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Remembering Louisville Metro Council President Jim King

When the history of Metro Louisville is written, a few names will rise to the top of those who shaped the merged government. Without question, Jim King will be one of them.

Over the decade in which he served on the Metro Council, the Highlands banker and Democrat who died last night at the age of 63 became a force for change. His brash, sometimes bullying tactics tripped him up politically from time to time (and may have been the key factor in his loss of the 2010 mayoral primary to Greg Fischer). However nobody who observed his activities on the council, especially after becoming its president in 2011, can deny that he had an impact on the community.

The first time I met Jim was back in 2008 or 2009, when he was running for mayor and a mutual friend arranged a lunch for us at the Bristol on Main Street. It was when Jim was gearing up for his mayoral race in 2010, and at The Courier-Journal, where I was opinion pages editor, he had been criticized fairly often and aggressively. He wanted to mend fences.

He also wanted to explain how his bumptious, sometimes abrasive approach may have overshadowed real accomplishments he had—and would make—on the metro council and as mayor. One thing I recall from that day is his fondness for the Louisville Zoo, which is in his council district. He climax of that conversation was his tearful description of his early hard-knock life, which was turned around by compassionate and compelling teachers at St. Xavier High School. (He had been criticized for using the St. X alumni list for fundraising purposes.)

I wasn’t completely won over, but I was impressed. So were many of us at the newspaper during his unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2010. What surprised us, and what continued to impress many, was his ability to work with the man who defeated him after Fischer was elected mayor and King (surprisingly to some) took over as president of the council in 2011. He was so good in that role that he was re-elected to four subsequent terms, most recently this month. Over those years he took important positions that helped secure the future of the Louisville Orchestra, helped save Whiskey Row, and pushed for responsible city budgeting.

My old friend and longtime colleague, David Hawpe, had this to say about Jim: “Jim was an amazing family man, totally devoted to his children and grandchildren. How he managed to be there for all of them all of the time and still develop and operate a big business, while also serving so long in a demanding public position, I don't know.

“He was as tough as nails, but also had a big heart," Hawpe continued. "He made his own way in the world, coming up hard but going out on top. Jim was a guy who never lost touch with the grit and grind of the city, even after he became a wealthy and successful man. He also knew how to throw a Christmas party. His holiday bash at the bank every year was legendary. Sure, he was on occasion a bull in a china shop, stumbling without meaning to when he let himself look like a not-in-my-backyard lout. That's not really who Jim was. Actually he was very generous and compassionate. He grew in his public service, becoming more and more adept and effective as he became more and more experienced.”

Jim King’s death leaves a big void in local government, but his legacy is one that today we should pause to honor. Jim King was an outsized personality, and Louisville benefited from it.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. 

Keith discussed King and his legacy on Thursday with WFPL's Todd Mundt. Listen below:

Remembering Louisville Metro Council President Jim King

He'll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday.