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Louisville’s mayoral race gets attention from national groups as Election Day approaches

071122_MAYORAL CANDIDATES_Craig Greenberg and Bill Dieruf_by J. Tyler Franklin
Democratic candidate Craig Greenberg and Republican candidate Bill Dieruf will face off in the Louisville mayoral election in November.

With Election Day less than three weeks away, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Louisville mayor are spending big on advertising and other get out the vote initiatives. And some groups outside Jefferson County are backing their runs, too.

From mid-September to mid-October, the Kentucky Registry of Finance’s most recent reporting period, Louisville’s mayoral candidates spent nearly $550,000. Republican Bill Dieruf accounted for just $73,000 of that spending, compared to Democrat Craig Greenberg’s $469,000. 

Greenberg, who’s the former CEO of 21c Museum Hotels, has consistently outraised Dieruf, currently mayor of suburban Jeffersontown, at a rate of more than 2:1. His campaign has reported $1.4 million in total receipts for the general election, while Dieruf has claimed $603,000. 

Both candidates, however, are getting a boost from unauthorized campaign committees. These groups can spend money on behalf of a candidate, as long as they don’t coordinate with their campaign. Unauthorized campaign committees can also accept large donations, whereas contributions to political campaigns are capped at $2,000 per person. 

Mayoral race drawing outside interest

One of these committees, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, paid $100,000 to run ads in support of Dieruf, according to disclosures filed with the state on Oct. 13. 

The funding went to Washington, D.C.-based FP1 Strategies, a national political communications firm that has done work for Republican candidates across the country, including U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Rep. Dan Crenshaw. FP1’s clients also include the Republican National Committee, or RNC, and the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

Kentuckians for Strong Leadership has ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, which drew ire from Greenberg at a recent Louisville Forum debate.

"The most partisan person in America is looking to take over our city government," Greenberg said during the debate. "First, he came for the Supreme Court, and now he's coming after the Louisville city government."

Dieruf responded that McConnell is not trying to buy the race.

"Mitch is not part of this race,” he said. “This is a mayor's race."

Kentuckians for Strong Leadership released an attack ad against Greenberg last month arguing the Democrat would be “more of the same” and making unfounded statements about the ongoing investigation into Louisville Metro police by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Dieruf also has the support of a group called Louisville Democrats for Change. Despite what the name implies, the group is actually run by Jason French of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

From 2003 to 2004, French was the caucus director for the Louisville Metro Council Democrats. He now runs the communications consulting firm French Strategic Partners, whose clients include liquified natural gas companies in Louisiana. Michael Book, who is listed as treasurer of the group in forms submitted to the Kentucky Registry of Elections Finance, said on Facebook he lives in Louisville. He also heads a clinical research group based here. 

Under the name “Democrats for Dieruf,” the group has published a number of attack ads against Greenberg on social media, attempting to tie him closely to the outgoing mayor, Greg Fischer.

French and Book did not respond to WFPL News’ requests for interviews. 

Last week, the group released a video portraying Greenberg negatively for taking donations from philanthropist Christina Lee Brown and other members of the Brown family, who have powerful connections in Louisville. The video did not disclose that Dieruf has also received funding from members of that same family. Christopher Brown, a vice president at Brown-Forman, Eileen Brown and Robinson Brown III all personally donated to Dieruf’s campaign.

Greenberg, meanwhile, has received donations from national unions, including $2,000 each from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and United SteelWorkers. His campaign also received direct contributions from PACs associated with the New York-based transportation planning and engineering firm WSP USA and multinational infrastructure consulting firm AECOM.

Steve and Pat Miller of Saber21, a local communications firm, set up an unauthorized campaign committee in support of Greenberg called Forward Together. According to the group’s website, it has “the sole mission of supporting Craig Greenberg’s candidacy for Louisville Mayor.” Forward Together spent more than $360,000 on behalf of Greenberg in the primary. The group has raised $453,841 for the general election and spent more than $250,000 on campaign ads, polling and direct mail. 

The Washington D.C.-based Justice Action Network, which advocates for criminal justice reforms in sentencing, expungement and civil asset forfeiture, contributed $50,000 to Forward Together. Illinois-based lobbying firm Zephyr Government Strategies also gave $1,000. 

Why are national groups interested in a local mayor’s race?

Asked about some of the outside interest his campaign has received, Greenberg told WFPL News on Thursday that Louisville is getting national attention because of the police killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020 and the resulting protests.

“People want Louisville to emerge from the challenges of the past couple years with hope, opportunity, vibrancy, a new direction,” he said. 

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, hesitated to accept that answer. Voss said national political parties and interest groups have been more interested in building grassroots support for years, regardless of what is in the media spotlight. 

“Our politics have been flooded with money, but it wasn’t necessarily money being spent wisely,” he said. “It would be overwhelmingly concentrated on the marquee races: the presidency, the senator or governor in a state … It wasn’t dedicated to building up the platform, the foundation for a political movement.”

Voss said national political groups are focused on generating grassroots support. He said conservative groups were the first to adopt this strategy, partly because it aligns with their views on federalism and empowering small government. But Democrats and progressive activists are also getting on board.

“Only now are we starting to see the people who are dumping all of this money into our politics behaving a little more wisely, using partisan networks and interest group networks to get the money where its more likely to make a difference: local races like school boards, county councils, low-level judicial races,” Voss said. 

Ahead of the November General Election, there’s been extensive media coverage of conservative groups taking a keen interest in local school district races. In Louisville, the upcoming mayoral election will be the first time in over a decade that an incumbent will not be on the ballot.

Voss said many political observers would pick Democratic candidates as the odds-on favorites in Louisville Metro, where registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans and there hasn’t been a Republican mayor since 1969. But he said the goal isn’t necessarily winning one election.

“In mostly Democratic, mostly left-leaning cities, you have fairly large and wealthy Republican-friendly organizations, business communities, and ignoring them is foolish,” he said. “Neglecting the territory where you’re behind, where you’re outnumbered is a mistake when it comes to almost everything else about politics aside from votes.”

A strong showing from a minority political party can also cause local leaders to moderate their policies or do more to include that group, he added.

Voss said the public should expect to continue seeing dollars from national political groups and special interests flowing down to local races.

“Once you have networks that figure out how to get this national money down to the local candidates, those networks remain in place to continue delivering information up the chain and money down the chain later,” he said. 

Voters in Louisville will head to the polls on Nov. 8 to decide who will be the next mayor. 

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.