Opportunities and ‘impossible decisions’: Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer reflects on 12 years in office
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer led Kentucky’s largest city through highs and lows in his 12 years in office.
Fischer became the second mayor of Louisville Metro’s merged city-county government in 2011, after defeating Republican Hal Heiner. A businessman who had no prior experience in public office, Fischer oversaw the city’s recovery from the 2008 recession. In 2020, he navigated Louisville through the COVID-19 pandemic. He was also in charge as the city grappled with the police killing of Breonna Taylor during a botched raid on her apartment.
Asked whether he wishes he could have run the city during different, less tumultuous times, Fischer said he believes the challenges offered him the opportunity to make Louisville stand out.
“Louisville is positioned in a much different place now to compete for big projects and win, to attract people to move here,” he said. “The real challenging stuff came later in the third term. I’m glad we had an experienced team at the helm of the city in what was the toughest time that America had seen in 50 to 100 years.”
Fischer’s focus on growing tourism through “bourbonism” and the multi-million dollar expansion of the downtown convention center, along with his more recent handling of police department scandals and mass racial justice protests, earned him both supporters and detractors.
With days to go in his third and final term, Fischer sat down with LPM News to discuss his legacy, policing and how Louisville grows from here. Excerpts of that interview, edited for length and clarity, are below:
Breonna Taylor, policing and ‘impossible decisions’
During 2020, we saw both the pandemic, as well as the police killing of Breonna Taylor and the resulting protests, mainly downtown. The administration took a lot of flack for how the city responded to the protests. People died, including David “YaYa” McAtee. Could the city have handled that differently in a way that didn't create the crisis that we had?
Well, when you look at protests being in 2,000 cities across America, I think you have to answer that question for the whole country. We had our own version of it, obviously.
The loss and the pain to Breonna Taylor's family, Tyler Gerth’s family, David McAtee's family, is what you have to start by focusing on. Nobody deserves that. But when tragedy strikes, then the question is, how do you respond to it? And impossible decisions happen in the midst of these. For instance, in the first night, seven people are shot within the crowd, and you've got to make a decision. Do you let them bleed out and die? Or do you disperse tear gas so the crowd will move out? Those are horrible decisions to make. But for that 100 days, it was like that everyday. What are the dozens of least bad decisions you can make?
I'd have one meeting where people would come in and say, ‘Protesters are out of control, you gotta crack down on them, the city will never recover.’ And the very next meeting will be people coming in and saying, ‘Our police are out of control, you’ve got to defund the police.’ That in the snapshot was what that summer was like.
Our North Stars were, we're going to get to the truth of what happened and we're going to hold the people accountable. That did not lead to quick decision-making, because it takes time to investigate these things. But that was a time when people were very emotional, obviously. And they wanted quick decisions. The decisions they wanted me to make would have been wrong based on what they wanted at the time. The Department of Justice did a nice job investigating and all that takes us up to today.
The killing of Breonna Taylor kind of led to a cascading crisis for city government, for the Louisville Metro Police Department. We've now seen officers indicted for assaulting residents with drinks, lying on search warrant applications. You could argue that the city is cleaning up LMPD, and I know there's a long series of reforms that you all have undertaken, but you can also argue that the DOJ, the FBI and protesters putting pressure on the city forced this cleanup. What more do you think could have been done before 2020 to have avoided LMPD becoming the liability in the crisis that it became?
Anytime you have a large organization you're going to have outlier-type of behavior, whether it's a company or a church or a police department. And I hate that. If you go into any police department in the country and do a deep dive like we did with the Hilliard Heintz report or the DOJ is doing right now, you're going to find problems.
So, my regret is that there is not a system in place that’s an accreditation system that really goes deep into organizations. In 2016, we were named a Model City for 21st Century Policing. In 2019, I bring experts in to look at the police department, and they say you guys are in good shape. Obviously, these did not go deep enough to really understand the validity of a search warrant, for example. So I regret that there's not a process like that that would help America's policing out there.
I'm hoping the Accountability and Improvement Bureau that we've already established and is in place will work with whatever comes out of the DOJ investigation to strengthen policing in Louisville and be a model for the rest of the country. That's really my hope and my dream.
Do you believe that these scandals that have bubbled to the surface from LMPD are an outlier? Or are they indicative of something more systemic that was being missed before 2020?
It’s a cultural problem with policing in America. It’s not a servant model of policing, it's more of a warrior model of policing. Police officers need to be guardians and welcomed into communities in that way. Until the culture of policing changes, you're going to continue to have these outlier problems, which are not acceptable. This starts back in the training and how officers are trained. You've seen an overhaul of our training regimen because of that, bringing in civilians as part of the training practices here. [You’ve seen that] with the LMPD command force and everybody has to exemplify this model of guardianship.
Craig Greenberg is going to take office on Jan. 2 with a DOJ investigation hanging over his head and, in all likelihood, a consent decree to negotiate in the coming years. Outgoing Police Chief Erika Shields has said she thinks that the DOJ investigation is going to be “a scathing report.” Some of your critics, like Jeffersontown Mayor Bill Dieruf, have said it will be an indictment of city leadership. What are you expecting from this report?
Look, anybody that's critical about this stuff just hasn't been in the arena to understand that mayors are in the reality business, just like police departments. The reason why I ordered a top to bottom review of the police department with Hillard Heintz is that a tragedy took place here. I wanted to understand why. So, what I expect from the DOJ is much of what we've already had in the Hillard Heintz report.
We didn't wait on the DOJ report to start improving. When there's gaps, you get to work on them right away. LMPD has 150 different improvement programs either complete or underway right now. So, I think the DOJ report is going to be a lot of that. Their job is to issue a scathing report and that's going to mean, here's the truth of what happened and here's where certain people were out of control. Then the question is, is it a pattern or practice? In other words, is it a systemic failing? And if it is then how do you cure those systems as a result of that? If that's where the police department is, [the DOJ investigation] will improve policing in Louisville.
What do you think will be your legacy as mayor on public safety and policing?
A troubled time in America, of which we were part of. When you have a once-every-50-years racial justice protest in a city, during a once-in-a-century pandemic, by definition, it’s going to be difficult. It's difficult, because white America has got to say, “What is the legacy of racial injustice in America? And how's it working out for people of color?” Not so good, right? So it's going to make people upset with things and they should be upset, so that we can change to a society that provides better opportunities for everybody to move forward.
The job is to be realistic about that and double down. Equity was a major focus of mine from day one. Of course, we've intensified that even more after the summer of 2020. So I hope people will see the city of Louisville weathered a significant storm of pandemic and racial justice protests and came out of that stronger, and as a model for how to go through a tough time. If you're around long enough, and you’ve got a big enough operation, challenges are going to take place. You're measured, I think, by how you address those challenges.
And do you think that your administration would measure up to having weathered those challenges?
We never shied away from the truth. We always held people accountable. I regret these instances took place. So the question is, can you stop those? How do we go about doing that? In terms of responding with daylight, with action and corrective action in particular, we absolutely have met that standard.
Economic growth, immigration and west Louisville
You came into office in 2011 as the ‘businessman mayor.’ Do you think that you were successful at meeting people's expectations for economic development?
The numbers would say, yes. Unemployment was 9% when I came into office. It's 3% now. We created 80,000 jobs, 3,000 new businesses and we focused on these four clusters that I talk about all the time: wellness and aging innovation, advanced manufacturing, logistics and food and beverage. So, as you go through each one of these, they progressed significantly in terms of our global stature. And then we also increased our wages in the community.
I'm really proud, two weeks ago we launched a new industry by converting the Louisville Gardens into soundstages and movie studios. We've got the demand for that, but the people in Hollywood said if you want to get to the next level we need these types of production studios to do that. So, that's going to create a whole new industry of creatives and digital entertainment that we don't have in our city right now but, clearly, is an industry focused on the future.
Rightly or wrongly, people compare Louisville to places like Nashville in Indianapolis. And despite Louisville’s economic growth over the last decade, it isn't necessarily in the same place as those cities are right now. What do you think has prevented Louisville from following the same trajectory as we see in a place like Nashville?
Nashville has been one of the outlier cities in the country, along with Austin, Texas, and Denver, Colorado, that have really grown in a nice way. They have leadership in the private sector that's thinking big, a lot of people moving in from different parts of the world that are not afraid to challenge the status quo.
I'd like to see that more here in Louisville, where people are thinking bigger, challenging the status quo, working together. You know, frankly, I don't want the growth that Nashville has. The infrastructure problems they're having down there, the cost of living problems that they have down there. I'd like to grow a little bit faster than what we are. We grow around 1% a year. The strength of our economic industries that I talked about, the launching of the new creative industry, puts us in good stead for future growth there.
Between 2010 and 2020 Louisville’s population grew by roughly 35,000 people. Despite all the new businesses and housing developments in areas like NuLu, Butchertown, Germantown, the fastest growth was actually in the southeast suburbs. How do you see Louisville Metro growing from here?
What we call ‘edge neighborhoods’ around downtown, like Crescent Hill, the Highlands Smoketown, the Russell neighborhood, these areas are starting to grow very quickly as well. The downtown challenge is: As a result of the pandemic, a lot of people are working from home right now. That's going to be interesting to see how that works out over time. Eighty thousand people used to come downtown every day to work. Now, on a good day, it's probably half to two-thirds of that. So, that has long-term ramifications. One of the things that we've done to offset that, you know, was really doubled down on tourism. We created the whole concept of ‘bourbonism’. So people want Napa Valley for wine. They come to Louisville as a trailhead for bourbon. That's been extraordinarily successful.
The southeast quadrant has really grown rapidly because of the cost of housing there has been very, very affordable. And then you're seeing areas where we have our dense new-American or refugee/immigrant populations. Preston Highway is a prime example. They're starting to grow very rapidly, as well. We've got these different nodes around the city that are growing and contributing in many new ways.
One of the big drivers of Louisville’s growth has been the increase in immigrant populations. How do you see that shaping the city over the next 10, 20 years?
Refugees or immigrants bring, the data shows, more entrepreneurship, greater educational achievement as well. They contribute at the high-wage end and then at the lower wages, as well. It's not unusual, in one generation, that the trajectory of the family totally changes. My wife, Alex, her mom and dad were dislocated by the Greek civil war. [They had a] third and sixth grade education. In one generation, they have a PhD, an MD and an MBA. This is the story of immigrants and refugees in America. They bring so much and they make our city so much more interesting as well.
We've got about 80,000 foreign-born residents right now and I think that'll probably double in the next five years or so. That's really important because they represent about 35-40% of our population growth, and you've got to grow as a city to create opportunity. This is just a great way to grow.
With the West End opportunity partnership and this massive tax increment financing district that's coming to West Louisville, there's been a lot of concern from residents about the potential for displacement of both long-time residents and renters. As your administration has pushed for more investment in West Louisville, how have you thought about that balance between development and displacement or gentrification? And what advice would you give about that balancing act to the next mayor?
You've got to involve folks like the Russell neighborhood and Russell: Place of Promise. We had over 250 meetings with these folks in the early stages of development. And then there's ongoing mechanisms in place, like R:PoP, to make sure the growth is manageable and inclusive. People cannot be dislocated or it's a failure.
The West End Opportunity Partnership is a concept by the state where the additional taxes that are generated will go back into the West End. And that will be managed by the residents of the West End. You saw a lot of distrust when that came out and that's just an indication of how much historical mistrust there is, because people have been promised things before but they haven't come through. That's why you just got to communicate constantly, be transparent on what's taking place and it's got to positively impact the folks.
It's a double edged sword, right? People say, “We want more amenities. We want nicer neighborhoods.” But then when the amenities came in, they say, “Well, we're being gentrified. We're being pushed out.” You've got to figure out a way to do that both and I think the Russell neighborhood has been a good model for us to do that. The West End’s trajectory is very positive. Right now I'm very optimistic about the future. Just involve the citizens at every step.