State Republicans’ efforts to wrest control away from Democrat-controlled Louisville have, in recent years, been dubbed the “War on Louisville.” But, wars are supposed to be waged over something. For Republicans in Frankfort, the war isn’t over anything… it’s just about winning. They want what they can’t have: Mayor of Louisville. (Not since 1969, anyway.) Their 2021 strategic offensive has become clear with House Bill 309, and it might be their most disgraceful effort yet.
HB 309 was introduced last week by four House lawmakers — all Louisville Republicans. It addresses important issues relating to Louisville’s new civilian accountability board for metro police, while also fundamentally changing the way Louisville elects its mayor. What do either of these reforms have to do with the other? Nothing. So why are they lumped together in this bill? Republicans are cynically using the issue of police accountability and racial justice — top priorities for the city — as leverage to subvert Democrats in Louisville. It’s a box… a political trap.
The trap goes like this…
Louisville’s newly-established civilian review and accountability board has the power to initiate investigations into LMPD. What’s different about this board — and most important to its efficacy — is that it will be empowered to subpoena testimony and documents in its investigations. This was one of the most heralded reforms resulting from public outrage over failed police accountability — particularly after the killing of Breonna Taylor.
However, the ordinance alone doesn’t come with the actual powers ascribed in the ordinance, according to a Jefferson County Attorney’s Office memo last spring. “In short, a local jurisdiction cannot grant itself the subpoena power just because it has the power to enact local laws. That power to issue subpoenas must come from an act of the General Assembly,” the memo stated. HB 309, if enacted, would essentially accommodate the city ordinance. So, what’s the problem?
Another provision in the Republican bill would fundamentally change how Louisville elects its mayor by making it a nonpartisan election — something Republicans have long sought. In their view, if Republicans can shed their partisan label on the ballot, they might be able to field a viable candidate in Louisville who can win on their policies.
“[Republicans have] been unable since the 1960s to field a candidate that has the ability to build a coalition to get elected,” Virginia Woodward, chair of the Louisville Democratic Party, told The Courier Journal.
OK, so why tie the two together? Republicans don’t need Democrats to pass any legislation through the state legislature, and can easily override any veto by the governor. Why not just pass two separate bills? The truth has nothing to do with policy. It has nothing to do with solving Louisville’s problems, or doing what they believe is right or wrong, or being responsive to their constituents.
It’s a trap. Republicans will force Democrats to vote against a reform that’s critical to their constituents in order to protect the status quo of mayoral elections. Or, Democrats will have to support overhauling the mayoral election — and, in doing so, give Republicans the cover of “bipartisanship,” even as they jam the most grossly cynical, partisan voting reform down the throats of Louisville voters. After all, how can voters punish Republicans for changing the election system when Democrats voted for it?
Sure, both parties are guilty of playing these games — forcing the other side to take votes that are tough to explain in a campaign.
But, this is worse for three reasons:
One, it overrules Louisville voters, who in 2000 voted on this specific issue. Last year (as House Republicans were pursuing the same nonpartisan mayoral election effort, HB 605) Democratic Councilman Bill Hollander said Republicans are “overruling what the voters voted for in 2000. I think that silences everyday Louisvillians who went to the polls in 2000 and were asked to vote for what kind of government they wanted.”
Two, it is flagrant hypocrisy for “conservative” Republicans to perpetually usurp local government powers.
Finally, what makes this effort particularly revolting, is that Republicans are using the grave issue of police accountability as leverage in their political game. They’re exploiting the ongoing pain and distress of a city living alongside a police department it doesn’t trust. And for what? To extract some marginal political gain?
Perhaps if Republicans stopped focusing so much on winning, and more on what they’re fighting for, they might actually find their way to the Mayor’s Office. After all, what good is winning if you can’t take credit for it?