On Feb. 15, 1984, a young lawyer named Jerry Abramson filed a letter of intent to run for mayor of Louisville. During the 1985 campaign, the upbeat candidate thumped his opponent, Republican Robert Heleringer, carrying 73 percent of the vote.
Fast-forward a quarter century, and the “Mayor for Life,” who has never lost an election, is forgoing a possible sixth term to run for lieutenant governor.
As a result, there are 11 eager candidates with varying backgrounds and platforms, but like any city that’s been in such a long-term relationship with its leader, the polls indicate we’re hesitant and overwhelmingly undecided about who should be the next mayor.
The following is a rundown of the candidates asking for your vote in the May 18 primary. Now, it’s up to you to decide who is best suited to take the reigns of Louisville’s future.
Jim King (D)
From the campaign’s outset, political observers predicted Metro Councilman Jim King, D-10, would be a lighting rod for criticism. As expected, a string of controversies unfolded for him on the campaign trail — state election law violations, misuse of the St. Xavier High School Alumni Association logo to raise funds, the release of ugly divorce records, etc. In hindsight, the CEO and president of King Southern Bank admits he’s a lousy politician.
“It’s not that I can’t work well with others. I’ve demonstrated that by being elected to every leadership position on the council,” says King. “But I have a tendency to be a little more direct and less equivocating. That will serve a person well in life and in business, but it may not serve them well in politics.”
That’s why the campaign has focused heavily on the councilman’s accomplishments, from saving taxpayers millions on the downtown arena to co-sponsoring the “open-books” ordinance, which requires any recipient using public financing to be audited.
King — polling most recently at 13 percent — also has unveiled a comprehensive jobs plans and a specific public safety agenda, both of which sparked debate. For example, Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert White rebuked King’s proposal to restore the department’s gang unit.
But the King camp is hopeful voters will not let bad press outweigh the former council president’s legislative record. And if running a city is their first and only priority, King is arguably the best policymaker in the race. Whether that can trump his brash style and sometimes shady reputation is yet unknown.
“I believe I’m redeemable,” says King, “and I hope the voters think I’m redeemable.”
Greg Fischer (D)
Last summer, when most were mulling over life after Jerry, businessman Greg Fischer was quick to announce his candidacy for mayor. After making an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate two years ago (one of the ugliest races in recent memory), he wanted to set the tone for this campaign early.
“I don’t want to get sucked up in the politics. This isn’t a career for me, honestly,” he tells LEO Weekly. “It’s about trying to make a difference for a term or two, and inspire some people and go from there. It’s an interesting chapter and journey for me.”
Initially, Fischer’s vague slogans and boring biographical stump speeches were the 2010 mayoral campaign’s cure for insomnia. It still leaves many political observers scratching their heads, but that feel-good campaigning has paid off. The latest WHAS-11/Courier-Journal poll shows Fischer expanding his lead among the Democratic pack with 31 percent of the vote.
Being the front-runner has its price, however, as opponents have made a concerted effort to knock him out of the lead in the home stretch. Opponents have accused the mainstream press of going easy on Fischer, failing to thoroughly question him about his positions and basic knowledge of Metro finances.
Councilman King launched the first televised attack ad of the race aimed at Fischer, a 30-second commercial highlighting the fact that Fischer backed Republican candidates in the past, mislead the public about a business award he claimed to have won (he in fact won a less-prestigious version), and made deals that didn’t put Louisville job creation first.
David Tandy (D)
Hoping a grassroots message will upend his wealthier opponents, Councilman David Tandy, D-4, has found his voice as a candidate supported by regular, everyday citizens.
Although popular in the party, Tandy has struggled to raise a significant enough amount of money to compete, and as a result, polls put him in second place, garnering 16 percent of the vote.
“The campaign we’ve been running is one that talks directly to the voters,” says Tandy. “It’s not been the type of campaign that relies on personal wealth or connections with the rich and powerful who’ve run the city for many years.”
During the course of the campaign, he struck a positive chord with constituents by emphasizing education. Tandy believes the Mayor’s Office has to set the tone on education initiatives with school officials and state leaders.
If voters liked Abramson for being an optimistic cheerleader who believes Louisville really is “Possibility City,” then Tandy’s hopefulness should resonate. Tandy’s lofty campaign plans on public safety, neighborhoods and tourism all sound good, but like most candidates, he has yet to provide specifics.
The drawbacks, however, are plentiful for the well-liked councilman, who has a thin record of accomplishment on the council, suggesting a lack of political courage. In fact, critics say Tandy’s career has been marked by instances of political expediency.
In the open government debate, for instance, Tandy cannot shake that he carried the administration’s water during the controversial $950,000 loan agreement with The Cordish Cos. to refurbish a nightclub at Fourth Street Live.
Last year, as council president, Tandy traveled with members of the mayor’s team to the Baltimore-based developer’s headquarters and signed a confidentiality agreement that barred him from discussing the loan in detail.
Criticized about the ethical lapse since the state auditor’s report criticized that practice, the west Louisville Democrat still doesn’t seem to take open government seriously. The campaign hasn’t promoted any plan for transparency, and in a recent interview, he referred to it as a “buzzword.”
Still, he remains confident that he’s situated to pull off an upset, and with so many Democratic voters undecided (23 percent), critics ought to wait before they say this nice guy will walk away finishing second or third.
Tyler Allen (D)
Democrat Tyler Allen cannot help but be associated with staunch opposition to the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, arguably the biggest issue in the race, and one that cannot be resolved with a 30-second answer. As co-founder of the grassroots 8664 campaign, Allen has, of course, been quick to criticize the massive bridges project while on the campaign trail. And although this is a popular sentiment, critics have attempted to dub him a “one-issue” candidate.
“I got in this race because there are a lot of things to talk about regarding the future of this city, from education to growing entrepreneurship and investment in public transit,” he says. “If my opponents’ policy choices are as bad as burying our downtown in concrete and charging us for bridges we already paid for, I don’t believe we can trust them with the future of our city.”
The Allen campaign rejects the one-issue candidate label, pointing out that they have unveiled plans tackling development, education and neighborhood blight. That said, Allen readily admits transportation is what catapulted him to the public consciousness, and he believes that is key to the city’s future.
Over the past month, there has been a growing roar of opposition to the prospect of instituting tolls on bridges, both existing and planned. At this point, however, it’s unclear whether this momentum will boost Allen’s long-shot candidacy, which has a rather simple problem: Despite great ideas, the first-time candidate has a Boy Scout image and has refrained from playing dirty. Although commendable, it might cost him at the polls.
“I’ve clearly chosen to run this in a different way… if I get into politics, I’m going to run in a way that is respectful of the voters and the city,” he says. “We need to force the other candidates to talk about these issues such as public transit, long-term job growth and neighborhood connectivity. And in the end, I hope people stand with me and vote their conscience.”
The campaign released its first television advertisement this week hoping to get its vision of Louisville out to voters. Given he was polling at just 7 percent as of last month, it might be too little, too late.
Hal Heiner (R)
On the other side of the primary, the Republicans couldn’t be any different in their campaign styles. It should be noted that Louisville hasn’t had a Republican mayor in four decades, and since city and county merged, the Democratic Party has had solid control of both branches and other key elected offices.
Those facts make any GOP candidate a long shot.
It’s also pretty well known that the nightmare scenario for Abramson’s die-hard supporters would be Councilman Hal Heiner, R-19, succeeding him, but he’s considered the favorite and the Republican with the best chance of breaking that 40-year GOP drought.
For years, Heiner has criticized the administration’s development deals, particularly in downtown, but unlike his more bombastic Republican opponent, it’s been a methodical criticism over a seven-year political career.
By running, Heiner must relinquish his seat on the council, meaning if he doesn’t come through with the upset victory, his political career could be finished.
“This is about service, and after seeing missed opportunity after missed opportunity, the only way to have the most significant impact is from the Mayor’s Office,” Heiner told LEO soon after announcing his candidacy. “After serving for these seven years, I just decided if I’m going to have an impact on the community that I love, the maximum impact is from the Mayor’s Office. I just have to run.”
The east Louisville councilman has picked up key endorsements and run on a “good government” platform advocating specific plans on transparency, job attraction and neighborhood investment.
With a commanding lead in primary polls thus far — most recently at 42 percent — Heiner’s campaign already is focusing on the general election.
Chris Thieneman (R)
The one thing developer Chris Thieneman and his primary opponent have in common is they’re both longtime critics of Abramson. The difference is in their style. For years a political activist, Thieneman is upfront about why he’s running — to break up the establishment of local powerbrokers — and has an unrehearsed honesty that often doesn’t serve a campaign well.
But over the years, Thieneman, who led the vote against the library tax in 2007, has earned a reputation for speaking out against public officials in both parties, which gives him an independent streak.
“The people are begging for the type of leadership I can bring,” he says. “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.”
Still unveiling key positions on business and job growth in the days leading up to the primary, the Thieneman campaign has spent a good amount of time slamming Councilman Heiner in an attempt to close a 17-point gap in the polls.
The campaign launched a website — dubbed “Heiner’s Heist” — devoted to bashing his opponent for moving 500 jobs to Southern Indiana.
The press criticized Heiner for touting job creation while his private company, Capstone, profited from a project that took jobs across the bridge. The site also contrasts a campaign disagreement over whether job attraction should be focused in the city or region.
“It’s about Louisville first because we’re the economic engine,” says Michael Wray, a Thieneman campaign spokesman. “Anytime you hear Hal talk about job attraction, he talks about it as a region.”
The remaining candidates make up a mixed bag of potential future politicos, unlikely leaders and just plain bizarre citizens. You be the judge:
There is Democrat Shannon White, founder of Dress for Success Louisville, who was previously president of the Young Professionals Association.
“I knew this would be an uphill challenge, but it’s been the best experience,” says White. “What’s been frustrating is that people think this race is about endorsing candidates who you think can win, when it’s really about principles and ideas.”
Another candidate worth paying attention to is Lisa Moxley, an entertainment lawyer and west Louisville Democrat who outlined impressive campaign proposals, particularly her vision for the arts community.
Filling out the low-polling tier of the Democratic primary field are Burrell Charles Farnsley, son of former Mayor Charles R. Farnsley, who advocated keeping downtown bars open 24 hours, and Connie Marshall, a community activist who believes local and state officials are corrupt, and has been known to tout conspiracy theories.
The other Republican in the race, Jonathan Robertson, is a small-business owner who championed positions that would make Metro government more tech-savvy. That’s pretty much all we know about him.