Oftentimes in life there’s tragedy and triumph. The way you respond when you’re knocked down and get back up can define you.
Interview by Tawana Bain | Photographed by Kylene White
As his historic 12-year term draws to a close, publisher Tawana Bain sat down with outgoing Mayor Greg Fischer for this month’s episode of the Today’s Woman Show, which will air on Friday, December 9, at 9am on WHAS, to reflect on the trials and triumphs of a term that will be forever remembered for Breonna Taylor, racial unrest and the rise of bourbonism.
TB: Very soon, you’ll be passing the torch to a new mayor. I guess the best Christmas gift is that you will be able to spend time with family and those beautiful grandchildren.
GF: Yeah, it’s a little bittersweet. Obviously, being the Mayor of a great city like this, you can help a lot of people. It’s a wonderful platform to see how we can help human potential flourish. So I’m gonna miss that. I won’t miss the parts where people aren’t very helpful, when people are critical, but they don’t have ideas. So, it’s definitely a bittersweet time. But we have two new grandkids within the last three years. And it was like white doves flying, a new chapter of love in my life. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them for sure.
TB: We went through a very tough 2020. We would be remiss without having that conversation. There has been a lot of criticism — on how things were handled with the police, on how things were handled in the neighborhood and various communities…When you hear people say “the way he handled that Breonna Taylor thing was terrible or performative,” how do you respond to that?
GF: What I usually get from people is “I don’t agree with everything that you did, but I don’t know what I would have done differently.” It was an extraordinarily difficult time because obviously, we had the pandemic. And then we had Breonna Taylor’s tragic killing. I think we want to think about her and her mom and her family. First, Tamika Palmer has been an incredible, soothing voice for the city and the country and is just a real class act. She has gone through this situation that nobody asked to be put into.
But I think of an image of back-to-back meetings in my office. The first meeting is people coming in and saying, “You need to defund the police.” The very next meeting is people coming in saying, “You need to crack down on those protesters.” And that’s really what that whole time was about. It was the first time in 50 years where we’ve had major racial justice protests in our country. People are going to be uncomfortable and — guess what — they need to be. Because the work of race in our country still has an awfully long way to go.
So you have to protect First Amendment rights, freedom of expression, and then you have to minimize any type of damage to people or property… And, of course, we’re in a state that has ridiculous gun laws, where you can walk down Main Street with an assault rifle. So, we had people doing that throughout this whole thing, sometimes hundreds of people. It was a very tense time of over 100 nights of protests. But, in retrospect, here is how I look at it: There were four major cities in the spotlight back then: Minneapolis, Louisville, Portland, Seattle. We’ve emerged from that quicker and stronger longer than any city. It was uncomfortable, but it was meant to be uncomfortable. We have to honor a time like that in our city’s history by being better. I ordered an independent review of our police department because Breonna Taylor’s tragedy should never have happened.
TB: When people dismiss the action that you took with police as just performative, why was it important that you sent a message by making the decision regardless of whether Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Steve Conrad was going to retire or not? Why was that important to you?
GF: Well, when you think about one of the roots of the challenge with Breonna Taylor’s tragedy was that there were no body cameras evident during that search warrant. Then, when the David McAtee incident took place, the body cameras were off with two LMPD police officers. We got the body cameras so that they could show the evidence of what’s taking place in real time. And, unfortunately, they were not on in either one of those situations. And I felt like I needed to send a message to the police department that these body cameras are here for a purpose. We have to have that type of historical documentation.
TB: What are some of the moments that you’re most proud of over the last 12 years?
GF: Well, I do think we can use summer 2020 as a moment of defining this, about how we reacted and got through it and what we’re doing today. Oftentimes in life there’s tragedy and triumph. The way you respond when you’re knocked down and get back up can define you.
And I think our city should be proud of the way we’ve handled that.
When you look at the more traditional measures, though, there’s been $24 billion of improvements in the built environment of Louisville. So, obviously, the city is a very different place. Our skyline has changed. We have new entertainment districts, 100 new hotels, the creation of bourbonism — bourbon and food tourism has just skyrocketed. We’re seeing tourists from all over the world that we’ve never seen before.
One of the things I’m most proud of and why I ran for a third term was to make sure that we had college scholarships funded for every Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) graduate. That’s the Evolve 502 program. When you think about the root cause of most challenges that come through a Mayor’s office, it’s poverty. And the number one disrupter of poverty is a post-secondary education or credential. Now, every JCPS family can’t say, “We can’t afford to send our kids to school to college.” Through the Evolve 502 Scholarships — either through Jefferson Community and Technical College or Simmons College — if they’re Pell Grant eligible, finish up at U of L. You can get that free. So that’s life-changing for so many folks.
Another big issue is the growth of our foreign-born community. I made this a big emphasis because I think our kids should grow up in a city that looks like the world because we’re globalizing quickly. Our foreign-born populations growing from about 30,000 people to 80,000. It’ll double again over the next five years or so. It just makes us more entrepreneurial and more interesting as a city. With the affordable housing crisis, we took on over $100 million in investment; the previous record was $7 million. So we’ve had many instances where I think people will look back and say this was a transformative time. Our city is being talked about on the world stage in ways that we never were before in positive and exciting ways. So that was a big goal of mine to try to change the perception of who we were as a city.
TB: Now I want to dream with you just a little bit. Right. It’s Christmas time and what better time to dream? If you had one more term, what would you do?
GF: Well, there’s so much to do because we’ve created a great platform with wonderful momentum behind us right now. When you think about the growth of bourbonism and downtown and the energy that that brings, number one, our affordable housing needs are immense. They are immense all over the country. But we can continue to chip away at that each and every year.
The work-from-home issue has really created an interesting dynamic for downtown. There are not many people downtown during the day. At night, it’s more than before the pandemic. So that’s an issue. But then public safety is going to be there. The Department of Justice will be releasing an investigation pretty soon going back into the Breonna Taylor tragedy. So there’s going to be really a lot of focus on building police and community legitimacy and accountability improvement within the police department.
But you always want to focus on public safety as the number one issue and what has been a heck of a problem here and all over the country is gun violence. Fortunately, in Louisville, this year, homicides are down about 15%, shootings are down 30%. But when these legislators just loosened gun laws to where anybody can buy a gun, anyone can march down Main Street with an assault rifle. As I said, that’s led to a lot more gun violence. We’ve got to work with the legislature to get some commonsense reform in here. You’ve got to work that side of it. And then you got to work the prevention and intervention side of it as well.
TB: Talk a little bit about what it’s like working with very strong women and how you help really empower them to be involved in the process?
GF: Probably three quarters to 80% of my top staff have been women. And I don’t mean to stereotype, but what I have found here is women not only have the smarts and the drive to get it done, but their hearts are more open. And I think that’s really important in a Mayor’s office because I say a good Mayor’s office has the head of the Chief Executive Officer, but the heart of a social worker.
We’ve had an amazing run of strong leaders through my office and I’ll start with the Deputy Mayor Ellen Hudson, who was there from day one and will be there to the very last day. She’s ably led the city through some triumph and some tragedy as well. But when you go down the list from Katie Daly or U.S. Congresswoman Haley Stevens, Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt as Director of Public Health; Sadiqa Reynolds was on my original team as well, Mary Ellen Weiderwohl, Theresa Reno-Weber… and there are many more of them. I’m going to be in trouble because I left some out. I think about Nicole Yates as well who’s gone on to lead big organizations, not just in the city, but around the country.
TB: How did you support their professional development and growth under your leadership?
GF: Well, one, whether they’re women or not, it’s kind of the business system that we developed, which I bought from my private sector work. Flexibility is a major issue for women, certainly more than men in my view, because most women have the childrearing responsibility. Whether we like it or not, it’s still that way. So you have to make sure that they have the flexibility to get work done. And so that also helped us then translate that into increased benefits for women within Metro government and throughout the city.
When the pandemic came along, and you think about single moms leading households looking at eviction, we weren’t going to allow that to happen. We deployed $95 million for eviction prevention, and the White House recognized us as the very best in the country in getting that out. When you think about our Healthy Babies initiative…the healthy baby results are better for the women that are low income, under resourced women. Their maternal results are better than women out in the East End, the more affluent part of Louisville. So [we] put programs in place like that to help the women. We even have diapers and diaper drives now. If women need diapers, there’s a diaper bank that they can go to.
We’ve elevated our Office for Women under Gretchen Hunt in a significant way over the past couple of years. And then, internally, we instituted paid maternity leave up to six months…. So I’ve made it a conscious effort to both improve policies within Metro government for women and then broader policies for the city.
TB: If there is anything that you could do over these past 12 years, what would it be?
GF: Well, you’ll probably see my business hat here. I’ve always believed in audits and certifications for departments. And when you go through our metro departments, you’ll see that many of them are nationally certified in different areas. But what I’ve learned about these accreditations, whether it be at the jail or the police department, they don’t go deep enough … So that’s more of a business standpoint.
From a personal standpoint, one of the most beautiful things about being Mayor, is that everybody feels like you’re their neighbor. And so no matter where you go you get that, “Hey, Mayor,” or “Hey, Greg.” We’ve got a big city. It’s 400 square miles and 800,000 people. So, as much as I’ve worked, I’m known as kind of the people’s Mayor, because I’m everywhere. I’m sorry I couldn’t get everywhere all the time.