Kentucky stands poised to inaugurate its first African-American woman, Jenean Hampton, also a Republican, to statewide office.
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 said.
She even left handwritten notes for voters who were away when she knocked on their doors.
Born in Detroit 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 said. “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 from high school, Hampton paid for college by joining General Motors [GM] as a computer operator. At GM, she became interested in manufacturing.
She 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 said. “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. After leaving 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 said, 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. She eventually moved to warmer climates after receiving an MBA from the University of Rochester, then 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. “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 later this 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 said. “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 as will a busload of cousins from Houston.
She knows she’s making history as the first Black Kentuckian elected to statewide office, but she said she keeps her achievement in perspective.
“The lessons our mother taught us are what matters,” she said. “If children 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.”