ON THE AVENUES: Donnie Blevins tells his story.

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Donnie Blevins is a purposeful man with little time for wasted motions or words. He puts his brain into gear before putting his mouth into motion. Blevins’ personal page at Facebook is characteristically concise and to the point.

“I’m a Christian, a fair, honest and hard-working man.”

When Blevins was a child, disaster struck the family. One night he awoke to smoke and chaos. The bunk bed he shared with his twin brother caught fire, the spark from a faulty wall socket igniting the curtain and spreading flames to where the boys slept, unaware.

As Blevins’ father pulled his brother from the bottom bunk, his brother grasped Blevins’ hand to yank him down off the top. They made it outside and watched in shock as the house and all their possessions were reduced to smoldering debris within minutes, the blaze so intense there was nothing left except ashes when the fire department arrived.

“All I had on was my underwear,” Blevins recounts. “We didn’t have anything, and we didn’t have anywhere to go. We were homeless – no insurance, because dad was renting the house.”

Luckily their father’s boss from the sheet metal factory knew someone at the New Albany Public Housing Authority, and so the family found a place to stay. Even 45 years later, Blevins hasn’t forgotten this feeling of rootless vulnerability.

“I remember when we first got into the housing authority, mom and dad took us over to the old Lillian Emory School. Mom went inside to sign us up for first grade.

“But we didn’t know it was a school, and I remember me and my brother sitting in the car out in the parking lot, crying our eyes out.

“We thought it was an orphanage. We thought mom and dad couldn’t afford us. We still didn’t have any other clothes except the ones we had on. Mom finally came back outside and we drove off, and this made us feel a little better, so we asked her: ‘Why are you giving us away?’

“What are you talking about, giving you away? I’m putting you into school!”

At first the Blevins twins slept on the apartment floor atop a blanket. One day a neighbor gave the family a baby bed for their young sister, then other neighbors brought clothes. Someone donated a mattress for Blevins and his brother to use. “That floor sure was hard,” he says.

Slowly things got better. Blevins’ dad got a second job, and his mom found work, too. Only then could the family afford a babysitter at night to look after seven children. When the twins were in the fifth grade their parents had saved enough money to leave public housing and move to a home in Sellersburg.

When Blevins was 12 he got his first job working in a hay field for a Clark County farmer, then started cutting grass. At 16 he applied at his father’s workplace, where the minimum age for employment was 18. They hired him anyway. Other jobs followed, and after high school Blevins got on at the Sellersburg water company.

Blevins minces no words. “I never had any handouts,” he says. “No rich uncle, no rich grandpa. I had to work hard for everything I had.”

And he did. In 2000 Blevins accepted a position with the city of New Albany, eventually working in four different municipal departments: street, sanitation, stormwater and wastewater. He wanted to get more involved with his community and ran for an at-large city council seat in 2003, garnering the highest vote total among Democrats during the primary, then winning a council seat outright in the fall.

Blevins became one of eight Democrats on the council, with only a single Republican. One of his rookie council colleagues from the 2003 Democratic landslide was Jeff Gahan, the future mayor, who won the first of two consecutive 6th district council terms alongside Blevins, who says he had no significant disagreements with Gahan during this period.

Unfortunately the Democrat-dominated council was prone to internal factionalism, resulting in frequent four-versus-four power alignments. Blevins became an unlikely (and uneasy) swing vote among warring Democrats. His discomfort often was palpable. Seeking re-election in 2007, Blevins was defeated in the May primary and seemed almost relieved to be shedding a burden.

As always, Blevins got on with his life. He’d come a very long way from the scared little boy in underwear watching his family’s house burn to the ground. Blevins was a husband and a father with an unblemished record as a city employee. Conscientious and thoughtful, Blevins also served as pastor in his church (he still does).

What’s more, Blevins had a fledgling business to nurture. His NA City Boys Sanitation company began operations in February of 2006. Disillusioned by then-mayor James Garner’s privatization of the city’s sanitation department (Blevins was transferred from sanitation to the sewer utility and wasn’t part of the move to eventual sanitation contractor EcoTech), he started his own private sanitation company. It has been growing ever since.

“NA City Boys can’t do residential pick-up here in New Albany because of the city ordinance, but we can do commercial, and we can work in the fringe area in the county.”

From its inception NA City Boys has competed for contracts against EcoTech. Did this fact rub people the wrong way, and more importantly, was it ever an issue between Blevins and his fellow elected officials during the time of his council tenure?

He says no.

What about Gahan? Was there ever any friction with him?

“No,” says Blevins. “Jeff congratulated me (for starting NA City Boys), and nothing was negative, not at all.”

According to Blevins, neither he personally nor NA City Boys experienced problems during the remainder of Garner’s lone term or Doug England’s final mayoral stint. The entirely of Gahan’s first term passed uneventfully as well. Blevins’ city job and his side project remained separate, and life was good.

It all changed after the Democratic Party primary in 2015.

Businessman David White announced his candidacy for mayor of New Albany, challenging the incumbent Gahan. Blevins and White were good friends, having met for the first time in 2003 at a Democratic Party picnic. They hit it off, and naturally Blevins volunteered to help White with his campaign.

White lost in the primary and Gahan was re-elected. For Blevins, this was the end of it. It never occurred to him that helping a friend would result in retribution. However, the ramifications were immediate and irrevocable.

“After the primary election it went downhill fast,” he states.

The polls hadn’t been closed for long when Blevins felt an arctic breeze. He was cited for improper cell phone use by his street department supervisor, who left no doubt that this directive to “write up” Blevins came straight from the higher-ups.

Specifically, after ten years of peaceful co-existence, suddenly NA City Boys had become a problem. Was Blevins doing NA City Boys business by phone while on the city’s time clock?

“No I wasn’t,” he replies firmly. “Other guys used their phones for Facebook or to play games, but I only answered when my wife and kids called me. Then they said those were business calls — but everyone knows you can’t run a business over the phone.”

The harassment became noticeable and quickly escalated.

Blevins had been parking NA City Boy trucks at his house since the company was founded, but suddenly in early 2016 he received a certified letter from the city referencing an ordinance against parking commercial vehicles on residential property. He chose not to fight the decree and began parking the company’s trucks at a commercial property he owned on South Street.

Then in the spring of 2017, while working to clean up flooding damage on the riverfront, Blevins was openly snubbed in front of witnesses by the second-in-command to flood control director Chris Gardner – the mayor’s son-in-law, who assumed the position in 2012 with no other qualifications than a university marketing degree.

Several city workers had been cleaning all morning, and when it came time to break for lunch everyone at the site had transportation except Blevins and one other employee. Blevins asked the flood control supervisor if he’d mind running them to the store.

“He told me, ‘Donnie, I can take anybody up to the store but you. Nothing personal.’ ”

The supervisor confided that Gardner had ordered him “not to do anything for Donnie,” and said he couldn’t help Blevins because he “didn’t want to get himself into trouble.”

According to Blevins, throughout 2016 and 2017 he received frequent hints from Gahan supporters that he was a pariah and needed to make amends. One such messenger was Terry Ginkins, owner of TA Ginkins Company, recently revealed by NA Confidential as one of Gahan’s most reliable pay-to-play campaign finance donors.

One day on a job site Ginkins arrived and sidled up to Blevins, making small talk before saying, “Donnie, you need to get on board with Gahan.”

Blevins adds that when Ginkins’ company was remodeling the firehouse at Community Park in 2017, street department employees were sent with heavy equipment to dig and install a drain – something already included in Ginkins’ bid, presumably saving the contractor money.

This rankled Blevins, then Ginkins paused one day to taunt Blevins about “getting behind” Gahan, boasting that “I (Ginkins) don’t have a problem with Jeff.”

This time Blevins didn’t hesitate.

“I don’t imagine you do, because Gahan built your company.”

Ginkins bristled. “What do you mean?”

Blevins told him: “You know exactly what I mean. You get all these handouts and jobs, get all that money and then kick some back.”

“He got really mad,” Blevins remembers, “and he said I had no right to say those things.”

Blevins bit his lip, thinking to himself: Terry, you and Jeff are two peas in a pod.

For Blevins the end came in February, 2018. He was working nights on snow removal, out on a run after 9:00 p.m., when Gahan made a visit to the street department office.

When Blevins returned, his supervisor called him inside to deliver the ultimatum he’d just been given. According to the supervisor, who said he had no idea why any of it was happening, Gahan had gone “berserk” about Blevins, referring to him as “that son-of-a-bitch” and promising to “fire his (Blevins’) ass the first chance I get.”

The supervisor, himself nearing full retirement, was shaken by the mayor’s attitude. He also was determined to look out for number one, interpreting Gahan’s obscenity-laden tantrum as a clear warning to Blevins to get out while the getting was good – or the supervisor would do as needed to protect himself.

Weary of mistreatment, Blevins did just that, opting to avoid the looming ax by opting for early retirement at a sizable disadvantage in terms of potential retirement benefits.

“I needed to retire because I was going to lose my job. I told him go ahead, schedule my days, and that’s when I started taking my vacation and sick time.”

At 50 years old with 19 years in, Blevins needed another 10 years for a full pension, so the ordeal ended up costing him 75% of his optimum monthly pension check. Thanks to his union membership Blevins kept his health insurance, although his monthly insurance premium now costs 50% more than the benefit check.

It’s a very good thing Blevins retained the health insurance.

Tragedy struck a few months ago when his wife suffered a massive stroke.* She remains comatose. Blevins brought her home after a stint at a nursing facility, and how his primary job is caring for her, devoting himself to his stricken wife’s needs as his adult sons manage NA City Boys in his absence.

Gahan? Characteristically, he isn’t finished yet.

Six weeks ago Blevins received another certified letter from the same city functionary, this time citing a vague complaint from an unnamed neighbor about truck noise in the morning, and ordering NA City Boys to cease and desist. There’s a machine shop opposite Blevins’ commercial property, with other industrial users nearby.

There’s also a church where a chief political ally of Gahan’s preaches.

In spite of it all, Blevins tells his story calmly and factually, betraying no outward signs of anger, bitterness or self-pity. He concedes there are times when it’s hard being a Christian and maintaining his composure. But as has always been the case with Blevins, there’s plenty of work to do, and he just does it.

Blevins’ own conclusion about Jeff Gahan is sweeping and comprehensive in its brevity.

“Jeff is a bully.”

* An update: Carmen Blevins died on August 18, 2019. 

Recent columns:

March 26: ON THE AVENUES: Gahan’s hoarding of power and money is a threat to New Albany’s future.

March 19: ON THE AVENUES: In 1989, six months of traveling fabulously in Europe.

March 12: ON THE AVENUES: Tender mercies, or why Democratic Party luminaries didn’t want to be seen at the “Protect Hoosiers from Hate” rally.

March 5: ON THE AVENUES: Prom planning’s nice and all, but New Albany still needs an autonomous independent business alliance.

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