October 27, 2010

Election Issue: Mayoral Race — Who's next?

The next mayor is either a businessman or a legislator

•Greg Fischer hopes business sense will entice voters — (By Jonathan Meador)

It’s 7 p.m. on a Monday, and the candidate is late. I’m sitting in a cramped front room of a ranch-style house that serves as a community center in Newburg. Metro Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2, informs me this is a place where people take GED classes, upholstery courses and, in general, connect with services offered in her district. Had Shanklin not told me this, I would’ve assumed that the woman cutting swatches of fabric at the far end of the room was making a quilt for Democratic mayoral candidate Greg Fischer for reasons I probably wouldn’t understand.

After 10 minutes of chatter and introductions, Fischer arrives. Eight campaign staffers swirl around him as we exit the house and into the mild, late-afternoon weather. Wearing a blue polo and khaki pants, the 52-year-old candidate evinces an aura of relaxation he’ll need for tonight’s itinerary: canvassing, aka the art of knocking on doors and getting people to like you enough so they consent to be governed instead of punching you in the face.

“So,” Fischer asks me. “How do you want to do this?”

“Well, I figure I’ll just start with some real softball questions —”

“And then hit me with some curve balls?” he laughs.

“That’s the plan.”

And so the candidate, Shanklin and crew begin soliciting votes from the predominately black neighborhood.

Semi-charmed life

Fischer has led a charmed if not unusual life. His father George was heavily involved in Democratic politics, serving as Cabinet Secretary to former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., while running MetriData Computing Inc., one of Louisville’s early multimillion-dollar computing and data companies.

After graduating from Trinity High School in 1976, Fischer attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. To help pay tuition, he worked summers as a crane operator unloading salmon boats in Kodiak, Alaska. Fischer was a member of Vanderbilt’s student activities board organizing on-campus concerts, including one of the last performances by reggae legend Bob Marley.

“A highlight of my life,” he says of the concert. “We had about 400 volunteers, and we put on about 20 shows a year. Bob Marley wanted to play Nashville, and that wasn’t originally a part of his North American tour. We said, ‘We’re out of money,’ but we ended up putting this thing together somehow, and it was amazing. Absolutely amazing.”

Fischer graduated in 1980 and used the money he saved from working in Alaska to travel the world, spending a great deal of time in Asia before returning to Louisville to run his first business.

Founded in 1974, ServEnd Distributors was bought by Fischer’s father in 1980 and renamed ServEnd International. Fischer’s work there has become something of a black eye for the Highlands’ businessman, who has been criticized for claiming to have invented the company’s flagship ice-vending machine, which put ServEnd on the map as a result of the convenience store explosion of the ’80s.

Court documents obtained by The Ville Voice show Fischer’s name on only one patent, No. 4,641,763, as co-inventor, while ServEnd co-founder Jerry Landers’ name appears on the remaining 13.

Fischer finds the criticism puzzling. “I don’t understand that. I co-founded a business in 1980, and Jerry Landers and I invented an ice and beverage dispenser. We started a business in a garage and built it internationally. Most people would think that’s a good thing,” he laughs.

As ServEnd began to take off — the sale of the company netted the Fischer family $73 million, according to The Courier-Journal — Fischer met his wife, Alex, with whom he has raised four children. He has either helped develop or invested in about a dozen different businesses in the Metro area, including the venture capital firm Iceberg Ventures.

In 2008, Fischer made his first foray into politics with an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, losing the bitterly contested race to entrepreneur and filmmaker Bruce Lunsford.

Now, he’s running for mayor.

“I like helping people,” Fischer says. “Always have. This gives me the opportunity to do that. I’ve always been good at building teams of people to get things done — whether it’s a canvassing team, Metro Council or economic development team. I want (Louisville to be) economically competitive. I don’t like to see Louisville lose to other cities. I want to see us grow.”

He hopes to implement his business philosophy in city government.

“In the workplace, my (greatest) satisfaction has come with growing companies,” he says. “People come in there and have low expectations of what they can do for themselves, and through training and education and practice, they achieve a lot more. We can do that with the city, too. I like that! It’s a good thing, man!”

The candidate turns and walks toward the next handshake.

Door to door

“Hi, how are you, Mr. Television Man?” says Beverly Tennyson, 66, stepping onto her doorstep to shake the candidate’s hand, who is more than happy to oblige.

The low-hanging sun casts the neighborhood in purple and gold. Fischer’s canvas will eventually drop more than 30 signs on a handful of blocks intersecting Shasta Boulevard. The process goes smoothly due in large part to the personal marketing data wielded by one of the local Democratic party’s precinct wizards, a true “Dune” Mentat whom we’ll call Tim.

“Make sure you’re going up there with (Greg),” says Tim to one of the African-American campaign staffers. “We don’t want the white guy alone on the porch.”

The comment, which Tim asks me to not write down, lays bare the cynical yet well-oiled operation surrounding me: the ream of voter identification information (“How do you all know my name?” one voter barked), the racially engineered canvassing team, the calculated human interactions. Standard operating political procedure.

One woman answers the door. Fischer asks where she works. “McDonald’s,” she replies.

“Well, I do hope that you’ll vote for me,” the candidate says. She consents to a yard sign, and the team moves on, the next house already lined up, the next potential voter’s name, age and employment information most likely at the ready, courtesy of Tim.

One last round of handshakes, thank yous and sign posting, and the candidate disappears into a car en route to the next function as the sun sinks behind the ranch homes of Newburg.

 *** 

•Hal Heiner is more qualified, but will conservative views get in the way? — (By Phillip M. Bailey)

Hal Heiner supposedly listens to rap music. Everything about the Republican mayoral candidate screams square, so it’s hard to imagine what brand of rap excites him. But he insists it’s a not-so-guilty pleasure.

“Thanks to my daughter, really. I like specific songs with a great beat that gets me moving. It’s just something in me,” he says with a smile. “My daughter would have to tell you. She can recite the songs and the artists better than I can, but my wife’s definitely not a fan. But when my daughter and I get together, we like it, you know. It’s not really the messaging; it’s just sort of the way that the music comes together.”

There are other contradictions: The two-term Metro councilman who seeks to run Kentucky’s urban flagship lives on a 168-acre farm where he raises chickens, soybeans and corn. Born on Halloween, he attends Southeast Christian, the largest evangelical mega-church in the state, yet he’s adamant that religion and politics remain separate.

“I think discussions of faith divide people,” he says, “especially in government. That’s more of a personal matter, and it is completely separate.”

Heiner drives to most campaign stops and usually arrives before his handlers. At the Fern Creek Community Association forum, Heiner moved from table to table, greeting people with that seemingly permanent smile on his face.

Joined by campaign manager Joe Burgan and son, Harold Heiner III, nicknamed “Three,” Heiner doesn’t talk about jobs, bridges or police officers on the street as much as he introduces himself.

“It was very humbling getting into the race. You’d think after eight years of being on the council that there’s a certain level of name recognition, but I found out real quick it wasn’t,” he says. “You go out to a fair or festival and stand out there in the intersection shaking hands, saying: ‘Hi, I’m Hal Heiner, I’m running for mayor,’ and you realize there really is a small percentage of people that watch what’s going on in Metro government or in the county overall,” he says, before laughing. “One time I had my sticker on and a man came up to me and said, ‘Hal Heiner? No, I’ve never heard of him. Who is this Hal Heiner?’ And I would say: ‘Well, that would be me.’”

Heiner will have plenty of time to flex his knowledge of the issues later, but for now, he wants you to know about him. That’s why he tries to arrive at debates before his opponent, Democrat Greg Fischer, who is ahead by six points in the latest SurveyUSA poll. It’s been a surprisingly tight race to succeed Mayor Jerry Abramson, given that, among registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Jefferson County 2-to-1.

From bond rates to street-light synchronization, Heiner knows more about the inner workings of Metro government than his rival. Yet picking a mayor isn’t an ACT test, and Heiner’s position against the Fairness Ordinance, his views on climate change and recent ads about the Jefferson County Public School student assignment plan have concerned undecided voters.

Louisville hasn’t had a Republican mayor in four decades, political observers have said repeatedly that any GOP candidate would be a longshot to win in November, and Heiner’s socially conservative views could cost him the election.

Unfair?

After voters approved city-county merger in 2000, Heiner, 58, jumped at the opportunity to represent the affluent, heavily Republican 19th District. He distinguished himself by pushing a platform of transparency.

Heiner’s mayoral campaign has focused on a similar set of ideas that stress open government, job attraction and a new brand of leadership. He is surprised that social issues have become a leading reason why voters are still on the fence about his campaign.

“Heiner being against (gay rights) is troubling. And I’m not sure if I can support someone like that,” says Khalilah Collins, executive director of Women In Transition. “I don’t know if it disqualifies him from getting my vote, but it’s a question that needs to be asked, definitely.”

In 2004, the council re-approved the Fairness Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It passed by a bipartisan 19-6 council vote, but not without Heiner’s consistent objection.

The GOP nominee is noticeably uncomfortable when asked about his opposition to Fairness. Heiner says he isn’t running to fight culture wars, but he won’t acknowledge if that vote was a mistake or answer how he’d vote if the legislation came before the council again.

“I am not on the council, and I’m not running for mayor to address social issues,” he says. “I will not seek to repeal the law, and I will enforce the ordinance. I do not agree with discrimination. It has no place in government, business or my personal life. None. But if we don’t address things like jobs in this community, education in this community, having a government that’s open and transparent, we’re going to be a city in trouble.”

Fischer has attacked Heiner’s voting record on the council, saying the GOP nominee is outside the mainstream. “Now, folks, I’m running against an extremist. As our good friend the mayor would say, I’m running against a divider,” he told a crowd outside Jefferson County Democratic Party headquarters in July.

“There’s no need to go into terms like (extremist), but I’d certainly say (Heiner) has views that are far different from the mainstream in the county,” says Tim Longmeyer, chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party. “Up until now, he was a relatively obscure councilman. And this campaign has brought to light a lot of issues that the general public weren’t aware of, because he was one of 26.”

To counter that criticism, Heiner has courted Democratic voters who are on the fence, unenthusiastic about Fischer and willing to give a Republican a chance. “At this point, people are more open-minded at looking across party lines in the mayor’s race. With Abramson not on the ticket, people want to see where this city can go,” says Shawn Reilly, a registered Democrat who co-founded Say No To Bridge Tolls. “People don’t feel obligated to the old machine as much, and they are willing to look at a whole new leadership.”

Democrats like Reilly, who are motivated by issues such as the Ohio River Bridges Project, feel they’ve been left out. In a recent ad, the Heiner campaign notes that frustration and features former Democratic mayoral candidates Shannon White, Tyler Allen and Lisa Moxley, who have all endorsed Heiner.

“The status quo has to end,” Allen says in the ad.

In a city that has been largely led by the same mayor for 25 years, Heiner hopes those who are weary with incumbency will connect Abramson to Fischer and reach across party lines.

Asked if Fischer is qualified to be mayor, Heiner balks. After a long pause, asked again, he eventually unleashes: “It was surprising to me when Greg got into the race,” Heiner says. “In the past eight years, you know, I haven’t heard his name. This was the first time. And I haven’t seen him involved, not at the first council meeting, a public hearing, writing a letter to the editor or engaged on any civic issue. You would think that matters.”