Metro Louisville

In Tuesday’s primary election for Louisville mayor, activist and organizer Shameka Parrish-Wright bucked expectations by garnering nearly 19,000 votes and beating out a candidate with more high-profile endorsements and more money. 

Her performance wasn’t enough to win the Democratic nomination, but she came in second place behind the former 21c Museum Hotels CEO Craig Greenberg. Parrish-Wright told WFPL News she believes her campaign showed the viability of a working class, progressive candidate with a nontraditional background.

“We built off of people wanting change, people wanting something different,” she said. “We gave people an option. We put all of our cards on the table to let them know that they had had a real choice out here.”

In the Democratic primary, Parrish-Wright took home 21.5% of the vote compared to David Nicholson’s 17%. That’s despite the fact that Nicholson, currently the Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk, spent $618,000 on his campaign and Parrish-Wright spent just $61,000, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. 

The certified election results show Parrish-Wright did best in polling precincts in and around downtown, in neighborhoods such as Old Louisville, Germantown and Clifton. She also clinched the most votes in some parts of the Russell, California and Portland neighborhoods in west Louisville. 

A self-proclaimed “candidate for the people,” Parrish-Wright said she did all that while leaning on her own experiences as a mother of six, a person who went to college later in life and someone who has experienced homelessness. Parrish-Wright campaigned on building affordable housing in every zip code, expanding youth programming and job training and treating gun violence as a public health issue.

She said she continued to work her 9-5 job at the Bail Project, a national organization that uses donations to help bail out of jail, while making calls and knocking on doors in the evenings.

“There were so many forums, questionnaires and endorsement processes,” she said. “So in that 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. window, I had to say ‘OK, Shameka, what’s the best way to use this time?’ I chose to be with the people, to be with the community groups.”

Parrish-Wright also had a team of people helping with phone banking, campaign signs and social media strategy. She committed early on to paying her staff a living wage, but without significant campaign donations a lot of people simply volunteered their time, she said.

While a grassroots campaign was her strategy from the start, the lack of funding also dictated how Parrish-Wright pursued votes. Her better-resourced opponents were rolling out highly produced television ads while she couldn’t even afford mailers. 

“I think that sweat equity, putting in the work, meeting people where they are, is more valuable than people want to give credit to,” she said.

Parrish-Wright instead spent a lot of her time “tossing Hail Marys,” speaking to any group of voters who would have her. Earlier this year, Parrish-Wright attended a meeting with the leaders of the Louisville police union, River City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #614. 

She showed up even though she said she knew she wouldn’t be received favorably. Parrish-Wright has spent the last decade on the boards of various nonprofits and working on progressive causes like cash bail reform. But she became more widely known in Louisville for her organizing work during the 2020 racial justice protests, which some residents perceived as being anti-police.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m not asking for your endorsement, but I want to give you the opportunity to know who I am,’” Parrish-Wright said. “I told them about how I went through the process to become a police officer, how I’ve watched my family members become police officers, and all I want is accountability.”

The police union didn’t endorse her, but she did get support from community activists and their organizations, such as Cate Fosl, founding director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice and the Sunrise Movement Louisville, a group focused on ending climate change 

“It was the tortoise and the hare this whole time,” Parrish-Wright said. “I was the first to announce for a reason, because I knew I had more work to do. I’m appreciative of the effort we put together. It shows that people power can move us, and I see a big shift in Louisville.”

Challenges for progressive candidates remain

While Parrish-Wright’s supporters have celebrated her primary performance, people who know Louisville politics say there are still significant challenges to putting a non-traditional candidate like her over the top.

For her campaign manager, Chris Kolb, the biggest issue was money. 

“There were times when we had lots of good volunteers out there knocking on a lot of doors, but when we got someone to say, ‘Yes, I’ll take a yard sign,’ we didn’t have the money to buy it,” he said.

Kolb said that for some candidates, particularly those who run in the right circles, the campaign dollars can come easy. But for candidates looking to challenge the status quo in Louisville, there aren’t many bigger donors lining up to support them.

Kolb is an urban anthropologist at Spalding University who successfully challenged then-Jefferson County Board of Education chair David Jones Jr. in 2016. Kolb continues to hold the District 2 school board seat and is a member of the Louisville chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. 

He said running a grassroots campaign in a school board or Metro Council district, where you could conceivably knock on every resident’s door, is a different beast than a countywide race. 

“To run even an effective, bare bones, grassroots campaign in a countywide race, you need at least $200,000,” he said. “When you can’t hire people to devote at least 20 hours per week to the campaign, you’re going to be limited in what you can do.”

In Louisville, candidates who get endorsements or money from the right people or families tend to succeed politically. Kolb said there’s currently no organized alternative to that network for funding grassroots campaigns.

“It starts with money,” he said. “That’s just the reality. I think there needs to be some sort of PAC on the progressive side of things that, I don’t know how but, gets access to lots of money.”

During her campaign, Parrish-Wright repeatedly said she hoped to energize and inspire people who don’t traditionally vote in local elections — the kind of people who didn’t think local government was important, or those who had become disillusioned by politics as usual.

There isn’t data available to show whether Parrish-Wright was successful in doing that, but Kolb said he believes the organization to mobilize those kinds of voters in significant numbers just isn’t there yet. He also said the bloc of voters who are left-of-center or looking for an alternative to the traditional Democratic candidates remains too fractured.

“You know, the wealthy establishment, they pick their candidate and they line up behind that candidate,” he said. “Within the left-of-center community, it can be done, but it’s going to take a lot of organization and a lot of fighting.”

Another challenge for nontraditional candidates here, particularly Black candidates, is the lack of historic representation, said University of Louisville political science Professor Dewey Clayton.

Louisville is one of only two major U.S. cities that has never elected a Black person, a Hispanic person or a woman as mayor. Clayton said voters have a kind of mental template for what a mayor looks and sounds like, and that’s partly based on past experience.

“People always say that younger people have to see someone like them in that position before they believe they can do that,” he said. “As a political scientist, I think there’s some truth to that.”

Parrish-Wright had the best performance of any Black candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary since 2010, when David Tandy, who was a Metro Council member at the time, finished with 20.05% of the vote. He lost to businessman Greg Fischer.

Fischer went on to three back-to-back terms, and will leave office at the end of this year. 

Clayton said voters across the county have traditionally looked to businessman-type candidates to lead their city government, which poses a challenge for candidates with other backgrounds. He said Louisville doesn’t really have any modern examples of mayors who break the mold. 

Parrish-Wright on what’s next

In an interview with WFPL on Thursday, Parrish-Wright said she planned to take time to meet with her campaign team to have an honest conversation about what worked and what didn’t.

She said she wants to pivot to ‘get out the vote’ efforts ahead of the November general election.

“I hope [Democrats] don’t lose this seat, but if it comes up again I’ll be ready in four years,” Parrish-Wright said. “But right now, I want to focus on spreading the word, getting people out to vote.”

Identifying similar challenges as Kolb and Clayton, Parrish-Wright said she also wants to focus on an initiative that would provide training and resources for grassroots candidates who want to provide an alternative.

“We need good people to run and if we don’t take some of this money out, if we don’t inspire people with grassroots campaigns, then you’re going to get the same leaders again and again and again,” she said.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.