June 23, 2010

Jerry's kids

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

With 20 applicants seeking to replace the late George Unseld, who died earlier this month after collapsing in his third floor office at City Hall, residents in the 6th District are anxious to hear from the councilman’s would-be successors.

“I’m eager to hear their plan for Old Louisville. The neighborhood needs a lot of work,” says Ron Harris, vice-chairman of the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council. “And Councilman Unseld did a great deal for this community and for the California neighborhood as well.”

A week before his death, Unseld partnered with Metro Parks to finalize plans for six new tennis courts in bustling Central Park. The $300,000 renovation project will bring new courts in the fall, and it’s that type of commitment Harris wants Unseld’s replacement to have for further restoration projects.

“The man spilled his blood in his office to do his job. He was ill for so long, but he was always was there, and he always worked hard,” he says. “The seat shouldn’t be a goody to be handed out. It should be a thoughtful decision and needs to be someone whose heart is in this district and whose door will always be open to the people in all the neighborhoods.”

Political chatter suggests the favorite to take Unseld’s seat is former Metro Council candidate Ken Herndon, who narrowly lost his 2008 Democratic primary bid against Unseld by 112 votes. Many believe Unseld’s narrow victory was due in large part to a nasty homophobic mailer delivered to voters just days before the election.

The glossy, double-sided flier featured a doctored photo of Herndon — who is gay — transposed atop the body of a man embracing two other men kissing at a gay-pride parade. In addition to relaying several homophobic slurs, the attack piece stated: “(Herndon) wants us to elect him because he designed new garbage cans?! I guess when you live a life of trash, you become pretty familiar with garbage cans.”

Herndon believes the flier — which Unseld adamantly denied any connection to — cost him the race. Many residents and a handful of whispering council members are rumored to concur.

Just this week, the Fairness Campaign’s Political Action Committee endorsed Herndon. While Herndon might be the front-runner, there are other candidates with impressive résumés who are worthy of the consideration. Among them is Dan Borsch, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth’s campaign manager in 2006.

The 33-year-old Democrat is the co-owner of Burger Boy restaurant and made an unsuccessful bid against Unseld in 2004. Borsch is well liked in the district and among the Democratic party’s leadership, but he’s also an outspoken political activist as co-founder of the Facebook group “Say NO to Bridge Tolls,” which fiercely opposes tolling as a means to pay for the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project.

Another applicant at the top of the list is civil rights attorney Keith B. Hunter, a name that was being shopped around last year as a replacement when rumors were spreading that Unseld was considering retirement.

In addition to being close friends with Unseld, Hunter has a résumé that closely mirrors the late councilman’s legacy in many respects. In 2006, for instance, Hunter represented two African-American men in a lawsuit against a pair of Fourth Street Live businesses for alleged racial discrimination, which fits with Unseld’s passion for social justice.

Hunter also could benefit from the fact that civil rights leaders have stated publicly that they would prefer an African-American retain the 6th District seat to maintain minority representation on the council.

“During the debate on merger, the African-American community was promised six seats by its proponents,” says Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP. “There’s a possibility it won’t, and it’s up to the African-American community to remind them of that commitment.”

There’s been a backlash against the NAACP for espousing that logic, and critics charge that keeping the seat black is nothing more than a “racial quota” in the diverse district.

But the civil rights group’s supporters argue that because the campaign that created the council was based in part on whitewashing the old city, which — in the words of Mayor Jerry Abramson — was “getting poorer, blacker and older,” it’s important to be upfront about the council’s overall lack of racial diversity.

“Everybody should be concerned first with the qualifications of the individual who gets the seat,” Cunningham agrees. “But the African-American community should be concerned with the council’s diversity.”