City Hall 2.0: Abramson pulled the arena deal out of the fire, but it wasn’t politics as usual

It was a scene most unusual.
There was the mayor, coiffed and polished as usual, on his knees tussling with an exposed wire that was shorting out the microphone he was using to bring to order an 11 a.m. press conference in the stately Mayors’ Gallery downtown.

Standing over him was downtown arena taskmaster Jim Host, looking equal parts alarmed and annoyed by the delay.

“Don’t shock yourself,” he told Mayor Jerry Abramson, who was busy trying to jiggle the wire that led to the podium’s microphone. “You’re going to shock yourself.”
The mayor seemed to think better of handling the wire himself, regained his feet and waited with poise, if not exactly dignity, as aides scurried to find a replacement podium.
Five minutes later, he was all charm and confidence as he told an assembled gaggle of scribblers and scribes that the $450 million arena was back on track, just a week after it was nearly derailed by the Metro Council’s insistence that labor unions be given more say in how the monster will be built.
It was a victory for the arena, and for Abramson, who gets credit for cleaning up the council’s spillage. But it also left an aura of weakness hovering about Hizzoner, something that looks about as out of place on Jerry Abramson as an untucked shirttail.

It underscored that Abramson, even as he seeks his fifth term in office, is still adjusting to the changed politics of a post-merger City Hall.

This lesson in the politics of power began to take shape on July 13, when Metro Council Democrats muscled through an attempt to beef up the role of labor unions in the construction of the arena.
Good policy or not, it certainly was a miscalculation. They forgot, or misunderstood, that the council’s input in the details of the arena project isn’t particularly valued, and not altogether necessary.

“Our role is the money, the financial end of this,” said Council President Kevin Kramer, a Republican who voted against the labor provision and urged Abramson to veto it. “We don’t really have a role in negotiating anything. That’s the mayor’s job. Our input is to look and see if we feel the project is financially reasonable, to ask, is it responsible?”

Having determined it was, Kramer said, the council should have left it to the mayor to hammer out the details with the other partners in the deal, including the state, the fair board, the arena authority and U of L.
Abramson apparently agreed. In later vetoing the provision, he said the council had overstated the city’s role, never mind the council’s, in determining the course of the arena project. Louisville, he said, is but a minority partner in the project, and should act like it.

The day after the council’s vote, Gov. Ernie Fletcher made the same point, only he made it stick. He vigorously rejected the labor agreement and sent the city a blunt message: Keep the provision, lose the state’s $75 million contribution. (Louisville’s chamber of commerce followed suit, and told Abramson that corporate donations to the arena would dry up if he didn’t reverse the council’s course.)

It was enough to put Abramson, a Democrat running for re-election, in an odd position. A veto meant folding to an indicted governor’s bluff and standing with the GOP minority on the council, rather than with fellow Democrats. (Irony was the order of the day, as Kelly Downard, Abramson’s Republican opponent for mayor, found himself huddling with council Democrats and breaking bread with labor unions.)
What’s more, said mayor’s spokesman Chad Carlton, Abramson likes unions and has been supportive in the past. In this case, he said, the mayor saw how the cards had been dealt and played his hand to save the arena.
Other observers agreed.

Abramson had little choice but to veto the bill once the governor made his wishes known, said former Mayor David Armstrong, who said he only wished he had been working with a governor willing to commit $75 million to an arena during his term.  Armstrong, whose downtown initiatives have helped pave the way for the revitalization often cited by Abramson as key to the city’s future, said the Metro Council had over-estimated its clout.

“The governor was in the catbird’s seat,” Armstrong said. “He had the promised funds and could really dictate the way this was going to go.”
In the face of the governor’s threat — and amid local headlines like ‘Arena project may lose Ky. bonds’ — Abramson cut short a trip to Washington, D.C., to return to Louisville and perform CPR.
It appeared to work. By the 21st Abramson was on the floor battling the electrical wiring and ready to announce a breakthrough.

(Separately, Downard and the Democrats had drafted an almost identical compromise bill, and the council voted last Wednesday 23-1 to accept the new language.)

But why couldn’t the two-week sideshow have been prevented entirely?
Clearly, things have changed quite a bit since the days when Abramson ruled the city almost unchallenged by anyone. Certainly not by the fractured and embarrassment-prone Board of Aldermen.
“Everyone, or nearly everyone, was a Democrat in the old system,” Armstrong said in an interview. “Finding a seven-person majority was easy.”

Abramson especially made it look easy, and did so for three long terms before being sidelined by term limits in 1998.
The clock is running down on his first post-merger term, and for the first time, Abramson is facing a credible, if still a long-shot, Republican opponent. The enlarged Metro Council is split along party lines, with suburban voices taking on new clout — and is full of competing ideas about how the city should progress.

What the city needed earlier this month was the mayor to have foreseen the Democratic council members’ agenda, and to have had the power to convince them of their mistake before they made it. Maybe because in the old days, the aldermen so rarely figured in the discussion of major policy choices, Abramson didn’t anticipate the snafu. In the new reality, he may no longer have the luxury of ignoring the council.
Kramer credits Abramson for his handling of the situation once a veto became necessary, but suggested it could have and should have been avoided.

“I really would have liked to have seen him avoid the veto,” Kramer said. “Was that the mayor’s fault? Well, the (Democratic) members on the council simply did not believe that the governor would pull the funds. They did not believe, despite our telling them, that the labor agreement would torpedo the arena. And nobody believed that Abramson would veto the ordinance. They just didn’t believe he would go that far.”
Had they been persuaded in advance of how things would turn out, the bumps in the road could have been avoided, Kramer said.

“The mayor’s an optimist,” Kramer said. “He simply believed that folks on the council would understand the situation, that they would recognize the impact of the labor agreement. But that was a miscalculation.”
The council needn’t be anyone’s rubber stamp, not even for the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history. But sometimes they need to be persuaded in a manner that requires more than just the sunny salesman’s style that served Abramson so well in the old system.

With the changes wrought by merger, a new kind of approach is called for. If he is to be as successful in a fifth term as he was in his first three or four, Abramson will have to continue adjusting.

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