This story begins in November 1985, with an election that would change the future of an agreeable little river city called Louisville, all but content to consider itself progressive and heading righteously toward the 21st century.
Jerry Abramson, two-term alderman and general counsel to former Gov. John Y. Brown (1979-83), ascended to the throne that had been occupied by liberal Democrat Harvey Sloane, a lofty seat Abramson would keep warm till he wanted to give it up, inheriting the keys to a city that flipped off the downtown lights at 5 p.m. and settled into an expanding suburbia, glowing in the warmth of self-contentment even while regional rivals like Indianapolis (nee India-no-place) were starting to shake off the lethargy that had held them rootbound.
Abramson is the only person who can finish writing this story. The polls show a steady 40-something percent lead with the landing gear down for his current mayoral campaign against Republican Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, the only guy who’s waged something resembling a fight over the mayor’s tenure, although that too is arguable. Term limits haven’t really fazed Hizzoner-for-Life Abramson: He’s the only Louisville mayor to have served three terms, the most allowable, the last of which ended in 1999.
But good fortune was not finished with him: soon enough, voters, with significant lobbying from Abramson and his counterparts in the old county government, decided that city and county governments would merge. A new office — Metro Mayor — was created, and Abramson was no longer stuck on the outer rail of official city business. He could run again in 2002 and serve another three terms, the second of which he seeks now.
For all of Abramson’s political dominance, there are plausible arguments that he has sucked the marrow from Louisville’s political milieu. That is, some who may otherwise jump at the chance for public office — particularly Democrats — are quickly dissuaded by the panther staring at them from just behind the threshold of the cave. It’s a matter of deference.
What hath the Abramson juggernaut wrought? That’s the question plaguing this story, and there’s no real answer, to be perfectly direct. We’ve listened on the campaign trail as many in Louisville and much further beyond have speculated whether the “Mayor for Life” will cede the throne after this go-round and take a stab at statewide office. Some say that could happen as soon as next year, though it’s more likely in 2010 (more on that later).
The best way to examine such a question, we discerned, is to start asking for names. Who’s the garage band trying to follow the Stones onstage? What poor fool will risk going one-and-done after naturally failing to match Abramson’s staggering popularity (a recent Survey USA poll had his approval rating among Republicans at 60 percent)?
The following is what we found, having talked to those on the inside, those on the out, and those just plain ready for something new.
The time shortly after merger produced a fascinating phenomenon in Louisville: With the dissolution of the Board of Alderman and the formation of the 26-member Metro Council, just about every man and woman with a whiff of political aspiration got a wind gust to the head. The power structure shifted virtually overnight, and the executive branch met a challenger where it had little prior resistance.
“I just think merger did so much for us in terms of highlighting the skills and leadership of a number of people who, heretofore, weren’t involved for whatever reason,” said Kevin Kramer, Metro Council president and a Republican. “I think it’s an exciting time in Louisville.”
The nasty joke whispered when no one’s really listening is that every member of the Metro Council is, in some way, running for mayor. That dovetails with the notion that merger created a scramble for power, and it’s only slightly exaggerated. There are council members who very much want to be mayor, and probably one or two who’ll find the way there in the near future.
For the Democrats, councilman Jim King appears to be an early runner. He represents District 10, and has shown considerable pull and leadership ability since winning the seat in 2004. As the leader of the majority caucus, King has taken some unpopular positions — most recently, in the melee over the smoking ban, he tried to finesse a turd of an agreement that would allow businesses to install expensive separate ventilation systems to permit smoking, which was ultimately killed. At least one Democratic insider said he lacks name recognition, but he’s a bargainer by nature, the successful owner of King Southern Banks, and a barrel-chested man with the iron smile of a banker, which could make the transition from Abramson oddly smooth.
“When I got elected to the Council, I think a lot of people assumed my only reason for getting elected to the Council was to eventually run for mayor, but that was really not in my mind when I ran for Council, and I’m very happy being a councilman,” King said. “I have had many people approach me about the possibility of running for mayor if Jerry doesn’t run next time, and at this point it’s too far off to know what will happen, but it’s an exciting possibility.”
David Tandy is another Democrat who’s garnered attention, though he said he’s not interested at the moment and busy enough with being on the Council. Tandy is an attorney-by-day who represents the humming 4th District, which includes downtown. He’s got a golden-boy face and serious connections: his wife, Carolyn Whitaker-Tandy, worked several D.C. jobs and the pair have maintained connections around the country, which Tandy said he uses occasionally to embolden his thinking on issues such as cruising. He would be Louisville’s first African-American mayor.
“If he foresees going forth and putting his hat in that arena, I think he would be an appealing candidate to all sides,” said community activist Christopher 2X, who works mostly with African-American youth and families. “I think Dave is a formidable force, like a lot of others.” If 2X sounds a little tepid on Tandy, it’s true: He said his constituency would rather see the next mayor rise from outside the political framework. “They feel the current status quo doesn’t fulfill their needs,” 2X said.
Butchertown Neighborhood Association president Jim Segrest, who lives in Tandy’s district, has criticized Tandy for not standing up for the historic neighborhood, particularly for being soft on Swift, the meatpacking company. “Tandy is hot to be something else, but he hasn’t done his first job right yet,” he said.
Former Democratic caucus chair Cheri Bryant Hamilton could also have a shot. Hamilton, 5th District councilwoman, is behind the so-called “dangerous dog ordinance,” which could significantly constrain pet owners in the city if it passes. She’s drawn the ire of all kinds for it, and probably an equal amount of praise, particularly in light of recent fatal pit bull attacks. That’s also the likeliest name-builder for Hamilton, who’s a friend to affordable housing.
Segrest called Hamilton level-headed; state Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-44, said Hamilton could be a good candidate, and notes the dearth of female possibilities. Jenkins’ name has also been mentioned, though she said she’s never considered it.
Despite the party’s six decades of dominance in the mayor’s seat, Democrats won’t necessarily hold in 2007, 2010 or — if the 60-year-old Abramson decides to meet his term limit again — 2014. In fact, studies have shown that Republicans often win mayoral elections following mergers, because outlying counties tend to be bigger and more conservative than cities.
“Louisville is receptive to change,” said former mayor David Armstrong, who served during the gap in Abramson’s tenure. “Somebody mentioned to me last week that Jerry is liked and he’s a known quantity and people don’t like change. Well, they do like change. When we brought all those things that people fussed about, like the skateboard park and Fourth Street Live, people didn’t like it at first, but boy they love it now.”
Armstrong and others fear that Abramson’s lengthy tenure has led to a deficiency of vision and a status quo that could help a Republican ascend. “I think not only would
be a strong candidate
, but there’d be a Republican slate that I think would be very, very strong,” said Jack Richardson, chair of the local Republican Party.
Of course Richardson would say that, considering his position. But Ken Herndon, current county judge-executive and a liberal Democrat, is also concerned. “Because the Democratic Party was so dominant for so long, there wasn’t a whole lot of bench-building, and that was a mistake, obviously,” he said. “Whereas the Republican Party, being out of power, tended to have more people churning through. Democrats, they run for this office and play musical chairs with the same people.”
Aside from Downard, who’s focused now on the improbable task of unseating Abramson, there are strong Republicans in the Council. Hal Heiner has been asked more than once about the possibility of running for mayor; he said last week he’s not considering it now, but that “four years is a lifetime in politics.” Heiner is popular in his East End district, maintains a thorough, easy-to-use Web site (www.hotlinetohal.com), and is at the ready with quibbles about Abramson.
“I look forward to the next mayor being a mover, and I suspect whoever it is will only be a one- or two-term mayor, because anytime you advocate change, you make a lot of enemies — all those entrenched in the current system,” Heiner said. He identified a need for stronger, bolder leadership — a Republican rallying cry right now — and said education, efficiency in government and improving the city’s lobbying presence in Frankfort are three key issues the next mayor needs to address.
Council president Kevin Kramer laughed when asked about making a run, though he’s a natural to consider for his bipartisanship and ability to appeal as a moderate. “I think it will be interesting in Louisville for the next couple of elections, regardless of whether it takes place in two years or four years, or if it’s a re-election bid for Kelly,” Kramer said.
District 26 Republican Councilwoman Ellen Call has also come up in several discussions. Call has been a relatively quiet force on the Council, and her ability to cross party lines to pass legislation has not gone unnoticed — consider the smoking ban, for which Call was partly responsible. A blogger at the National Journal has tabbed Call one to watch in Kentucky politics, even suggesting she may run for Rep. Anne Northup’s seat once she’s done, although Call was quick to silence that. She runs a company that manages judicial campaigns with fellow councilwoman Julie Raque Adams, R-18, and has two young girls, which would make having a D.C. job like Northup’s tough.
Call is up for re-election to the Council in 2008. “After that,” she said, “I’m just going to keep the doors open. I can tell you
is one of the few jobs in politics I would be interested in. I think it’s a great job. I think a mayor has a tremendous ability to influence the quality of life in the city.”
The funny thing, when you ask people who they think might make a good mayor from outside city politics, is that they don’t really name any true outsiders. In fact, the outsiders are merely on the periphery of the political power structure, not removed from it. That’s why people like Ed Springston, a Ford line worker running as an independent in this year’s mayoral race, will never have a prayer: Just like in national politics, you’ve got to shake hands with the beef before you can use the grill.
“It’s time, in my opinion, to turn a lot of the keys of the city and to the Metro Government and to other big institutions we have here to the next generation,” Armstrong said.
He’s right. Like 8th District Councilman and former mayoral candidate Tom Owen told LEO, there are a lot of “old heads” in and around the Abramson administration, and the time is fast approaching for The Young to seize the reins.
The most obvious name here is Democrat Jack Conway, the attorney who lost a close race to Northup in 2002 and has, somewhat surprisingly, maintained wide name recognition despite being off the political radar for four years. Conway said he’s talked with Abramson about the job, though his mind is far from made up. Conway’s future largely depends on what happens on Nov. 7: if the Democrats can take back the U.S. House of Representatives, which looks likely, Rep. Ben Chandler will probably stay put. Chandler is the lead domino in a chain that could — if he decides to run for Governor next year — change everything, including Abramson’s job (a Chandler-Abramson 2007 ticket has been widely rumored, and Abramson has done nothing to officially quash it).
Andrew Horne knows he wants a future in politics, but he’s not sure what that will come to mean. Horne, defeated by John Yarmuth in the 3rd District Congressional primary, is a moderate Democrat who gained a following earlier this year. He, too, has gabbed with Abramson about the future of the office, and said in an interview he’s interested “if that was something people wanted me to do.” Horne speaks often about balanced leadership and working the bipartisan center, which may have been his undoing in the Congressional primary but could work well in a mayoral campaign.
Attorney and developer Craig Greenberg has turned heads as well. The Democrat and Louisville native is a partner in Museum Plaza, the bold new downtown skyscraper, and has long been involved in various forms of community service. “I think the citizens of Louisville, after Mayor Abramson, will be looking for a new type of mayor,” he said in an interview last week.
Greenberg is part of a coterie of businessmen — former U of L basketball star Junior Bridgeman is also on this list — who many think are harboring hopes for a shot at mayor, although nobody wants to be the one naming names. Tyler Allen is another one. The purveyor of 8664 — an alternative to the shortsighted Ohio River Bridges Project that would remove a downtown portion of I-64 and further open the waterfront area to economic development — is also owner of USA Graphics, a local small business. He’s clashed with Abramson over the Bridges Project.
“It is tremendously fun for someone like me, who’s out working on something, to hear from people, but it’s almost symptomatic, when I get up in front of a group of people and I start talking about an idea and this vision for the future, the first response almost universally from someone is, ‘Hey, why don’t you run for mayor?’” Allen said. “I wouldn’t want to read too much into it with regard to me in particular; it’s almost a cry out for somebody to throw out a big vision for people.”
Herndon said Allen is just the type of person to fill Abramson’s shoes. “Those kinds of people are what we need in the community in general, from either party.”
Tim Longmeyer, chair of the local Democratic Party, acknowledges that Abramson’s popularity might hurt the party. He expects the next mayor to be a Democrat, but believes it’s unlikely anyone can live up to what Abramson’s accomplished over 15 years, which could leave the office open to a Republican.
Armstrong, who said he’s talked to several businessmen waiting patiently to amble into the political arena, put it as simply as it can be said: “Louisville will not come up short when it comes to candidates to run for that office.”