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May 19, 2010

Ode to Jerry: Louisville at the crossroads

When I arrived in Louisville almost a decade and a half ago, I had a great feeling about the place. I still do (most of the time). Quite frankly, the people who complain the most about Louisville are Louisvillians who are not well traveled or the ones who romanticize the rest of the country.

So, it’s not a surprise that many of these bellyachers leave, only to return eventually. As Rick Pitino said about Celtics fans during his tenure — they’re the “fellowship of the miserable.” Leave already! Those of us who are halfway balanced are free to see this city for what it is and what it can be.

I am amused by the silly comparisons of Louisville to places that are not in our peer group. No, Louisville is not New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Dallas. These are not cities. These are mega-cities. There are only 10 or 15 of those places in the country. When you talk about normal cities, many aspects of Louisville stack up pretty well.

This week’s mayoral primaries and the general election this fall present opportunities for Louisville that she has not really enjoyed for 25 years — the chance to chart a new course. Don’t get me wrong — I think Jerry Abramson has been a great mayor for this city. Has he made mistakes? Sure. Name a politician who hasn’t. The bottom line is the city has come a long way under his leadership.

Abramson brought something to the table that many mayors do not — he really loves his city. It’s not fake with Jerry. When he talks about Louisville, he is always hopeful. He speaks of her not like she is going to be, but like she already is the greatest city in the world. I like that. Every city needs a leader like that — one who has reverence for her past, pride in her present, and faith in her future. But Jerry is making the right move by finally turning off the lights on his mayoral stay. He’s taken us as far as he can. It’s time for new blood.

I was against merger, but I can’t think of a better man to have guided the city through that transition. But for all his greatness and goodness to (and for) the city, he (and we) know it’s time he move on. Remember, with the exception of four years (1998-2002), Jerry has been mayor of Louisville since 1985. Let’s put that in context — I was a senior in high school in 1985. Wow!

The question now is: Where do we go from here? With Jerry’s exit, Louisville is at a crossroads — an identity and future to choose. But we must be careful.

My hometown of Atlanta had to make such a choice in the early ’70s. It chose correctly in electing Maynard Jackson mayor. Jackson wasn’t the right choice because he was black. He was the right choice because he was a visionary. He understood the state of Georgia was a craphole, but that Atlanta could be great. That’s what Louisville needs.

Make no mistake, Louisville is the gem of Kentucky. This is a state in which Republicans rejected Anne Northup’s gubernatorial bid because the ones outside of Louisville thought she was too liberal. Are you serious? At this point (and I’m making a political prediction because this was written before the primary on May 18), these same Republicans have probably chosen space cadet tea-partier Rand Paul as their candidate for Jim Bunning’s Senate seat. Bunning — talk about somebody staying around too long.

So, let’s face it — for the foreseeable future, Kentucky is screwed, done, kaput, finished! But, Louisville has a chance. Like Atlanta, we can be the one bright light in the midst of madness. But we don’t need a run-of-the-mill, traditional, narrow-minded politician to do it. We need a new mayor with an innovative mind, bigger dreams and an even bigger heart that allows him (or her) to ignore the BS “right way” to get it all done. I don’t care if he blows up I-64 along the way.

As Jerry “The King” Abramson exits, let’s hope we choose his successor well. Think big, Louisville.

Until next time, have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.