Issue January 20, 2010

Jerry’s kids

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

Given the number of endorsements from elected officials, a multitude of financial contributors and the impressive amount of money raised thus far ($467,000), Democratic mayoral candidate Greg Fischer is arguably the frontrunner in the race to succeed Mayor Jerry Abramson. The candidate has kept up a steady pace of public appearances lately in an effort to shed light on a foggy biography. In turn, political observers and fellow candidates have stepped up their criticism, saying Fischer is inexperienced and unwilling to take a stance on tough issues.

One point of attack competing campaigns have yet to seize is Fischer’s relationship with longtime friend Joe Kelley, a registered Republican and president of Kelley Construction Inc.

Featured as a supporter on the Fischer campaign website, Kelley has been characterized by critics as a “union-buster” for turning his father’s company into a non-union workforce. Area labor leaders have called the outspoken businessman a union opponent due to his opposition of the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009.

Fischer denies speculation that Kelley has any advisory role in the campaign and says the Republican businessman’s $1,000 contribution is a sign he can bridge the gap between labor and business leaders.

“If you’re going to be successful as a mayor you have to have a big tent. I do not know Joe to be a bad individual. He’s a job creator,” says Fischer. “Joe Kelley speaks for himself and that’s not my position.”

Kelley says they disagree on a number of issues, but he supports Fischer because he’s the “best person for Louisville.”

Regardless of the candidate’s ties to Kelley, it appears local unions are a fan of Fischer: Just this week, the campaign announced yet another labor endorsement, this one from the Plumbers, Pipefitters & HVAC Service Technicians Local 502, which represents more than 2,000 active and retired members in the Louisville area. Several other prominent unions — including United Auto Workers — previously endorsed Fischer.

“My competitors know that I’m ahead. Inevitably they’re going to try and do something to throw me off track,” says Fischer. “Times are too important to get distracted by people that are going to try and knock the campaign off its stride. We’re not into petty politics and playing dirty pool. People aren’t interested in that.”

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Metro Council President Tom Owen, D-8, has unveiled the chair and vice-chair appointments to the council’s 12 committees. In a surprising move, Owen did not select Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, to serve as chairman of the coveted Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, despite an early request by the east Louisville Republican.

The chatter around City Hall is that members of the Democratic caucus and the Mayor’s Office made it clear Downard should not be in that position during the mayor’s final year in office. The former Republican mayoral candidate has been a harsh critic of the administration and a watchdog in Metro government.

President Owen says it was important to give someone else an opportunity to lead, adding that no one pressured him to keep Downard out of the position.

Both parties seem pleased with the elevation of Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, as chairwoman. Because of her well-known independent streak, council Republicans are pleased, although the 10-member caucus still believes the minority party should lead the Accountability and Oversight Committee.

“Whoever (has) that role must be somebody who has some strength at confronting the administration. I don’t want a yes-person in that job,” says Owen. “And no one would say that in the last year and a half Tina Ward-Pugh has been a yes-person.”

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In a press release encouraging Metro government to “immediately begin good-faith settlement negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police,” Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, R-19, didn’t mention his mayoral candidacy, but it’s clear to many that the minority caucus chairman’s resolution is an attempt to use the police take-home car controversy to score political points.

The measure calls on Abramson to drop the case and start settlement discussions with the police union regarding the fees, which the mayor pursued in an effort to help fill budget shortfalls over the past two years.

The FOP complained the mayor’s decision violated their union contract because it was made without negotiations. The police union took their case to the Kentucky Labor Cabinet and won. The city is currently appealing the decision in court.

The measure doesn’t have much support in the Democratic-controlled council, which has traditionally avoided getting involved in personnel matters that second-guess the mayor.

“When Councilman Heiner first brought that out … the decision was made not to give him free publicity for his mayor’s campaign,” says Democratic caucus spokesman Tony Hyatt. “Currently, it’s just looked upon as a political statement.”

At least one council Democrat informed LEO Weekly on background of plans to support Heiner’s measure. Still, most of the majority caucus does not support the resolution, citing Heiner’s political ambitions.

From the other side of the aisle, the perspective is that the administration’s appeal hurts police morale. Council Republicans point out that the mayor’s stubbornness has stretched out unnecessary legal battles involving public safety employees before, ultimately costing taxpayers $45 million in the city’s recent settlement with firefighters.

Even if the resolution passed the full council, it would be merely a gesture, one Abramson would likely ignore. And like council Democrats, the Mayor’s Office is quick to highlight the political convenience of their longtime critic’s position.

“We’re never surprised by Councilman Heiner. Never surprised,” says Chad Carlton, a mayoral spokesman. “I’m sure there will be many more news releases and press conferences in the coming months as the politics of mayoral races heat up.”