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June 6, 2006

The Tear Sheet: For hizzoner, an invitation to right an old wrong

There is so much progress under way in Louisville right now that it is hard to imagine having much to complain about as we head toward the mayoral election. Let’s face it: The riverfront is a continuing marvel, downtown condos are popping up like dandelions and the new parks initiative shows a kind of big-thinking boldness that even many of Jerry Abramson’s fans often say he lacks.That’s good news for His Honor, who’ll have a strong hand this fall when he asks voters to keep him in the tall cotton for another long spell down on Jefferson Street.But if you’re a lot of us, you may be thinking that doing a good job isn’t good enough, not for a man who has been our mayor, more or less, since the time when the Macintosh computer was new.Fortunately for Abramson, the path from damned good mayor to something more, a leader for the history books, isn’t only paved with long meetings and budget squabbles. No, one of the simplest, and best, things Abramson could do to elevate his stature is to accept this invitation to a party for the weekend of June 17. That’s when the Kentuckiana Pride Festival will take over the belvedere, with vendors and entertainers all day Saturday, and a parade Friday evening. (More information: www.kentuckianapridefestival.com)The mayor has yet to be invited to the party by its organizers, but I don’t see why I can’t do so myself. (At the best street parties, isn’t it often the unexpected guests who prove the most fun?)Mike Shouse, director of the pride festival, said the group didn’t want to politicize the event, which is mainly a celebration, but he also said previous invitations to Abramson had received such scant attention from his office that  organizers simply didn’t think he’d ever bother to show up.That was a mistake by that group — and a pretty big one.Louisville needs a mayor who can help send the message that a modern city, one capable of landing a billion-dollar UPS investment, is also one that moves beyond simple tolerance for its gay and lesbian residents. Louisville needs a mayor who knows that the kind of city Louisville wants to be is a city that has genuine acceptance of gays and lesbians (and those people who fall in between). Realizing that kind of city — given the back-to-the-future anti-gay developments making the news lately — appears to be getting more difficult rather than easier.Shouse points out that the trend in Louisville, like in many bigger cities, has been more positive than moves like the governor’s recent decision to remove job protections for gay and lesbian state workers.But proof of how little some things have changed comes from the Pride Festival itself, which Shouse said will be off-limits to press photographers on Saturday. Last year, he said, many of the attendees who filled out surveys requested that the media be kept at bay because they feared reprisals from co-workers, church members or schoolmates who might some day find out they are gay. “Sure, there are laws on the books to prevent discrimination,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. People continue to be concerned about being identified.”It’s happened before, of course. Eight years ago, when Abramson was finishing up his final pre-merger term in office, Louisvillian Alicia Pedreira was fired from her job simply because co-workers found out she was gay after spotting a photograph of her and her partner attending the Louisville AIDS Walk. Her case became something of a watershed moment in the city’s gay rights history. Not long afterward, no thanks to Abramson, incidentally, the city and county both passed fairness ordinances.Then, like now, Abramson stayed on the sidelines in the struggle for civil rights for gays. It’s a black mark on his otherwise strong record.Abramson sees it differently, he said in an interview last week. He defends his decision to refrain from taking a public stand in favor of the Fairness Ordinance, which failed twice while he was in office before finally passing in January 1999 under Mayor Dave Armstrong. Instead of a public stand, Abramson said, he worked the back channels and fought, but failed, to find a seventh vote to pass the law. But Abramson should know that was strategy, and while it has its place in politics, strategy is not the same as leadership. At a time when acceptance of gays is becoming the norm in many boardrooms and communities, Louisville still needs help moving ahead.It’s too bad the Pride Festival didn’t ask him to attend the festivities themselves. But for the city’s sake, I am happy to make the suggestion.Jerry Abramson has done a great deal for this city, and along the way he’s accumulated more political capital than an inmate with a lifetime supply of smokes. Here’s a chance to spend it in a way that will put him in the history books for more than being the Mayor for Life. Contact the writer at michael.lindenberger@gmail.com