Louisville’s Next Mayor? A LEO Profile Of Craig Greenberg

It’s eight days until the primary election and Craig Greenberg, the then assumed Democratic mayoral frontrunner (and now, the nominee), is going door to door in Bon Air, competing with the sounds of barking dogs and small planes taking off from Bowman Field as he tries to give his sales pitch to those who answer their doors on a sweltering Monday afternoon.

Greenberg had raised more than twice as much money as any other candidate and had bombarded TV and streaming service viewers with ads in recent weeks. He’d secured endorsements from prominent Metro Council members who campaigned on his behalf. And if that wasn’t enough to make him recognizable, a failed assassination attempt against him in February ensured that he was in front of the cameras, in the papers and on everybody’s mind frequently.

But primaries — especially in local elections — are more inside baseball politics. They lack the turnout or enthusiasm of general elections and races can feel like they’re flying below the radar as Election Day approaches. Debates take on the form of hasty, awkward introductions. And votes — or that voters even know that there is an election — can’t be taken for granted.

So Greenberg was out pounding pavement in khakis and a blue polo shirt, knocking on doors and introducing himself to passersby on the street, part of an effort by his team to hit 8,000 doors during the last eight days prior to the election.

At many homes, there is no answer, so Greenberg tucks a pamphlet in the door handle as he leaves. With few folks home, the team quickens their pace to intercept the few people out walking on what might be the first truly uncomfortably hot day of the year. 

Some people seem unaware there is an election approaching. At one residence, Greenberg asks a young man if he’s seen his commercials after the man says he’s concerned about violence in Louisville. The man says he doesn’t really watch TV.

A Black man sitting on the steps of an apartment building tells Greenberg that, while he can’t vote because he’s a felon, there’s no point in voting because nothing ever changes. When Greenberg finds out the man works at an auto detailing shop, he offers that he has a 1974 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.

That seems to cool the slight tension of the interaction.

In that same apartment complex, a woman downstairs is already calling the candidate “Mayor Greenberg” and asks for a photo with him and his canvassing team to send to her friends.

“A lot of people just recognize me because of the coverage after the shooting, so I get a lot of nice support — whether they are a supporter or not — saying ‘glad to see you’re OK,’” said Greenberg as he walked through the neighborhood.

Both apathy and excitement were on display as Greenberg walked through Bon Air. While the man sitting on the apartment steps did not really oppose Greenberg (he seemed apathetic), his sentiments, to a degree, reflected those who did: To many of those on the left that opposed Greenberg, he was another Greg Fischer, and electing him would ensure that no real change actually happened in Louisville.

Democratic mayoral candidate Craig Greenberg poses with a resident of Louisville’s Bon Air neighborhood on May 9.  |  Photo by Josh Wood.

THE RESULTS ROLL IN

About an hour after polls closed on election night, any apprehensions that Greenberg may lose had evaporated.

At the C2 Event Venue in Smoketown — the same venue now-Gov. Andy Beshear chose for his 2019 election watch party for his razor-thin win over Matt Bevin —  the mood was light and jovial as the returns came in. On a stage decked out in green and white balloons, former District 4 Councilwoman and election night master of ceremonies Barbara Sexton Smith was jumping up and down for Greenberg. District 21 Councilwoman Nicole George recalled how she decided to back Greenberg after realizing he was the only candidate with the “competence” and “commitment” to be mayor. Taking a page from the Bon Air apartment-dweller’s book, District 3 Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey was already saying “Mayor Greenberg.” 

Louisville is a Democratic city and has had a Democratic mayor since 1969. Nothing is certain, but in Louisville, to win the nomination of the party means you are in good position to win the race.

In the end, Greenberg captured a decisive victory, with his 35,341 votes nearly double his closest competitor’s — activist Shameka Parrish-Wright’s — 18,493.

Taking the stage a little after 9 p.m., Greenberg gave his victory speech with a wall of supporters assembled behind him. 

“To those who supported another candidate in the primary, I hear you and invite you to join our team and contribute your ideas and energy,” he said. “And to those who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary: I invite you to also join our team to make Louisville a safer, stronger and healthier city.”

THE AFTERMATH 

But many of those who voted against Greenberg in the primary might have a different take on what makes Louisville safer, stronger and healthier.

Nearly 32,000 votes — 37% of all votes in the race — were cast for Parrish-Wright and Tim Findley, who came in second and fourth place respectively. The candidates, both Black, both activists and both arrested by the Louisville Metro Police Department during the course of the 2020 protests, both backed using some money now spent on police on addressing root causes of poverty and crime in the city.

That message was a far departure from Greenberg’s calls to “FULLY FUND THE POLICE” in TV commercials that seemed impossible to avoid leading up to election day.

Greenberg has latched onto the staffing shortages at LMPD, saying that the department needs to be fully staffed in order to increase public safety and get a grip on violence that is on a record-breaking pace for the third consecutive year. However, he has also said he wants LMPD to become a model police force: The most trusted, best trained and most transparent in the country. 

Walking through Bon Air ahead of the election, Greenberg defended his ads calling for “fully” funding the LMPD. 

“Most people I’ve run across want a police presence,” he said. “Now, they want a police force that is fair, they want a police force that isn’t escalating situations, they want a police force that is diverse, that’s transparent. But I think people would want to see police, what I call community policing — old school walking the beat.”

Despite the high levels of distrust and the vocal opposition to LMPD by many in the community both before and after the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor and the force’s heavy-handed attempts to suppress protests that broke out as a result, there is some evidence that Greenberg might be onto something.

In a November poll of Louisville residents by the Courier Journal, USA Today and Suffolk University, 66% of respondents said they would feel safer with more police in their neighborhoods. However, that figure is nuanced and did not translate into people wanting more police funding: While only 20% supported the idea of “defunding” the police, 47% backed decreasing police funding to spend more on social services.

Greenberg does acknowledge that simply putting more police out on the streets will not in itself solve Louisville’s violence.

“I don’t think you can police your way to safety. That can’t be the only solution. You have to do things like we were talking about: Providing more mental health resources, group violence intervention is a huge initiative that I think can really work,” he said. “And also just investing in the root causes of crime, which oftentimes leads to poverty…Some of them are long-term solutions, like universal pre-k, getting kids to start off right, others are more short-term things.” 

Taylor U’Sellis, an organizer with The 490 Project, a Louisville activist group seeking police reform, said so far, Greenberg was a mixed bag regarding LMPD.

U’Sellis said Greenberg told the group that he would include people affected by police misconduct in the negotiations over the next collective bargaining agreement with LMPD. 

“That’s one thing with Greenberg that we hope he does and stays accountable to. However, we have serious concerns about the campaign messaging that he put out regarding fully funding the police without any sort of caveats,” she added.

Policing is an issue that will be unavoidable for Greenberg if he is elected mayor. LMPD remains under investigation by the Department of Justice and it is expected that the department will come under federal consent decree. Despite the city and LMPD promising more transparency and changes, the organization remains opaque and scandals continue to arise with regularity. 

(At the time of writing, LMPD’s latest information blackout came after 25-year-old Omari Cryer was shot and killed by a U.S. Marshal who was serving a warrant alongside LMPD in the Black-majority West End on May 20. The police department’s initial silence on the shooting, and a vague statement released the following day, again strained public trust and kindled anger. The timing of the shooting right after two widely seen VICE News Tonight documentaries on alleged sexual misconduct and theft by LMPD officers aired — both without comment from LMPD — further inflamed tensions. “Part of transparency is being prompt with disclosures,” Greenberg told LEO on May 23, after the shooting. “The community has a lot of questions about the shooting by the U.S. Marshals that took place last Friday, a lot of questions about the VICE documentaries, so I think it would be helpful if LMPD would provide more information on that.”)

THE CONFLICT WITH THE TIF

Another lightning rod for Greenberg’s critics is the West End tax increment financing program, or TIF. The program, which is part of legislation passed by Kentucky lawmakers last year, directs 80% of new tax revenue in Louisville’s West End above current tax revenue to the West End Opportunity Partnership to reinvest in West End neighborhoods.

Proponents of the TIF, which will redirect tax money for two decades, say it will lead to needed economic growth, address infrastructure needs and improve the quality of life of residents.

But critics of the TIF say it was developed behind closed doors without community input, and they fear that it could result in widespread gentrification and, eventually, evictions, by incentivizing new developments. Online, the Historically Black Neighborhood Assembly’s #StopTheWestEndTIF campaign features images of a tick sucking on a map of the West End and portrayals of Greenberg, who activists accuse of co-writing the legislation and standing to benefit financially from it, surrounded by dollar bills. 

Speaking to LEO after the election, Greenberg said he was consulted by legislators who were drafting the TIF but did not write the legislation. He said while he saw promise in the program, he also saw things that needed to be worked on.

“I believe it has the potential to be a transformative program for the West End of Louisville. I also think it needs improvement,” he said. “It needs to have better protections for renters. I’d like to see the property tax freeze for home owners be a true freeze or credit as opposed to a refund. I believe I’d like to see more resident participation in the governance and stronger protections to crack down on out-of-town landlords who aren’t providing safe and affordable housing to residents of West Louisville.”

He added that it was “past time” local tax dollars get reinvested in the West End.

Greenberg has championed his development and business credentials in his quest for the mayor’s office. Best known for being the former CEO of 21c Museum Hotels, the whimsical, yet opulent hotel chain based in Louisville, Greenberg has said he is the right person to breathe economic life into a stunted downtown Louisville coming out of two years of stagnation during the pandemic.

Last year, before announcing his run for mayor, Greenberg announced the launch of the Greenberg Group, a firm that would focus on urban revitalization in the city. The #StopTheWestEndTIF campaign has labeled that business venture a conflict of interest, saying that the TIF could end up working with Greenberg’s company.

Speaking to LEO, Greenberg said he would not be making new investments locally.

“I will take every precaution to avoid conflict of interest with my current business holdings,” he said. “I’m not making any new business investments locally — and it will all be transparent and disclosed. I think that’s critically important.”

While Greenberg breaks from Parrish-Wright, Findley and elements of Louisville’s left on issues like LMPD funding and the West End TIF, he has confidence they can be won over.

“I think we have a lot in common,” he said of the other Democratic candidates. “I think a lot of the issues that we care about are the same and while we might have had disagreements about certain issues and we certainly have different experiences and backgrounds, I think those of us who have run for the Democratic nomination shared very similar values, goals and aspirations for this city.”

Parrish-Wright, who came in second-place in the election, told LEO she is meeting with Greenberg around the time this issue is due to be published and will hear him out. However, there are still some sticking points for her.

“It has to be about more than fully funding the police — you have to have a real plan and strategy that’s going to impact the lives of Louisvillians,” she said. “I want to attach my name to someone who is listening from the ground up, who is going to make those bold moves and appointments and things that I would have did as our mayor. I have to really think about it.”

Greenberg, with his wife Rachel, and sons Daniel and Benjamin. | Photo by Carolyn Brown.

THE SHOOTING AND THE CAMPAIGN 

Experiences Greenberg has had since campaigning have influenced his worldview. 

He had already declared public safety his No.1 priority by the time of the Feb. 14 shooting at his office, but the attempt on his life saw Greenberg recommit and feel a personal connection to the violence that has been haunting Louisville for years. His campaign’s first commercial would focus on the shooting, showing a wall filled with bullets and a picture of Greenberg, his green sweater ripped by a bullet, talking with LMPD officers. 

An avid runner, Greenberg set out to jog across all of Jefferson County’s 623 voting precincts by election day. That political stunt gave birth to the campaign’s slogan — “Run With Craig” — but it also brought Greenberg to every corner of the city, from its manicured estates in the eastern suburbs to its rural fringes and impoverished quarters. Seeing so much of the city from the ground-level at the relatively slow pace of a runner showed him places where improvements were needed.

“The most danger I’ve ever been in when I’ve run anywhere across the entire city is running on streets where there truly is no place for pedestrians,” he said. “Particularly when it was on snowy days so the road sort of shrinks, and then cars and trucks come by and don’t slow down at all for pedestrians.”

The shooting in February put a pause on his campaigning for a few weeks. But soon, he said, he felt a need to get back out.

“If I was going to be a mayor, I thought it was important to run a campaign just like I was before the shooting,” he said. “To be out there and meet people. I don’t think you can be an effective mayor if you’re not regularly talking with voters and getting to know people and seeing every corner [of the city].” •

Additional reporting by Scott Recker.

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