by Gabe Bullard
Jerry Abramson is the only person to hold the job of Louisville Mayor since the 2003 city/county merger. He championed and helped shape the merger and his two terms in the expanded office have set the early benchmarks for how Metro Government is run.
Abramson is running for Lt. Governor next year, and this November, voters will select a new mayor. That person will face a number of challenges immediately upon taking office. And the biggest of those may be the task of stepping out of Abramson’s shadow…
…And Abramson has cast a long shadow. He served 13 years as mayor of the old city of Louisville, and is finishing his second term leading Metro Government.
I talked to Abramson recently near the new downtown arena following a press conference. He says both of his stints in office started with steep learning curves.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” says Abramson. “They never told me it would be easy when I ran in ’85. It wasn’t. And it continues to be very intricate, very challenging.”
And the challenges presented by merged government may not be obvious to all of the candidates running for mayor.
For example: many of the day-to-day operations of Metro Government have been overseen by Abramson appointees. In recent years, problems in the housing and animal services departments have led to accusations of mismanagement by some of those appointees. The next mayor will have the option of appointing dozens of new department heads and officers. Attorney Steve Porter, who has served as legal counsel to several small municipalities and neighborhood associations across the Metro since merger, says each appointment will build the mayor’s brand and help define the administration.
“If new people are brought in, I think that incumbency arrogance might go away some, and the idea of new thoughts, new ways of doing things, I think will be really good for the community,” says Porter.
And then there are the battles with employee unions. City officials have been embroiled in courtroom disputes over take home cars for police officers and overtime pay for firefighters, among other issues. These have energized some of the mayor’s critics and prompted legislation in the Metro Council.
The Metro Council is another ground for political battles for the next mayor. Abramson has embraced the power of his office, often making decisions without council input except when required by law, much to the consternation of some council members. Historian and Council President Tom Owen says the new mayor will be under pressure to redefine executive power.
“There’s always going to be yee-and-yaw,” says Owen. “You have a weak mayor and it’s inevitable, the power of the legislative body will bellow.”
The Metro Council will have a chance to exert its power annually during the city budget process, and the next mayor will likely face a bare-bones budget. The down economy and subsequent spending cuts have, some would say, defined Abramson’s last two years in office. Owen says that will also be the case for the first post-Abramson term. However,”It may be that by the end of 2010, the economy could start turning, a new mayor could catch a wave and suddenly look awfully sweet,” says Owen.
And as the economy recovers, whoever’s in Metro Hall will have a hand in deciding the future of development in both the urban core and in the rural areas that became part of Louisville Metro in 2003.
Outside of politics and municipal issues, most know Abramson best as the affable cheerleader for the city. The mayor who has held hundreds of ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings. Owen says he hasn’t seen any of the candidates demonstrate Abramson’s ability to generate enthusiasm in the face of good and bad times, and that talent shouldn’t be overlooked.
“I worry sometimes that the candidates don’t know what they’re getting themselves into, if they’re going to be daily compared, in the first months of their term, to Jerry Abramson,”says Owen. “I’d say for the first year there’s always going to be “Where’s Jerry?””
“Well I’ll certainly be around,” says Abramson. “I mean, I’m not leaving town.”
Abramson says no matter what happens in his 2011 race for Lieutenant Governor, he’ll be more than happy to help the next mayor.