Growing up in Detroit, in the years when she had a television, Jenean Hampton would use pancakes to bribe her friends to watch NASA astronauts leave this fuzzy black-and-white earth behind.
The near-sighted kid of divorced parents in one of the country’s largest cities buried herself in science fiction books and dreamed of escaping poverty to travel in space.
“I remember I was not as excited by the first black astronaut or the first female astronaut, I was excited by the first astronaut who wore glasses,” she said. “Because that meant I had a shot at it.”
Hampton never made it to space, but she did rise from an unemployed tea party activist who couldn’t win a state House race to become the first African-American to ever hold statewide office in Kentucky. Elected lieutenant governor alongside Republican Gov.-elect Matt Bevin, she joins Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina as the only black statewide elected officials in the South.
Republicans view her election as a rebuke to claims by some Democrats that President Barack Obama’s dismal approval ratings in the state are driven by race. Kentucky’s minority population is less than 10 percent, and the state had divided loyalties during the Civil War while never officially joining the Confederacy. The state Capitol has statues of both Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis in its rotunda.
But Hampton downplays her race, choosing to identify as a political outsider during a season of momentous change in politics in Kentucky.
“I’m aware of the historic significance. I get that. A lot of people are excited about that,” she said. “I’m probably more excited at the chance to encourage others, other non-politicians, to get into the game.”
Hampton was born in Detroit in 1958, where she and her three sisters were raised by their mother after her parents divorced when she was 7. She made good grades in school but said she was “pressured to fail” by other black kids who accused her of “trying to be white.” But Hampton now says she sees that same dynamic with white families in Kentucky’s poor counties.
“These kids that made fun of my good grades, made fun of the way I spoke, the fact that I was reading all the time, even when a book report wasn’t required, even my choice in music,” she said. “I just remember wondering, at what point in my life would I get to just be Jenean, with my own likes and dislikes?”
Hampton left her home, spending seven years as an officer in the Air Force, including a deployment during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. She met her husband in the Air Force, in which her assignments included emergency medical operations for the space shuttle at Patrick Air Force base, getting Hampton close to the rockets that shaped the dreams of her childhood.
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