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In Metro Council Races, Incumbency Offers Big Advantage

Louisville City Hall
J. Tyler Franklin
Louisville City Hall

Most incumbent Louisville Metro Council members will have no trouble keeping their seats in this year's election cycle.

Just three of the 10 incumbents seeking re-election this year will face challengers in the primary or -- barring a late entry from an independent candidate -- general elections. That leaves seven incumbents to breeze into another term.

"In terms of strong democracy, it's not what you like to see," said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who also faced nominal competition in his re-election bid last year, when asked about the general lack of participation in this year's Metro Council races.

And though it's not ideal, it's also quite common. The reasons are mostly practical: name recognition, money and infrastructure.

Challenging incumbents in city-level political races can be an uphill battle for residents who aren't already well-known among voters.

"Potential candidates aren't interested in the time, resources and money that it requires to mount a campaign of which they are unlikely to win just because of low name recognition," said Jason Gainous, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.

Gainous said many people would just rather not bother with investing the effort into a venture that likely won't end in their favor.

Add to that the fact that incumbents often already have in place funding from local donors needed to run a campaign, said Julie Bunck, also a political science professor at the University of Louisville.

"Money rarely shifts, and incumbents tend to tie up a lot of it," Bunck said.

Incumbents also have had the time to develop links within the community that can provide necessary ground-level resources, such as volunteers. And some have had time to acquire seniority through key roles on committees that can bring benefits to their districts, said Tim Weaver, also a political science professor at the University of Louisville.

"All of these advantages compound over time," he said, giving incumbents a strong ability to fend off challengers -- or dissuade them from running at all.

Many who are interested in making a bid for local office simply wait until the incumbent decides to step down from the seat, Weaver said.

That is playing out in the current election cycle, where two of the most-crowded fields —Districts 4 and 8 — emerged after an incumbent opted out of the upcoming election.

In District 8, the Highlands area that has for years been represented by councilmanand former city alderman Tom Owen, eight residents will jockey for the Democratic bid in the May primary election. That winner is likely to take the seat, as no Republican or independent candidates have filed for the seat.

During Owen's nearly 15-year tenure, he faced just five challengers in two election cycles, according to data from the Jefferson County Election Center.

Councilman David Tandy has been a staple in District 4 since he took office in 2005. The Democrat announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election, which opened the door to four Democrats seeking to fill the void.

Tandy, who also ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2010 and served two terms as Metro Council president, faced just two challengers during his tenure, according to election center data. He won each time with more than 70 percent of the vote.

It's important to note this chart shows participation rates from 2002 to 2016. Metro Council was formed in 2002, leading to a surge in interest that year to fill the new seats.

In 2002, each district boasted an average of more than seven candidates. In 2004, the next election year, average district participation dropped to just fewer than three candidates per district. The rate reached a low point in 2010, at fewer than two candidates per district. It increased in the following years, largely because of crowded fields in just a few districts.

But the incumbents' advantages do not deter all those interested from running.

Jessica Green, now a Metro Council member from District 1, took on then-incumbent Attica Scott during the 2014 election cycle.

"I challenged an incumbent just because I wanted to run and felt like I had something to offer in the race," she said.

She eventually won with 55 percent of the primary vote. She faced no challenge in the general election.

Green, however, did have name recognition going into the race. Her mother, Judy Green, represented District 1 on the Metro Council until she resigned amid ethical mishaps in 2011.

Still, Green said it takes "chutzpah" to challenge an incumbent. "But people do it," she added.

Ray Barker is one of those people. He has mounted three unsuccessful bids for Metro Council since 2002. He's sought the District 1 seat in 2006, 2010 and 2012 — receiving up to 40 percent of the primary vote on one occasion, according to the Jefferson County Election Center.

He's currently challenging an incumbent for a spot in the state House.

Barker said he's run because he felt like he could do a better job than the incumbent at the time. Although he acknowledged the cards are often stacked in favor of the incumbent.

And even in a losing bid, Barker said challenging an incumbent can have a positive impact on a community by keeping officeholders from becoming complacent.

"You're going to be able to articulate what the incumbent may not be doing," he said. "Sometimes an incumbent needs that reminder that they do work for the public, and they can only get that when they have a challenger."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.