For most of the 20th century, bipartisan, civic-minded Louisvillians sought with little success to increase local control for the citizens of the state’s largest city. And to find out why, you have to study the history of a railroad.
In the last half of the 19th century, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, based in Louisville, had so much power that it called the shots not only for the state but for the city, then one of the 15 largest in America, and second only to New Orleans in the South.
Corruption was so embedded that the state Constitutional Convention of 1891 decided to wrest power from the railroad. But at the same time, it also placed too much responsibility for Louisville’s government in the hands of Frankfort.
Finally, in the late 20th century, after decades of effort by local leaders — with the local economy booming and the L&N’s influence greatly diminished — forward-thinking voices began to prevail.
With the voters’ support, the balance of power began to shift. Mayors were allowed to serve more than one term. The local courts were reformed and judgeships were made nonpartisan, creating a better and more independent justice system.
All sorts of powers were granted to the growing suburban county government — a change that Sen. Mitch McConnell, then Jefferson County Judge/Executive, strongly approved. Indeed, through much of that time Republicans were progressive leaders, and the questions of home rule transcended partisanship.
And, finally, in 2000, again with strong bipartisan support including leadership from former Louisville mayors Jerry Abramson and Dave Armstrong (Democrats), McConnell and Jefferson County Judge/Executive Rebecca Jackson (Republicans), voters approved a city-county merger initiative that drew national acclaim. By virtually all accounts, it has been a great success.
Now, after so many decades of support by both parties, a group of House Republicans in Frankfort — and who represent Louisville — are pushing a bill to turn back the clock on home rule. Their efforts include, among other things, limiting the mayor of Louisville to two successive terms instead of the current three and stripping the council of its power to fill vacancies that occur on the council or in the mayor’s office. Instead, the governor would be handed the power to make those appointments.
In my years at The Courier-Journal, I always counted the days until the General Assembly adjourned. Every session seemed to be the worst one yet. Part of the reason for that is the diversity of Kentucky and its people. There is no reason that lawmakers from Mousie, Fulton, Nicholasville and Rabbit Hatch should be making decisions that apply to the needs of Louisville, Lexington and a few other major cities in the state.
They don’t understand us well enough, and goodness knows we don’t understand them. This goes beyond partisanship. Metro Council President David Yates told WFPL’s Jake Ryan, “It’s dangerous for Frankfort to play politics with our local government.”
Louisville sends to Frankfort $1 for every 50 cents it gets back. Our town may not be able to decide how to spend that revenue, but we should at least be able to elect our own leaders. This is an American principle, going back to the New England town meetings and the stump where Lincoln campaigned in Illinois.
I’ve heard that some Republicans think this is a dandy way to turn Louisville from blue to red. But remember this: Democrats held the mayor’s office for all but eight of the years from 1933 to 2000. After 1970, the old City Board of Aldermen was solidly Democratic. Not one Republican sat in that chamber.
Today there is a strong bipartisan mix, and the second Metro Council president, Kelly Downard, was a Republican elected with bipartisan support. Subsequent council presidents have included an African-American woman and the current president, who comes from southwest Louisville.
No longer is the East End running the show, as it long did. The fact is that Louisville, like many big cities, tends to vote Democratic. But as recently as 2010, Republican Hal Heiner came within 2 percentage points of defeating Greg Fischer.
McConnell has recently said: “I would say we have term limits now. They’re called elections.”
I agree with him.
Nearly two decades have passed since the effort to bring local control back to Louisville succeeded. Most of those who pushed for it are either dead or have grown old, as in my own case.
At The Courier-Journal, where I was an opinion editor, we gave the merger effort our strongest push in the newspaper’s history. Former publisher Ed Manassah saw nothing more important for the city’s economic and governmental future, and he was right. The business community was united. The parties were united. It was a great time.
Let’s not squander that success in a misguided effort to strip local control from Kentucky’s economic engine.
Keith Runyon retired in 2012 as editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal, where he worked for 43 years.