Kentucky is poised to inaugurate its first African-American woman to statewide office, Jenean Hampton — and she is a Republican.
Her dramatic life story has taken her from Air Force blue to the Bluegrass State’s second highest position. She will be sworn in as Kentucky’s new lieutenant governor on Dec. 8. Chosen as governor-elect Matt Bevin’s running mate, the pair won, 53 percent to 44 percent, beating Democrat Jack Conway and his running mate, Sannie Overly.
A political novice and Tea Party activist, Hampton had unsuccessfully run for a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 2014. That bid, however, taught her a lot about the importance of applying a personal touch to running a campaign.
“I learned to write radio ads, create mailers, conduct precinct analysis and visited over 10,000 homes,” she tells Urban News Service. She even left handwritten notes for voters who were away when she knocked on their doors. “Sorry I missed you,” they read.
Hampton’s attention to detail and her ability to manage everything from start to finish are skills that she learned early in life and maintained throughout her career.
Born in Detroit, Mich., 57 years ago, Hampton’s parents divorced when she was 7. Her mother, Marie Hampton, supported four girls. Hampton watched her mother, who never graduated from high school, struggle to make ends meet. Marie wanted a better life for her girls. “My mother made good choices,” Hampton says.
One of those choices, Hampton recalls, happened during the 1967 Detroit riots. With violence erupting all around them, her mother made sure her daughters stayed indoors. Amid the chaos, her mother’s friend brought stolen groceries to their home. Although they needed the food, Marie refused the offer. The store owners were honest people who gave her store credit when she was broke. That experience taught Hampton an indelible lesson. “We learned to stretch a dollar and to live on less than what you make, and I still live by that rule today,” Hampton says.
After graduating high school, Hampton paid for college by joining General Motors as a computer operator. At GM, she became interested in all aspects of manufacturing.
“I would roam the halls during lunch breaks to see what the programmers and systems departments were doing,” she recalls. “One of the most important things I learned at General Motors was to be inquisitive about the whole business, not just the department I was assigned to.”
Hampton shifted to the Republican Party in the 1980s, as she realized that Ronald Reagan’s positive view of America matched her own outlook.
“The Republican Party’s values and platform most closely align with my approach to life: individual freedom, personal responsibility, opportunity,” she says. “Reagan was my commander in chief for a time (in the military) and I was proud to serve under him.”
Armed with a degree in industrial engineering from Wayne State University, she joined the Air Force as a computer systems officer and rose to the rank of captain. Hampton recalls one guest aboard a military plane that she rode en route to Operation Desert Storm. Comedian Steve Martin and his wife joined the transport and were headed to Saudi Arabia to entertain the troops. “It was a very long flight,” Hampton says, “but at least we were laughing on the plane.”
After Hampton left the military, the Syracuse, N.Y.-based Packaging Corporation of America hired her as a quality manager. “I didn’t know any kid who said they wanted to work in the box industry,” she says, but she thrived in her job. This time, Hampton’s position allowed her to touch every department in the company, which is just what she wanted.
Packaging Corporation of America transferred her to nearby Watertown, N.Y., where she became a plant manager and experienced one of the most memorable moments in her career.
Hampton’s factory required at least one employee to sleep there, in case the electricity went out. Sure enough, during a 1998 ice storm, the plant lost power. As colleagues struggled to travel through the tempest and its aftermath, Hampton, who lived closest to the facility, slept there for several weeks. “I have never been so cold in my life as when I had to spend those January nights in a plant without power,” she says.
Hampton eventually moved to warmer climates after receiving an MBA from the University of Rochester and relocating to Kentucky to work for Weyerhaeuser and International Paper. After getting downsized in 2012 and turning down multiple job offers, Hampton decided to take some time off and eventually became active in local politics. Earlier this year, Bevin tapped her to become his running mate.
“Jenean and I share conservative values and a deep love for America,” Bevin said when asked which qualities most drew him to Hampton. “We both grew up with humble beginnings and have served in the military. She is an incredibly smart, self-driven individual who understands the principles of limited government. She is a true public servant, committed to helping others realize their own version of the American Dream. She is going to be an outstanding lieutenant governor for Kentucky.”
As Hampton prepares to take office next month, she contemplates issues that she will likely champion. “My primary focus is to assist governor-elect Bevin, but I would also like to promote entrepreneurship and to get people excited about education,” she says. Hampton believes that if she were not in elected office, she would be back in school. “Being in school keeps you sharp. I want all kids and adults to be excited about school,” she says.
Marie Hampton, now 88, will be by her daughter’s side as she is sworn in. Hampton’s three sisters will also be there. “I have some cousins from Houston, Texas, who are going to charter a bus,” Hampton says. “I think this may be their first time in Kentucky.”
Hampton knows that she is making history as the first black Kentuckian elected to statewide office, but she puts her achievement into perspective. The person who inspires her most is her mother.
“The lessons she taught us are what matters. If kids have one adult in their life that cares, it can really make a difference. A key part of who I am today is because of her, and I am so blessed to have her in my life.”
The excitement about Hampton’s historic achievement is probably not universal. The Kentucky Democratic Party did not respond to repeated telephone requests to comment for this article.
When Hampton ran for office in 2014, she cited Scripture. It is from Galatians 5:1: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
Hampton says it is still her favorite Biblical verse.