Election Special: Red, blue or in between?

Oct 24, 2006 at 8:38 pm
What’s Louisville’s political identity in the 21st century, and how will it play out on Nov. 7?

Red vs. Blue
Red vs. Blue
Is John Yarmuth too liberal for Louisville?
He’s against the war in Iraq, favors a higher minimum wage and opposes a federal amendment to ban gay marriage. He also thinks religion plays too heavy a hand in setting national policies.
Too liberal for Louisville?

You might think so, given all the hand-wringing by observers who were absolutely convinced his campaign would be undone by 15 years of progressive columns published in this newspaper.

Big '06
Big '06
Anne Northup told me in an interview for another publication back in March that she considered Yarmuth nearly a dream candidate. She and her aides have said again and again that he supports ideas — and tax-and-spend policies — that are simply not in line with ideas held by most Louisvillians.

The national media, and plenty of local Democrats, also seemed convinced early on that he’d not be accepted by voters in the “conservative 3rd District,” as one Washington Post story put it recently.

Take Bill Zubaty, a 30-year-old U of L graduate student, for instance. I interviewed him for TIME in March, and he told me he liked Yarmuth, but was convinced his LEO columns would doom his campaign.

But here we are, in late-late October, and John Yarmuth, the liberal, is neck-and-neck with a solidly entrenched, mostly well-liked and vastly better-funded 10-year incumbent. It’s a race, and Anne Northup knows it.

Maybe Yarmuth is some kind of super-candidate, but isn‘t it just as plausible that Louisville is not quite the “conservative” bastion Northup’s team and so many others reflexively say it is?
Isn’t it possible, just maybe, that in 2006 Louisville is just too liberal for Anne Northup?

That possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. Not with this city’s progressive history.
For example, Louisville voted for John Kerry in 2004, for Al Gore in 2000, and sent Bill Clinton to the White House (and George W. Bush’s father packing) in 1992. Four years later, the city helped make Clinton the first two-term Democrat in the White House since FDR.

Sure, Louisville fell for Ronald Reagan in 1984, but give River City this much credit: It took The  Great Communicator four years to win us over. (We had gone for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1980.)
By the time 1988 rolled around, the RNC’s gains in the city had begun to diminish, with the first President Bush beating hapless Michael Dukakis here by just 12,000 votes.

Voting habits aside, Louisville has had a long history of the occasional liberal moment in the sun — and damned few of the kind of hard-core conservative flare-ups sometimes seen in places like Cincinnati, Birmingham or even Indianapolis.

The day after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the first Brown v. Board ruling ordering the desegregation of schools in 1954, Louisville school officials announced they’d have a plan for complying by the end of the year. We were one of the first cities in the country to adhere to the landmark decision.

In the 1970s, the city and county were the first to call for the cross-district busing plan that meant petty municipal boundaries wouldn’t be the basis for keeping the races separated at school. Officials here stood firm even as the ensuing riots turned violent.

Read the national headlines that marked the unrest here, and you’ll see reference after reference to how this city was a model of restraint and steadfastness compared to places like Boston, where the edges were much sharper.
I can hear some readers’ questions now: If Louisville is so liberal, then why is it home to such conservative bulwarks as Southeast Christian Church and the Rev. Albert Mohler, one of the intellectual godfathers of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention?

The first answer is that Louisville is progressive, not monolithic. It supports progressive causes, and progressive politicians, often, but not always. It’s not reflexively liberal like San Francisco, and it doesn’t pretend to speak with one voice.

Incumbent 3rd District Rep.: Anne Northup at last week's debate at the Louisville Forum.
Incumbent 3rd District Rep.: Anne Northup at last week's debate at the Louisville Forum.
That’s what makes Louisville beautiful, said former state Sen. David Karem, a progressive Democrat whose tenure in the General Assembly spanned 33 years and included a role in helping secure passage of the landmark KERA education reforms. “It’s a very big tent here,” said Karem, who retired in 2004. “There is a lot of tolerance for a wide range of divergent views.”

Often, Karem said, voters here refuse to judge a candidate on a single issue. For example, his constituents kept returning him to Frankfort although most disagreed with his opposition to the death penalty. “What we lack here is the kind of rigid viewpoints, liberal or conservative, that you see elsewhere,” he said. “And that is what is so great about this city.”

But the second answer is that even on the religion-in-politics front, the city gives plenty of sustenance to progressives.

Mohler’s administration at SBTS closed the Carver School of Social Work long ago and has brought to the city all those earnest Bible-toting seminarians you can see studying at the Frankfort Avenue coffeehouses. But he hasn’t yet managed to erase the memory and impact of decades of progressive Christian scholarship for which his seminary once was known across the world. Many who were lured here by the seminary in the 1970s and 1980s have left, but many others have stayed, enriching the city with their tolerant stew of love, faith and good works that was the hallmark of their training at the old seminary.

And even over at Southeast Christian itself, that big bastion of faith-based conservatism, a new wind may be blowing.

The new pastor there has called for less moral condemnation and more neighborly love. The same church that, under Bob Russell, spent hundreds of thousands in advertising to push the same-sex marriage amendment, sent a team of walkers to the Louisville AIDS Walk last month.

But since we’re talking about an election, maybe the focus should be on the people who have guided our city from City Hall and Congress alike.

Challenger John Yarmuth: at the Louisville Forum debate.
Challenger John Yarmuth: at the Louisville Forum debate.
This city has often (and accurately) been faulted as too cautious, and maybe too slow to embrace change.
Fair enough. But it has also weathered the storms of the last 60 years with a nearly unbroken stream of Democratic, and often liberal, mayors. And aside from Northup’s 10 years, voters here have seldom seen a Republican they wanted to send to Congress.

Back in 1947, the liberal wing of the national Democratic Party wanted to take a stand for civil liberties and against communism. They turned to a former Louisville mayor to lead the group, which included Eleanor Roosevelt, Barry Bingham Jr., and 127 other U.S. leading figures.

Wilson Wyatt served as the first president of Americans for Democratic Action, a group now calling itself the oldest liberal lobbying group in the country. His stamp can be seen in many places here, including at the law school and in the legacy of the leading law firm he founded.

Decades later, doctor-politician Harvey Sloane was a Louisville liberal and a Democrat both. Like David Armstrong after him, he managed to convince voters to elect him as both mayor and county judge-executive. Also like Armstrong, he was a force in statewide politics.

Both men took strong stands for liberal, or progressive, issues during their time — and Louisvillians kept giving them their votes.

Sloane, who many of you might remember for his star turn reading from “Hell’s Angels” at the Hunter S. Thompson tribute 10 years ago, made his last race in 1990. He challenged another of Louisville’s native sons, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, and lost 52-48 statewide. Louisville went with Sloane, however, giving him 10,000 more votes than McConnell.

More recently, Louisvillians sent progressive David Armstrong into high office four times — once as state attorney general, twice as Jefferson County judge-executive and once as the old city’s last mayor.
Indeed, when they voted him mayor in 1998, Armstrong almost lost — not because he was too liberal, but because many thought he was not liberal enough. They preferred gadfly Tom Owen.

But once mayor, Armstrong proved his progressive credentials with a trifecta of memorable decisions still paying liberal dividends for Louisville. In a single term, he tirelessly championed (and funded) downtown housing, and did it before it was cool. He stuck to his guns over the skate park, a small but radically different idea in a city that rarely had stopped to think so far outside the box. And when thousands of angry police officers and their supporters put the city on the CBS Evening News in March 2000, Armstrong ignored calls to resign and defended his decision to fire then-Chief Gene Sherrard. In a city fraught with racial tensions over police shootings, Armstrong sensibly said the culture of the department had to change, and he boldly started at the top.

It’s true, though: Despite its track record, Louisville has shown signs of creeping conservatism. Kerry just barely won here in 2004, for example — a point Northup pointedly made in the earlier interview. And, of course, this city has sent Northup herself back to Congress for five consecutive terms.

But maybe Louisville’s experiment with a Republican House member has had less to do with support for her deeply conservative voting record and more to do with the fact that they simply like her. She’s a hard worker, after all, and has avoided scandal and embarrassment.

But then, John Yarmuth is a likeable fellow, too. Ask anyone who knows him. He, too, is unafraid of hard work.
So the election has to be about more than just that. Northup has said as much, arguing time and time again that Yarmuth is simply too liberal for the city. But with the election so close, and Yarmuth having emerged relatively intact from weeks of shrill attacks on his “liberal” views, maybe it‘s time to ask another question:
Isn‘t it possible that Anne Northup is just too conservative for Louisville?

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