Screenshot via WLKY

Mayor Greg Fischer spent much of the first mayoral debate Monday night touting Louisville’s economic success in his first two terms, but he faced a barrage of pointed attacks from his Republican challenger, Councilwoman Angela Leet, over the city’s sharp increase in homicides.

Fischer opened the televised debate by crediting his administration with getting the city “out of the ditch of the Great Recession” they inherited in 2011, citing the addition of 80,000 jobs since that time, a drop in the unemployment rate from over 10 percent to 3.5 percent and large construction projects happening all across Louisville.

“In the last two years, 11,000 Louisvillians have lifted themselves out of poverty, and 8,300 families have joined the middle class,” Fischer said. “2,700 new businesses have opened. We have attracted $13 billion in investment all over our city. Look around, it is exciting.”

Leet’s opening statement countered with an attack on the administration’s honesty, transparency and competence, referencing the LMPD youth Explorer scandal, the whistleblower lawsuit filed by the demoted former LMPD Major Jimmy Harper and the historic number of homicides in 2016 and 2017.

“This is a race about holding this mayor accountable for women and children being sexually abused, sweeping it under the rug, holding no one accountable and hoping it will all blow over,” Leet said. “This is a race about your taxpayer dollars being used for whistleblower lawsuits that retaliate against employees who simply tell the truth. This is a race about my opponent, who allowed homicides to double and overdose deaths to triple under his watch.”

After saying that she will “never allow 100-plus homicides a year to become the new norm,” Leet ramped up the rhetoric further by stating that “I am running for the children who step over body bags when they get off the bus.”

Mayor Greg Fischer | Courtesy of Fischer campaign

Fischer countered by stating that their public safety plan is showing success this year, with overall crime down 7 percent, violent crime down 10 percent and homicides down 22 percent — noting the context of other peer cities in the region facing a rise in violent crime along with the rise of the opioid epidemic.

He also touted the new federal task force “working with us to get the worst criminals off the street” and new long-term programs from the Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods that “lift our youth up so they don’t go into a life of crime.”

Asked by a moderator if he would retain LMPD Chief Steve Conrad if re-elected, Fischer said that he would, stating that the chief has his full confidence, and “we can’t get distracted by a simple notion that removing one person is going to make the city a safer place.” Conrad faced a vote of no confidence from both the local Fraternal Order of Police union and Louisville Metro Council.

Leet countered that Fischer’s “celebration” of success this year still rang hollow, noting that she would fire Conrad “on day one … because leadership matters.”

After Fischer touted his familiar mantra of making Louisville a “compassionate city” and praised the contribution of immigrants to the city, Leet — who opposed a new ordinance limiting LMPD cooperation with federal ICE agents in certain circumstances — followed by stating that “there is a way for us to show love and compassion for our fellow citizens and still ensure diligent enforcement of our laws and rules to make sure that everyone in our community at every corner is safe.”

“How do I explain to children that they are practically living in a war zone?” Leet asked. “That is not compassion to me. We have a lot of work to do to show that we are truly compassionate.”

Metropolitan Sewer District rates
Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7 | Courtesy of Leet campaign

Metro Council recently rebuffed the Metropolitan Sewer District’s request for rate increases that would bring in $4.3 billion for repairs to the city’s dated infrastructure.

Asked whether he supports such a rate hike — in light of recent upticks of street cave-ins and flooding problems — Fischer said these infrastructure improvements are critical to a operate a city, noting the support of local chamber of commerce Greater Louisville Inc. for such updates.

“We cannot build our city out in a way that is attractive to business if we don’t have infrastructure that works here in our city,” Fischer said. “So I support MSD’s desire to raise the fee. In America, I kind of joke that we want everything, but we don’t want to pay for anything. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.”

While Metro Council recently balked at MSD’s request for a larger rate hike, Fischer added that the council “is giving me indications that after this election, there will be a vote on MSD. It has gotten caught up in politics going back and forth.”

Leet noted that MSD is already $2 billion in debt and that its new executive director is under investigation by the attorney general of Ohio for his previous work as director of Cincinnati’s sewer system, expressing doubts about the agency’s honesty about the need for rate increase and stating that MSD should be audited before any increase is approved.

Republicans and Democrats

Both candidates were asked why they identify with each of their respective parties, with the Republican Leet highlighting the lessons of hard work and self-reliance she was taught by her “very Democratic, working, middle-class family.” She said the Republican Party stood for her same principles of “strong family values, limited government and controlling our expenditures.”

With his answer about how Democrats stand up for women, working families and public education, Fischer got the crowd — made up of mostly left-leaning women’s and civic groups that sponsored the debate — to respond with their only loud applause and cheers of the night.

“This is where there’s a real difference between us,” Fischer said. “I believe we should have gun safety legislation. I don’t believe the state should try to take over our schools. I don’t believe we should be attacking our immigrants. I don’t think we should be attacking a woman’s right to choose.”

Fischer also said that he and Democrats don’t attack science and the LGBTQ community, adding that “when we have changes to our tax laws, they shouldn’t favor the top 20 percent of wealthy people and companies in our country. That’s not right. This gap we have between wealth and income in our country is unsustainable — from a moral standpoint, from an economic development standpoint and from a public safety standpoint.”

Democrats have a huge registration advantage among voters in Louisville, as 57 percent are Democrats and only one in three are Republican. Jefferson County was one of only two counties in Kentucky where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the 2016 election; she won by over 13 percentage points.

Economic incentives and transparency
Metro Hall | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Asked if Louisville should make their economic incentive packages offered to companies public, Leet said that she believes in transparency, level playing fields and taxpayers deserving to know where their dollars are going.

“There is some legitimacy to the idea of economic advantage, but it should not be done behind the veil of a curtain,” said Leet, who has criticized Fischer for not releasing the offer for the Amazon headquarters and the names of business guests entertained at the Kentucky Derby each year. “We should be clear about what we are giving away in our community. And we have so many assets to offer. Why do we have to give anything away at all?”

Fischer scoffed at this notion, saying that it would be “business malpractice” to “give away your playbook” to other cities that Louisville competes with for business, as they need to aggressively recruit prospective companies or lose out on jobs.

“I think to disclose who your prospects are or what you’re offering them, I just don’t think that’s good business practice because other cities would take advantage of us, and we would lose those jobs,” Fischer said. “You want to do everything you can to increase jobs in your community and not have any kind of competitive disadvantage.”

The next page

In her closing statement, Leet said that it was “time for Louisville’s next chapter,” calling a vote for her “a vote for a Louisville that is strong, safe and growing.”

“It is time to turn the page on this administration and its failed policies, misplaced priorities and record crime,” Leet said. “It is time to turn the page on corruption in city hall and misused taxpayer dollars. It is time to turn the page on a mayor who divides our community and refuses to show leadership on difficult issues.”

Fischer once again touted statistics showing the city’s economic success in his two terms but added that “I will not be satisfied until everybody is along for the ride.”

“My vision for our hometown is a future where every citizen in every neighborhood — south, west, east, downtown — every one of you has greater access to opportunity and the chance to be your best,” Fischer said. “I go to bed every night feeling like I have the best job in the world. We’ve done a lot, but we have more to do, and we will get it done.”

Asked after the debate about her comment about “children who step over body bags when they get off the bus,” Leet stated that she said it “because that’s actually happened in our community.” Asked again if she meant that children literally stepped over body bags, she said “well, probably not over, but they had to view it.”

“I never had to have that adverse childhood experience when I was growing up,” Leet said. “I had the opportunity to live in a place where I could get off the bus and walk a mile home from my bus stop and be safe. That doesn’t happen for every section of our community and absolutely must be a No. 1 priority.”

Fischer declined to react to that specific line but said that “cities around this part of the country obviously have had an increase in homicides — some much greater than ours.”

“One homicide, obviously, is too much here,” Fischer added. “The plans that we’ve put in place are working. Overall crime is down, violent crime is down, homicides are down 22 percent. So the important thing is, do you have a plan? Are you working it, and are you seeing results? And we are.”

The next and final mayoral debate scheduled is the League of Women Voters candidate forum on Oct. 16, which will be held at Louisville Public Media and broadcast on WAVE-TV. Independent candidates Jackie Green and Chris Thieneman have been invited to that debate.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]