican strategist Scott Jennings, of RunSwitch PR in Louisville, said it’s hard to imagine Bevin finding anyone “more well-versed or well identified” with education and workforce issues than Heiner.
“For Bevin, it’s one of those great gifts because Heiner is somebody you can send to a meeting who can engender instant credibility for your administration and your policy agenda,” he said.
In addition to charter schools, Brooks said he would expect Heiner to push policies like overhauling the state’s “badly broken accountability and assessment system” and tying teacher pay to student performance, especially in low-performing schools.
But education policy is more insulated from politics in Kentucky than other states, including those Heiner wants to emulate.
In Indiana, the state schools superintendent is elected by voters. In Tennessee, the governor appoints the education commissioner.
But Kentucky’s top K-12 official, Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, answers to the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor. The board’s staggered terms mean that Bevin won’t get to appoint a majority of its 11 voting seats until 2018.
The Kentucky Department of Education – which oversees the state’s 1,200 public schools – is attached to Heiner’s cabinet but managed by Pruitt.
Heiner’s predecessors have had little involvement in K-12 policy.
He succeeds Thomas Zawacki, a former Toyota executive picked by former Gov. Steve Beshear for his “deep understanding of the skills employers need to build successful businesses.”
Joseph U. Meyer, who served as secretary of education and workforce development under Beshear from 2009-2013, said the position may be a platform, but carries no decision-making authority over education policy.
“By no stretch of the imagination is there a supervisory hierarchy there,” Meyer said. “Secretaries don’t have the authority to dictate policy because (the laws) created by the General Assembly made for boards that are independent.”
Looking for a “stronger connection”
Despite those limitations, Heiner said he’s looking for “a much stronger connection and interaction” with agencies like the Department of Education than his predecessors.
And he said Kentucky would be better served if the governor’s administration played a more active role.
“If you look at states that have leapt forward – that, say, provided some more specialized forms of education for children who are not well-served in the system today – it’s often been executive branch involvement where an elected official is willing to go out there on a limb and say, we really should move in this direction – at their own political peril,” Heiner said. “And I think we have a governor who is willing to do that.”
Heiner also sees himself as a “convener” to coordinate education and workforce training functions that are “splintered” across different areas of state government.
The Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, which administers college financial aid, is overseen by the finance cabinet, for example.
“We need a coordinating group to make sure that what we’re doing in K-12 matches up with what universities need, what community colleges need – and ultimately what employers need so Kentuckians can get a great job,” Heiner said. “I see this cabinet’s role as pulling those pieces together.”
Pruitt, the Kentucky education commissioner, said he’s already met with Heiner for over an hour and welcomes his involvement in the Department of Education.
“There’s obviously things that are pretty clearly in my court… but I want to be as collaborative as possible,” Pruitt said. “Certainly having he and the governor on board with initiatives we want to do will give them more authority, so I certainly plan on working with him as much as possible.”
Heiner added that, while he is interested in “big ideas” like requiring college credits or industrial certifications for high school graduates, any “significant improvements in education” will have to be adopted by the state General Assembly.
Brooks, of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said it’s important not to overlook the impact Heiner could have as the messenger for Bevin’s education policies.
“You cannot possibly minimize the power of a strong public voice,” Brooks said. “We have not had a person in authority talking about these issues for a long time.”
Alan DeYoung, an education policy professor at the University of Kentucky and charter schools opponent, views Heiner’s appointment as a “public relations” move by Bevin.
He said Heiner and Bevin understate Kentucky’s progress in education over the last two decades, which has actually been “exponential.”
“I have a sense that they are just trying to project Kentucky as so far behind on education that this (charter schools) is just logically going to come,” he said.
DeYoung said it’s a good thing said that Kentucky education policy is more insulated from elected officials – and quick changes based on elections – than in other states.
“We ought to fine-tune what we were doing before and continue in that tradition instead of throwing everything out and starting with a new model for schools,” he said.