Henry stumps in Versailles
Heather French Henry has been Miss Kentucky, Miss America, a fashion designer, a lieutenant governor’s wife and an advocate for veterans. Now she’s in the running for another title: Kentucky’s secretary of state. Monday, more than 50 years after her father Ronnie (and uncle Jerry) left the Kentucky Methodist Home where they’d spent much of their childhood, Henry, 44, spent much of the day in Versailles campaigning. After lunch with Woodford Judge-Executive James Kay and two aides at Melissa’s Cottage Cafe, she sat down for an interview with the Sun in the Amsden Coffee Club. In the May primary, Henry swamped her three opponents in the Democratic primary with 71 percent of the vote, far outpacing the other members of her party’s “ticket.” She doesn’t seem inclined to rest on her landslide or laurels. Henry said as a former commissioner and deputy commissioner of the state Department for Veterans Affairs, she worked with the Secretary of State’s office in a number of areas. “A lot of people don’t see the connect sometimes, but when you’re in government agencies, you know how much cross-cooperation there is at times,” Henry said. Projects she worked on include making it easier for veterans to vote and bringing the community into state-run veterans’ nursing homes by opening polling places in some of them, she said. Her department had more than 900 employees and a budget of about $102 million. “In that capacity, for elections, we were really able to help some of the county clerks to be able to add new precincts … in our veterans’ nursing homes,” she said. Henry’s successful bid for Miss America in 2000 featured a focus on veterans’ issues, inspired by her father, a Vietnam veteran whose mother died at a young age, after which he was taken to the Kentucky Methodist Home in Versailles. She praised the Military Overseas Voting Act that became law in 2013 and was designed to make it easier for servicemen and women to vote while stationed abroad. Henry said she’s also dealt with the Secretary of State’s office as a small business owner and leader of several nonprofits and notes that new veteran-owned businesses can file for free in their first years of business. She said there are about 250,000 organizations and businesses that must file with the Secretary of State’s office, making it “the largest repository of business information, so it’s an extremely important portal when you want to start a business or grow a business, that all of those tools be available …” Henry said she’d like to streamline what she calls “a little hiccup” in the filing process involving snail mail of a certification number to provide true “one stop shopping.” Asked about her local ties, Henry smiled and said while her father was at the Kentucky Methodist Home, he was a star athlete at Woodford County High School, particularly as a pole vaulter. Ronnie and Jerry French were picked up by their father in late 1964 and moved to Augusta, she said. Ronnie finished high school there, joined the Marine Corps after graduation and was wounded in Vietnam. “He never got to see those dreams of being a pole vaulter, which is secretly why I probably always wanted to be Miss America, because I wanted to do something really big, in honor of my dad,” she said, laughing. “The only athletic ability I had was playing tennis and it was never going to be an Olympic medal sport, certainly, for me. But my dad is very proud of his heritage here.” Nearly two decades after spending 13 months on the road as Miss America, Henry, married since 2000 to former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, with whom she has two teenagers, reflected on the differences and similarities between the pageant circuit and politics. The former isn’t nearly as cut-throat as some would imagine, she said. As for politics, the media and other training she received as Miss America 2000 helped prepare her for her current bid – including the travel and long hours, she said. “In my day (as Miss America), you were in a different city and state every 18 to 24 hours, so they likened it to sort of a presidential pace. So you’re on a one-way ticket to somewhere else, and sometimes you’re doing layovers just to hit a luncheon at a particular conference. That’s how they would schedule you …” Henry said. But it’s what she’s done in her home state before and after her 13 months as Miss America that Henry will likely stress along the campaign trail, including her service in the Department of Veterans Affairs for Democratic and Republican administrations. Like many first-time candidates for office, she said there’s not enough cooperation between members of different parties. If she beats GOP nominee Michael G. Adams, a Louisville lawyer from McCracken County, Henry will have an opportunity to do something about that – and perhaps, one day, much more.