If the term maverick hadn’t been run into the dirt, it would certainly be a useful moniker for mayoral candidate Chris Thieneman. The Louisville developer has a reputation for speaking out against public officials, as well as an independent streak that any GOP candidate will need to have even a remote chance at victory in this city.
The longtime critic of Mayor Jerry Abramson is upfront about why he’s running — to break up the establishment of local powerbrokers — and he has an unrehearsed honesty could serve his campaign well.
Thieneman recently sat down with LEO Weekly to talk about mayoral power, the Republican Party and his vision for Louisville. A portion of that conversation ran in this week’s Jerry’s kids; here’s the full interview:
LEO: Do you believe the mayor of Louisville, as an office, holds too much power, or are you simply in disagreement with Mayor Jerry Abramson’s decisions?
Chris Thieneman: It’s not personal at all. There’s nothing personal to this disagreement that I have with his philosophy. Without a doubt there’s too much power in his position. I’ll promise you one thing — if a Republican gets in the office, the Democrats will be the first ones up in Frankfort trying to get Senate Bill 80 (which would limit mayoral power) passed. I can promise you that. My focus is getting it passed before any of us get in office. I think the power the seat holds is very attractive for some. I think absolute power corrupts absolutely, like the old saying goes. And (it would be good) if we can control that amount of power or dilute it to a degree to where it’s the mayor of Louisville and not a dictator … because it’s a situation that is in dire need of transformation.
LEO: Are you going to lobby the General Assembly for Senate Bill 80 during the mayoral campaign?
CT: I met with my media buyers and we’re going to start on that right away… I would rather have that bill out of the way before the campaign… I’ve been trying desperately to get in touch with (mayoral candidate and Metro Councilman) David Tandy. What I have done is go back to the tapes about Senate Bill 80 when we were up there arguing for and against it. And Councilman Tandy was the representative for Mayor Abramson and he said … give us the opportunity to go back and try to get our own consensus, then that will be the time for us to go back to Frankfort. But he refuses (to do that) and in the meantime decides to sign confidentiality agreements. It’s very important we attack that. It’s the reason the mayor has so much power.
LEO: You have criticized the mayor’s deals with The Cordish Cos., mainly for their lack of openness. As mayor, how would you negotiate development deals with companies?
CT: If we start from the very beginning, I would have been more open to a local developer. What Cordish has done is come in and used their name, but hired arguably one of the best local developers to handle the project with Glenn Hogan. He could have done this deal by himself … but now we have a middleman when we could have gone straight to him. It’s why I’m so proud of the University of Louisville, when they went with NTS Development Co. for their developer of the Shelby Campus. They have the experience. Just because Cordish might have been in high-profile cities doesn’t make them the best developer for this community, especially when they come in and hire a local developer who does it for a living anyway.
LEO: As mayor, how would you be more transparent?
Chris Thieneman: We need to get rid of all the buffers … we have many layers that this administration hides behind. For example, the Downtown Development Corp. is put up as a nonprofit organization that is outside the jurisdiction of the Metro Council. This administration uses that to defend their decision to send money (for Slugger Field) elsewhere. We, the people of Louisville, own that baseball stadium, but because they put it into this nonprofit … (Abramson) uses that to his advantage to keep things hidden. That’s how I would get to transparency.
LEO: You would move to dissolve those quasi-government agencies?
CT: That’s where all the secrets are held. That’s where all the money is being held. Where the money is will always lead you to the answers. At the minimum they need to be more transparent. We have to do away with those to where the buck stops with the mayor.
LEO: What do Republicans need to offer as an alternative in a merged government that has always been controlled by Democrats?
CT: This is where I stand out. The people are begging for the type of leadership I can bring. I am not beholden to any special-interest group. I know the hypocrisies of both parties. I’ve been in both parties. I’m not afraid of the establishment of either. For a Republican to get in there, we’re going to have to prove that we’re looking out for the best interest of the silent majority more so than the Democrats have in the past. It’s frustrating to see how it’s not about the concerns of the citizens more so than the special groups.
LEO: But you’ve butted heads with the GOP leadership in the past; do you think that will hurt your campaign at all?
CT: For the die-hard Republicans, perhaps, but I will tell you as I told Councilman Hal Heiner, if he and I were on the same ticket like the governor and lieutenant governor, we’d be the absolute best pair you could have running this community. We have to prove we’re willing to fight.
LEO: How do you respond to the criticism that in your political career you have a track record of not finishing what you start?
CT: I would ask what have I started that I didn’t finish? I never left the campaign for Congress. The day I was on Francene (on WHAS-AM) the frustrating part was I just literally left a breakfast meeting with a close confidant of (U.S. Sen.) Mitch McConnell who told me he was going to do whatever he had to do to hurt my campaign and make sure I never raise a dime. The message I was sending … you can attack me but I’m not going to succumb. I was not going to be his puppet like they expected me to be. At the same time, I wasn’t going to let him run me out of the party or the race.
LEO: Do you expect a contentious campaign?
CT: I told (Councilman Hal Heiner) … if we were running together, we’d be a dynamite duo, but since we’re not and since this is a race we cannot run together, I’d say we share the same vision for the most part. We just have different styles, which doesn’t make mine any better. He tends to be more of a turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy … I’m more of an eye-for-an-eye and if you go blind, too bad. Out of my experience after you lose that first eye, you’re much more careful.
LEO: How would you address the budget shortfalls the city has faced over the past few years?
CT: For the first 60 days I would have an audit with complete transparency and no confidentiality agreements to know exactly where we’re at (financially), but to tell you how exactly I’d run the city financially would not be prudent on my part since I don’t know the situation we’re in fully…
LEO: Were you satisfied with how Metro government handled the response to the series of natural disasters — wind, ice and flash flooding — that the city has faced?
CT: I don’t think we were prepared. In my little world I run a development company and am a mayor of probably 15,000 households. We had a natural disaster before and we’ve always had a plan. We had a situation where every electrical pole came down and trees were down and there was no electricity in the middle of the night… I called the headman at LG&E and said we need your help. Then I had all of my tree service companies over there. We had that place up and running in 24 hours.
LEO: You championed the defeat of the library tax, but what happened to the proposed alternative pan to fund the libraries that opponents had touted?
CT: I have an idea, but when I was asked to get involved I never claimed during the whole time that I had the answers. That wasn’t my role. My role was transparency. You know Hal was the one that called me and wanted me to get involved… After my own personal due diligence I learned how grossly under reported it was that it was a bill of goods they were trying to sell. And all I did was communicate with all the facts. Every time we tried to debate them or talk about the facts they would divert it to say, “This is great for the libraries.” We understand that but what about the $18 million you never claimed you’re keeping? The people of Louisville have seen that if they know anything about Chris Thieneman, they know I will take action. And that’s what I’m going to make sure they know. They will have the information and if we have citizens who want to engage in that we’re going to help.
LEO: What from your political activism are you going to take into the mayoral campaign?
CT: It goes back to my father, who was a developer along with his seven brothers … learning that the game in part is paying to play. Ever since I was a kid I’ve seen you had to pay to play. What I mean by that is making sure the politicians get what they ask for. Though I was primed and positioned to be the next in line in playing that game the way the establishment wants … and I watched cash exchange hands and favors being done, I grew up toward despising it versus embracing it. My point is that after seeing all that I’ve seen, this leadership isn’t the way the community thinks. I’ve seen things that need to be said, need to be heard or flat out need to be changed. It’s why I’m running. My activism has gotten me to see all the different horrible things that have been going on behind the scenes that the regular guy can’t follow.
LEO: What message will your campaign have in order to get people energized?
CT: The people of this country are more energized now than ever about trying to take back our government. They have this sense of distrust for government, and the more they’re seeing, the more they’re starving and craving a type of leader who’ll give them the ability to flex their own muscles. I’m going to make sure I give the people (the ability) to do that so they can hold their own councilman accountable. I don’t think the people have seen the power they really hold because it has always been suppressed. Nobody wants to engage the community … I want to reach out to every corner of this community and I think I’m a broad enough candidate that if I can get through the primary, I’ll be the maverick they’re looking for. I want to be their voice, more so now than ever.