No one can say Mayor Greg Fischer hasn’t been good for Louisville’s LGBTQ community. Compared to LGBTQ life in Kentucky outside the city, we have an embarrassment of riches: Under his leadership, Louisville is one of the only Southern cities to extend domestic partner benefits to city employees and ahead of the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. It has earned a perfect score from the Human Rights Commission for the past three years — outperforming peer cities. Then, there are the emotional benefits we reap from living in a city with an openly pro-fairness mayor.
These accomplishments came about through a close partnership with the Fairness Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group that works with cities to enact fairness, or non-discrimination, ordinances. Fairness makes political endorsements through C-FAIR, a political action committee.
This year, the endorsement went to Fischer, not his Democratic opponent, lawyer Ryan Fenwick, the first openly gay mayoral candidate.
Some in the LGBTQ community — including me — question whether Fischer deserved the endorsement, given his stands on intersectional issues — his support of the so-called anti-gang bills, his failure to declare Louisville as a sanctuary city and his focus on economic development while the city’s homeless population grows. They say Fenwick was a better choice because of his progressive platform.
More broadly, however, Fischer’s endorsement underscores how LGBTQ organizations — and all social justice organizations — can become entrenched in the establishment that they help, even inadvertently, to maintain the status quo.
But LGBTQ politics must be about all the things that affect all marginalized people.
“C-FAIR routinely declines to endorse exciting, inspiring and truly progressive candidates because it prefers to scratch backs, return political favors, and remain in the good graces of Louisville’s alleged political elite,” said Jaison Gardner, who is 89.3 WFPL “Strange Fruit” podcast co-host, and has served on the Fairness board. “Fairness has endorsed Mayor Fischer despite his anti-black, anti-sanctuary and anti-working class political positions, despite the opportunity to endorse a truly-progressive, openly gay man with justice-minded ideas.”
Nick Conder, who is vice chair of the local Democratic Socialists chapter and gay, pointed to the contradictions of social justice goals with city policies under Fischer’s administration.
“When 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, should Fairness really endorse a mayor who bulldozes homeless camps? When queer people are more likely to live in poverty than straight people, should Fairness really endorse a mayor who opposed even a $10 minimum wage? When LGBTQ people face unique health challenges and have a poor history with the police, should Fairness really endorse a mayor who is increasing funding for LMPD while social services continue to be underfunded? We need a mayor who will support all queer people, not just a privileged few,” he told LEO.
For the endorsement, C-FAIR’s interview team spoke with three Democratic candidates. None of the interview team members had previously endorsed, contributed to, worked for or volunteered for any of the candidates in the race. The team then made its recommendation to the C-FAIR board, which then made the endorsement.
Eric Graninger, C-FAIR board chair, said Fischer’s endorsement was based on factors including “his substantial accomplishments in office consistent with the goals of the Fairness Campaign. It also includes that we have endorsed Mayor Fischer in past races for mayor.”
Protecting the establishment?
If prior experience is a factor, then that is like comparing apples and oranges in a contest where the winning orange is required to have had access to mayoral power for eight years. It’s unsettling, not because Fenwick is an openly gay candidate — though a rich, white, straight, cis man earning the nomination over an equally fairness-centered gay man certainly twists the knife — but because Fischer simply does not have a better record on fairness.
Fenwick’s campaign manager Connor Allen, said C-FAIR could have not made an endorsement in order to avoid the decision.
“I believe they endorsed Fischer because they see Ryan as a candidate that can’t win. While I understand their logic, I think organizations that are social-justice oriented need to choose their endorsements based solely on candidates’ position on policies. When organizations like Fairness use things like money and name recognition as such a critical metric in choosing whom to endorse, they may protect their standing in establishment political circles, but they create a catch-22, where grassroots candidates with the courage to challenge the establishment face an even greater disadvantage in promoting their message.”
I asked Fischer how we can, as a city, do better for young LGBTQ folks who flock here from surrounding areas — particularly trans folks and homeless youth.
“That’s the reason why you see so many folks come to Louisville; they know we have a reputation for being welcoming and fair — I hate to put words like ‘progressive’ on stuff that has to do with human dignity and integrity — I think everybody should be treated the same, and LGBT folks know we celebrate everyone in our city.
“What we’ve done is use the HRC as a metric to see how we’re doing and if we can do more. We got a perfect for three years in a row from the HRC, and we didn’t start that way, and I know we outperformed our peer cities significantly in that way.”
He did not mention any ways Louisville could improve.
Here is how Fenwick described his LGBTQ-focused agenda. “There are many displaced LGBTQ people in Louisville from all over the state. I would like to use my platform to address the plight of why smaller and more rural communities are losing their LGBTQ residents. This is something those communities need to look at and think about why it’s happening.”
LGBTQ key issues, more than orientation
To be sure, Fischer is a strong LGBTQ ally, but his overall record must be considered.
Any social justice organization worth knowing about is devoted to intersectionality. The Fairness Campaign includes in its mission statement that “dismantling racism is central to our work,” and “all issues of oppression are linked and can only be addressed by working in coalition.” Also, it wants to work toward a “non-violent, grassroots organizing that empowers individuals and build a social justice movement that creates lasting change.”
Overlay that on several issues that position Fischer to the right of fairness:
— his support of the methane plant in West Louisville, which community residents defeated on the grounds that it was unfair to site an industrial plant in a low-income neighborhood.
— his failure to declare Louisville a sanctuary city, in the face of threats from the Trump administration.
— his support of police Chief Steve Conrad, whose department has failed to effectively cap the epidemics of homicides and heroin use, was helping federal immigration agents and has had officer-involved shootings that call into question its use-of-force policies, in addition to the overtime and Explorer Scout scandals.
— his support of House Bill 169, the so-called anti-gang bill, which other community civil rights activists and groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, feel will lead to the perpetuation of racial disparity in the criminal justice system.
Mayor and the anti-gang bill
Fischer told me that HB 169 “isn’t a headline,” although a Courier Journal story reported that community civil rights leaders felt blindsided by his support of this bill. Legislation that disproportionately targets people of color is one of the pillars of systemic oppression, yet C-FAIR endorsed a candidate who ignored the ACLU and other community leaders to support a bill that does just that — for what some have said is a show of force to make him more competitive against his Republican challenger, Councilwoman Angela Leet.
Fischer said that he understood concerns about HB 169, but he had worked to change the bill to minimize the damage to people of color. That included loosening the definition of who is in a gang and excluding minors not previously convicted of a felony. “The third thing that changed was to clarify how social media can be used as a characterization of someone being in a gang — it was much too broadly defined so we got that narrowed. The fourth thing was the original bill had a preponderance-of-evidence standard and we got that changed to beyond a reasonable doubt.
“So truly violent people do come off the street. And I’m aware of the issues of racial disproportionality in the justice system, and that’s a broad system we’ll continue to work on,” he said, adding that he supports Democratic state Rep. Attica Scott’s recommendation to vet every bill for its racial impact, not just its fiscal impact.
Murky areas of endorsement
A C-FAIR endorsement should mean — as people expect it to — that the candidate surpasses all others in their commitment to fairness. In the case of HB 169, a fairness candidate worth endorsing would reject a bill that bolsters mass incarceration and look toward options of restorative justice.
Graninger said C-FAIR weighed that: “The Fairness Campaign opposes HB 169 and has communicated that opposition to Mayor Fischer and to the public. In the past, C-FAIR has endorsed other candidates with whom we are not in 100 percent agreement.”
In 2010, when Fischer first ran for mayor, he gave what C-FAIR called a “strong interview,” but lost the endorsement to Councilman David Tandy, for his “enthusiastic vision” for Louisville, as well as his consideration of race, ethnicity and class as factors in that vision.
Apparently vision and community work is enough to earn the endorsement, despite Fenwick’s failure to do so — or, it was possible, at one point.
So, what happened?
It’s easy for progressives to become entrenched in the establishment, even when we don’t mean to do so. We feel grateful for the progress we’ve made and don’t want to upset that — a dilemma so common there are a million clichés to describe it. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s most recognizable LGBTQ advocate organization known particularly for its work toward marriage equality, has been criticized for being a great place for white, cis, gay men to rise to the top — but not so great for people of color, trans folks and women, including lesbians. White, gay men are always going to gain acceptance first, and are going to be the faces of the powerful LGBTQ organizations we count on.
We need to count on these leaders not to leave anyone behind, but they frequently do.
In practice, it becomes murky.
A mayor such as Fischer, supportive of equality, is going to work closely with the Fairness Campaign, and this is good because it’s where progress occurs. C-FAIR members are going to be community-centered because of their passion and vision — activism doesn’t occur in a vacuum. But the result is that a mayor is granted an endorsement precisely because of the work he’s done with the committee granting the endorsement, voted on by a committee that has certainly worked closely with that mayor.
According to Graninger, two C-FAIR board members recused themselves from the endorsement vote due to conflicts of interest.
Perhaps others should have, such as the member with an appointment from Fischer to the Metro Human Relations Commission, and another who co-hosted a kickoff fundraiser for Fischer in 2010. C-FAIR does not have a policy that causes board members to recuse themselves when they serve on a civic committee by mayoral appointment and council confirmation, but perhaps it should.
Organizations such as C-FAIR need to work with city government, but not be co-opted. How else can we describe this endorsement, when the candidate who has made such major, recent fairness missteps is favored over one who has made fairness for all the center of his campaign?
The Fairness Campaign and C-FAIR have a lot of influence in Kentucky, and should wield it responsibly. Politics have pulled so far to the right; it would be heartbreaking if the very advocates elected to speak for us drifted into lukewarm centrist values simply because it’s safe or comfortable.
The 2016 election should have been an easy win for Democrats, who put up an experienced politician against the idiot uncle your mother warns you not to be alone with — and they still lost. Part of why they lost is that people are tired of Democratic candidates ignoring progressive action in marginalized communities. We cannot expect votes from those communities simply because no one more progressive is on the ballot.
C-FAIR’s job is to report which candidate most embodies “fairness” values and with that endorsement, provide voters with a tool to vet candidates.
If that tool is broken, then it may be time to do what we’d do with any broken tool: have it mended, repurposed or set out by the curb. •