Republican mayoral candidate Angela Leet’s avenue to wrest the mayor’s office away from two-term incumbent Greg Fischer was already claustrophobically narrow. After taking a non-position on the possible state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools, she may have closed that lane entirely.
When interim state Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis proposed a state takeover of JCPS, Fischer immediately came out in opposition, and other politicians began to take sides.
Except for Councilwoman Leet.
Instead, she issued a statement that doesn’t state her support or opposition.
It was a fatal, self-inflected mistake.
In her statement, Leet apologizes to students on behalf of the community. She urges the JCPS school board to propose a plan to fix our schools. She references problems and issues, although doesn’t say what any are. And then she dodges acknowledging possibly the most consequential issue of her election: Does she support the state takeover of JCPS?
“The question isn’t whether or not the state should take over JCPS,” she wrote. “The question is what is best for students.”
No, Councilwoman, the most important issue to voters — including 6,600 teachers, administrators, 30,000 Parent Teacher Association members, parents of 100,000 kids — is: Does the next mayor of Louisville support local control of schools, or state control?
It is clear that Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has been angling for a takeover for some time. Why else would he remake/pack the state school board and install his yes-man as Education Commissioner before seeing the results of the comprehensive JCPS audit?
Apparently, so too for the business elite, which presaged its support for a takeover with the fiddlings of a 70-member oligarch club, the Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda, or SCALA.
Leet’s ambiguous response reflects her effort to walk a line, with her party and base (read: campaign contributors) on one side, and just about every parent in the city on the other.
By not taking a position, Leet shows she either doesn’t appreciate the importance of this issue for the city, or she is too boxed in politically, not wanting to buck Bevin, the business community or her base. Either way, she loses on the substance or politics of the biggest issue facing her election.
Louisville doesn’t believe JCPS is in such disarray that it requires state bureaucrats to overhaul the entire system.
Plus, there is optimism and confidence in newly-appointed Superintendent Marty Polio, who has broad support from community leaders, JCPS board members, teachers and principals.
Leet fails to realize that taking a stand would have been a great opportunity for her to demonstrate independence from an increasingly unpopular party and governor.
More fundamental to her political problem is that a politician cannot ask to lead the city, while expressing a willingness to abdicate local control of the city’s public schools. This is what Leet is asking Louisville voters to accept: “Elect me mayor even though the state will be better at solving our problems than I will.”
Of course, the mayor doesn’t directly control the school system. But if you want to be the leader of the city, you have to be in favor of local control of government. And you certainly can’t have it both ways on such a fundamental issue.
We’ve seen this kind of equivocating in the past with Democratic politicians. Jack Conway gave a legally sound, yet dispassionate response to the Kim Davis saga when running for governor. Alison Grimes didn’t want to admit to conservative voters that she voted for President Obama, while she ran for U.S. Senate against Mitch McConnell.
You have to match the emotional pressure from voters with a decisive response on fundamental issues.
Similarly, Fischer has tried to have it both ways on the issue of declaring Louisville a “sanctuary city.” Yet, on this, the most important issue facing this city, the mayor did not equivocate. He demonstrated he understands the gravity of the situation and the implications for the future of Louisville teachers, students and public education as a whole.
Unlike Leet, Fischer didn’t issue a written statement. Fischer made sure you heard the message straight from his mouth in 45-second video, declaring, “I am opposed to a state takeover.”
So, Councilwoman, do you support the state takeover, or not? I promise, voters will keep asking until we get an answer.