Farewell, Jerry

Mayor Abramson leaves behind a legacy of optimism in Louisville

Dec 29, 2010 at 6:00 am
Farewell, Jerry
Photo by Scott McIntyre

The walls of the conference room adjoining Mayor Jerry Abramson’s office are empty, with the exception of a maze of hooks and nails. Dozens of photos, awards and personal effects collected during more than two decades as mayor now sit in cardboard boxes in the corner.

In January, the affectionately dubbed “mayor for life” will leave office for Bellarmine University, where he’ll teach classes on leadership and civics full-time. When he’s not lecturing, Abramson will spend much of the next 10 months on the campaign trail, seeking the seat of lieutenant governor on the ticket of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

In setting his sights on Frankfort, Abramson is leaving behind a local political legacy that’s spanned 25 years, a time he reflected on during a recent interview with LEO Weekly.

“When I ran for office, it was a one-term limit. My assumption was that I’d have only four years to make my hometown better, and I would move on to something else,” Abramson says. “In the middle of that term, a constitutional amendment was put on the ballot to change the state law, and it gave me an opportunity to have two additional terms. We had been a community held back in my judgment by the requirement that the mayor could only have one term. The three terms gave me a chance to stay here and see things through, and I think that’s one of the real benefits that occurred for the community at-large.”

Abramson would go on to serve as mayor of the “old” city of Louisville from 1986-1999, and then, after the city and county merged, as the city’s first Metro mayor from 2003-2011.

Optimism is the legacy Abramson leaves behind, and it’s a narrative that relies heavily on the above belief in a symbiotic relationship between the man and the city. Listening to his version, a young lawyer filed for office when Louisville was a sleepy town decimated by urban decay and suburban sprawl that had “a can’t-do attitude.”

Instead of pointing to a brick-and-mortar project as a signature accomplishment, Abramson serves up a spoonful of Pollyanna that has been a cornerstone of his image over the years.

“I remember this community when I ran in 1985. I remember the glass-half-full prescriptive that I heard from people in all areas,” Abramson says. “You don’t hear that anymore. Based on the successes that we’ve had, there is now competitiveness. You now have a spirit of the glass is more than half full.”

It’s a change he’s quick to take credit for: “I was that transition. I connected where we were — pretty much down on ourselves — to where we are today: a renewed spirit that this community is very special.”

Leaving office undefeated save a failed attempt at Board of Alderman presidency in 1977, Abramson’s hallmark has been an unwavering optimism that has built an almost impenetrable popularity that other political leaders lust over. But like any politician, he has his weaknesses, chief among them being thin skin. That sensitivity to criticism reared its head frequently in recent years, even as the majority of residents continued to embrace his enthusiasm with unwavering support.

Whether Abramson’s optimism will have the same effect throughout the commonwealth’s more rural, conservative corners remains to be seen.

When Abramson announced a year and a half ago that he was forgoing a possible sixth term to join Gov. Steve Beshear’s 2011 re-election campaign in a bid for lieutenant governor, there was a mixed reaction.

There was general concern among civic and business leaders that momentum could slow due to the break in mayoral continuity. Besides a four-year hiccup during Dave Armstrong’s single term a decade ago, Abramson has been the personification of Louisville — a larger-than-life figure who is immediately associated with progress.

Since taking office, for example, Abramson has overseen an unprecedented downtown renaissance, including the completion of Slugger Field, Waterfront Park, Fourth Street Live and the KFC Yum! Center.

“Jerry was definitely a cheerleader, and in that role he always placed the interest of the city first and foremost. Those are big shoes to fill,” says Chris Cieminski, chairman of the Louisville Downtown Management District’s board of directors. “While you may not necessarily have agreed with everything he did or all his policies, again he’s always tried to be a positive figure for Louisville. And that’s definitely been a plus for him and a plus for our community.”

But it was those very developments that opened Abramson up to a growing chorus of sharper and louder critics, particularly over a sweetheart deal given to The Cordish Cos. — developer of Fourth Street Live — that gave away $950,000 in tax dollars to the company without Metro Council approval.

The city’s agreement with Cordish became a lightning rod in both public opinion and Metro government, resulting in a series of new ordinances passed by the Democratic-controlled council, which attempted to put the mayor’s power in check.

“It was less about the project itself, to be honest. You ran into a situation where there were serious concerns about approving something in the budget, and the administration turning around to use that money for a different purpose without explanation,” says Tony Hyatt, Democratic caucus spokesman. “There was bipartisan agreement at that time that something needed to be changed. And the council decided the administration should at least have to come back and explain what they’re going to do before signing anything.”

Then there was the growing dysfunction in the Metro Department of Housing and Family Services, which resulted in a scathing state audit report and police investigation that recently resulted in the former director being indicted on two felony charges.

And yet another storm of criticism erupted for the Abramson administration thanks to a series of controversies at Louisville Metro Animal Services, with former director Dr. Gilles Meloche at the center: There was the alleged torture of animals, misappropriation of city resources, and two sexual harassment lawsuits, yet Abramson continually stood by his appointee, referring to the embattled director as a “change agent” up until his resignation.

It was a stubbornness some say spiraled out of control.

“It’s my view that this ‘mayor for life’ stuff went to his head. The longer he was in office, the less attention he paid to details and the more absolutist and arbitrary he became,” says John David Dyche, a Louisville attorney and conservative columnist with The Courier-Journal. “If he was doing something, it had to be right because he was the one doing it, but there were things that merited criticism.”

Despite those scandals and deep budget cuts brought on by the national recession that plagued his final term, Abramson remained immensely popular among voters. In a poll conducted by Insight’s cn|2 Politics this past October, his approval rating was 71 percent, and supporters and opponents agree he would’ve easily won re-election had he decided to run.

“The scandals that you saw never touched him personally if you think about it. He was never a part of anything, and after being in office 25 years, sometimes things happen and the voters understood that,” says Democratic strategist Bob Gunnell. “This is a guy they know and grew up with, who showed them he was committed to this city. If Jerry wanted to make money, he would’ve left a long time ago, but they saw his love for the community.”

Even though Abramson remained largely unscathed by recent scandals, the mayor has been known to take criticism personally, and often derides the growing negativity around public service. One place that so-called sensitivity plainly shows is Abramson’s strained relationship with Councilman Kelly Downard, R-19, who was a longtime friend until he challenged Abramson in the 2006 mayor’s race.

For years, Downard was an outspoken critic of the Abramson administration, serving as a watchdog in his role as chairman of the council’s Government Accountability and Oversight Committee. But Downard tells LEO Weekly that he hopes the two can reconcile now that Abramson is leaving office.

“I wish our friendship hadn’t suffered, but apparently it did. I never took it personal, but I know that he did,” Downard says. “For all the time that I’ve known Jerry, this has been true: He’s too thin-skinned, and he refuses to admit any kind of error. I have no idea why, because he’s done so many good things.”

Asked if making amends with Downard could happen, the mayor said it’s possible, but he then went on to blast the city lawmaker’s tenure on the council and reiterated how badly he thumped his former friend in the 2006 election.

“It has nothing to do with political rivalry, it has everything to do with the way he went about his time in public service. It’s probably the most disappointing aspect of the new government, that being his approach to it,” Abramson says. “I was so excited when (Kelly) called me out of the blue saying he was going to run (for Metro Council). He was such a community partner with me when he was a banker, and I was really excited about that. Unfortunately, when the new council was formed, people who were community-oriented became politicians …

“When he ran against me, I think he won nine precincts, including losing his own. I’m just trying to think back.”

Asked if he’s too sensitive, Abramson says part of being in public service is being in an arena where everything is open to discussion. But he admits that some criticism has stung over the years.

“Look, I’m an individual and a human being with feelings,” he says. “When someone says something that I think is a personal slight, when they say something that is incorrect, I’m troubled by it.”

The longest-serving mayor in Kentucky’s largest city is still a knock-on-doors politician, according to Bob Gunnell. The Democratic strategist believes Abramson knows how to sell an idea and connect with voters on the campaign trail, a type of retail politics that can’t be taught overnight and that should serve him well in the commonwealth.

Initially, it was said the Beshear-Abramson ticket was an unusual pairing due to Abramson’s more liberal views on gun control and abortion, which won’t help the two in some parts of the commonwealth. And it’s expected that Republicans will remind voters about Abramson’s past complaints about the state’s tax system, which uses city dollars to subsidize the rest of the state.

If the usual rural-versus-urban divide plays out, and if some Kentuckians view Abramson as too cosmopolitan, too liberal and, let’s face it, too Jewish for a conservative state that recently elected Rand Paul, then those naysayers are underestimating his political acumen.

“For everybody he loses, he gains three in Louisville. Gov. Beshear will have the edge, and having Jerry sets him up perfectly because he does well among moderate Republicans here in Jefferson County,” Gunnell says. “Get out in the state, sure it will hurt him in certain places, but Jerry’s likable. And in this race, likability goes a long way.”

When Abramson first announced his bid for lieutenant governor, the initial thought was that the Louisville mayor was brought to the ticket in order to match wits with Republican Senate President David Williams, who has pulverized Beshear’s agenda and now looks to unseat him come November.

And it looks as though Abramson stands to help Beshear, particularly by maximizing fundraising and turnout in Jefferson County, a Democratic stronghold that’s necessary for any Democrat to win statewide office.

In July, the Beshear-Abramson ticket filed a quarterly finance report that showed the campaign had raised more than $660,000 in one quarter for a total of more than $2.6 million raised for the 2011 gubernatorial election. The deep coffers give them an edge of more than $2 million going in.

Another asset Abramson brings to the ticket is that if elected he will help articulate and energize Beshear’s economic development platform. And whatever misgivings observers have, Louisville’s most successful cheerleader remains positive and believes their ticket can bridge that city-versus-county divide.

“Gov. Beshear comes out of a rural background in western Kentucky, and I come from an urban background in Louisville,” says Abramson, who met Beshear in the late 1970s while working as general counsel for then-Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. “I hope that I can join with him and … help cities and counties become more efficient.” 

The Good, The Bad & The Jerry: The triumphs and failures of the ‘Mayor for Life’

For nearly a third of his life, Jerry Abramson has been Louisville’s chief executive, which means he’s overseen plenty of important projects, made a number of good and bad decisions, and uttered a few boneheaded comments in the process. Here’s a look back at some of the mayor’s greatest hits and misses.

The Good

Operation Brightside: Established by Abramson during his first term, the cleanup and youth environmental effort has been uniting residents around green activities to beautify the city for more than two decades

Louisville International Airport: In 1988, the decision to scrap the old Standiford Field as part of the $300 million airport expansion was one of the bolder decisions in Abramson’s early political career. As a result of adding two new parallel runways, UPS has invested $2 billion here and Louisville International ranks as America’s third-busiest cargo airport.

Presbyterian headquarters: In the late 1980s, Louisville was one of the finalist cities looking to attract the Presbyterian Church (USA) headquarters, and Abramson played a key role in recruiting a delegation of community leaders who convinced the church to choose Louisville.

Firing Police Chief Richard Dotson: After allegations surfaced that the city’s top cop abused his ex-wives and harassed female co-workers, Abramson requested a federal investigation and eventually fired the chief in 1990. It was the first step in breaking up the department’s good ol’ boy system.

Razing the Cotter and Lang housing complexes: Although there has been some criticism surrounding the mixed-income Park DuValle neighborhood, it is far better than the dilapidated housing projects Abramson announced would be torn down in 1995.

Slugger Field: In 2000, the new downtown ballpark opened thanks in large part to the cheerleading of Abramson, who envisioned the park as part of a revitalized downtown waterfront.

City-County merger: Bringing the city and county together had been rejected by voters twice before, but with Abramson as a leading proponent, voters finally approved the measure; Jerry became the first post-merger mayor in 2003.

Health Department: The Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness has become nationally recognized, a trend that began with Abramson’s 2003 hiring of Dr. Adewale Troutman. The well-respected director secured hefty federal grants, and in 2004, he helped establish the mayor’s Healthy Hometown Movement.

The Bad

Louisville International Airport: Despite having an undeniable positive impact on the city, the airport expansion sparked significant controversy due to an Abramson-backed plan to relocate residents in surrounding neighborhoods. The Kentucky Supreme Court backhanded the decision in a ruling, and residents — although still forced to move — won a $6.2 million judgment against the city.

Fairness Ordinance: During the 1990s, Abramson went out of his way to avoid getting involved in the debate over legislation that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. The historic legislation finally passed in 1999 without his leadership, and observers believe it would have happened sooner with his help.

Dr. Gilles Meloche: In 2005, Abramson hired Meloche to oversee Louisville Metro Animal Services. Big mistake: Today, the ex-director can be best described as a misfit who brought nothing but scandal and shame to the department, yet Abramson has stubbornly defended Meloche, calling him a “change agent.”

The Cordish Cos.: The sweetheart deals given to the Baltimore-based developer of Fourth Street Live in 2008 were beyond generous and lacking public accountability. After making so many unilateral decisions over the years with a reticent Board of Alderman, it was difficult for the Abramson administration to adapt to criticism from the public, non-Courier-Journal media and Metro Council.

“Poorer, blacker and older”: While on a two-day trip to Charleston, W. Va., in 2009, Abramson told The Charleston Gazette’s editorial board the city of Louisville needed to merge in 2003 (in part) because “we were getting poorer, blacker and older” — because those are all bad things, right?

Public safety lawsuits: In 2009, Abramson lost two major legal battles: The city was forced to give firefighters $45 million in overtime pay, the result of a lawsuit that had dragged on for more than a decade, and in another case, a judge ruled the mayor could not charge police officers for take-home cars.