A Look At The GOP's Chances In The Mayor's Race

by Gabe Bullard on November 4, 2009

The filing period for Kentucky elections is underway today (Wed). That means anyone seeking the office of Louisville mayor can now officially file the paperwork to be on the ballot for next year’s primaries.

Prior to this week, candidates could file letters of intent, which allowed them to raise money for the race. Five Democrats and a left-leaning independent are vying to fill Mayor Jerry Abramson’s shoes, but only two Republicans have declared their candidacy.

WFPL’s Gabe Bullard has more on how GOP candidates might fare in the fight for an office that’s been dominated by Democrats.

It’s been 40 years since a Republican held the Louisville mayor’s office and there’s been only one mayor since the city and county governments merged in 2003—Democrat Jerry Abramson. He’s not seeking a third term in order to run for Lt. Governor in 2011.

And the two GOP candidates thus far hoping to fill the position are preparing their campaigns.

First, there’s developer Chris Thieneman.

“I’ve been thinking about this for years,” he says.

Thieneman gained notoriety leading the successful campaign against the library tax in 2007. He says that effort was conducted on a low budget, and he expects he can run a mayoral campaign with similar efficiency.

Last year, Thieneman declared his candidacy as a Republican in the primary for the Third District congressional seat held by Democrat John Yarmuth. He later dropped out and endorsed Yarmuth, then changed his mind again and sought the seat as a Republican. Thieneman says there won’t be any such about-face in the mayor’s race, but his willingness to distance himself from the GOP might be an asset.

“I’m not beholden to anyone, and that makes me an attractive candidate in the general election,” says Thieneman. “But I’m going to have a tougher time in the primary.”

“Chris and I are friends,” says Metro Councilman Hal Heiner.

Heiner is Thieneman’s opponent in the primary. He’s been raising money for the campaign longer than Thieneman and he has the support of many high profile Republicans in the area.

“I feel my seven years on the council is an advantage for a quick start,” he says.

Heiner and Thieneman both say they’re uncomfortable with, among other things, how the Abramson administration negotiates contracts and works with developers. They say Abramson hasn’t consulted with the council on development deals except to seek funding approval, though they acknowledge that he’s not required to, and they would take steps to limit executive power.

To further separate himself from Abramson, Heiner says, if elected, he will call for a full audit of the city to make otherwise closed records public.

“My goal in this run for government is to set a pattern and also laws in place, that for the next 50 or 100 years, we’ve set a culture in this government of openness, accountability and checks and balances that will last beyond whatever term I serve,” says Heiner.

But first Heiner has to get elected, which Republican mayoral hopefuls have struggled to do.

“A lot of it boils down to the economy,” says Filson Historical Society curator James Holmberg. “If people feel things are good for them and going in a good direction, they’re happy to stick with the party that’s in power.”

Holmberg says while the political makeup of city halls is often a reflection of the national and state political landscapes at a given time, a lot can happen in short order to sway local voters.

“Sometimes it was almost a reaction, like if there’d been a scandal, and people being people they tend then to want to go in the other direction,” he says. “Throw the bad guys out and go in a different direction.”

So Heiner and Theineman are positioning themselves as alternatives, hoping voter fatigue with Abramson and Democrats in general will win some converts. Mayor Abramson’s approval ratings have slipped in the last year, but they still hover above 50 percent.

Holmberg also points out that this is a historic election for merged government: subtracting Abramson’s popularity and adding the old county’s Republican-leaning history could level the field for the GOP.

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