In the Democratic primary for the Louisville-area congressional seat, a white candidate ran against a black candidate, with the black candidate positioning herself as the more progressive/left/anti-status quo candidate. In the Democratic primary for mayor, there were two leading white candidates and two leading black ones, with the two black candidates positioning themselves as the more progressive/left/anti-status quo candidates.
The campaigns were similar—and the results were remarkably so. Tim Findley, a pastor and one of the black mayoral candidates, won some West Louisville precincts, as well as some around Shively and Newburg, all areas of the city with larger black populations than other areas. Shameka Parrish-Wright, the local leader of a national group called The Bail Project and the other leading black mayoral candidate, won precincts in areas like Germantown in the center of the city that include lots of younger, white, very liberal people. Findley (15.5) and Parrish-Wright (21.6) combined for 37 percent of the vote in the mayoral race.
In the congressional race, Attica Scott, who is black and serves in Kentucky’s House of Representatives, won precincts in West Louisville and other areas with large black populations and also some of the same areas in the center of the city that Parrish-Wright did. She won 37 percent of the total vote. (This article relies on data and maps from Robert Kahne, a local data expert and podcaster, as well as WFPL’s Justin Hicks and Ryland Barton.) Scott won about 30,000 total votes, Parrish-Wright and Findley a combined 32,000.
Morgan McGarvey, who serves in Kentucky’s State Senate and is white, won the House race with 63 percent of the total vote, including virtually every precinct in the Eastern parts of the Louisville area, which are generally more white, upper-income and less liberal. Craig Greenberg, a white business executive, won the mayor’s race, also carrying virtually every precinct in the Eastern part of the Louisville area. David Nicholson, who is white and currently serves as the Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk, won a lot of precincts in the Southern parts of the Louisville area, which are also more white and conservative than West Louisville.
Greenberg won 41 percent of the vote; Nicholson 17 percent. So they combined for 58 percent of the total vote, fairly close to McGarvey.
So it’s likely that many Louisville voters choose Scott and either Parrish/Wright or Findley—or they chose McGarvey and either Greenberg or Nicholson.
It’s fairly clear that Greenberg and McGarvey won the plurality of white voters in their primaries.
We don’t have enough data yet to know exactly which candidate won the black vote—McGarvey and Greenberg definitely won some precincts in heavily-black areas too. What we do know is that support for the black candidates was heavily-concentrated in black areas and those with a lot of white progressives.
Louisville overall is about 22 percent black, 66 percent non-Hispanic white. So the Democratic primary electorate is likely around a quarter black.
These racial dynamics are notable for five reasons. First, race affects virtually every issue in America. Second, Democrats both locally and nationally have embraced black causes and people in a more overt way in the years since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Third, Louisville, unlike many medium-sized or large cities, has never had a black mayor or congressman.
Fourth, this primary took place almost exactly two years after the police killing here of a black woman named Breonna Taylor sparked months of protests. Parrish-Wright was one of the main leaders of the protest movement. Findley and Scott were prominent activists in it, with Scott being arrested at one point amid the protests. Finally, Louisville has had a recent spike in murders–and about 75 percent of the victims are black. Greenberg in particular emphasized fighting crime in his campaign.
The two campaigns had similar dynamics. Greenberg and McGarvey raised significantly more money than their campaign rivals and picked up most of the endorsements of the city’s elected officials, including many black ones. That money and elite support gave them two major advantages. For months, because of that fundraising and support gap, the local media treated McGarvey and Greenberg as the de-facto winners. (I did too.) In the race’s final days, Greenberg’s commercials were running constantly on television, unlike his rivals.
There is now a lot of discussion in the city about these racial dynamics—why isn’t Louisville boosting its black candidates? In my view, this is a complicated story, one of power, race, class, ideology and individual candidates. Lots of cities (and the United States overall) have embraced a certain kind of black candidate: one with some connections to elite, white-dominated institutions like major law firms, big corporations and prestigious colleges; an ability to put white people at ease; not having grounded their career in protest movements or activism; a business-friendly, left-but-not-too-left ideology. This is a complicated dynamic. An Obama-like black person is not necessarily more correct on the issues or a better leader than black people who have been pastors or activists or are more left-wing. But Obama himself was pretty good!
Either way, those types of black politicians tend to more easily be able to gain power, in part by getting the backing of the overwhelming-white community of major donors and elected officials.
Findley, Parrish-Wright and Scott are not those kinds of politicians. Their prominence came in part from the 2020 protests. They don’t work at big law firms in town. I think it’s an open question of whether Louisville will embrace a black leader, particularly as mayor. Establishment-friendly black candidates (David Tandy, David James) have in the past found themselves watching as the city’s political elites embraced an even-more-establishment-friendly white male candidate to be the next mayor. But a black person with a business-friendly reputation and an Ivy League degree likely would have raised more money than the black candidates in these races and might have truly had a chance to win. (Greenberg attended Harvard Law School and helped run a Louisville-based chain of fancy hotels; McGarvey works at a law firm).
I was pretty sure that Louisville Democrats were not going to elect an activist--y, anti-establishment black person to a major job—and that was a correct assumption. I don’t think an anti-establishment white, Asian or Hispanic person would have won either. The strength of Greenberg’s candidacy in particular stemmed from a perception from many powerful people in Louisville that the 2020 protests showed a city with disorder in need of better management, not a city that needed a leader who was determined to aggressively take on the police department and reform it by any means necessary.
While black candidates lost in Louisville, Tuesday night saw a Pittsburgh-area congressional district choose a black woman named Summer Lee who is allied with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to be its next U.S. House member. Pittsburgh is 23% percent black, about the same as Louisville. So it’s not impossible for a left-wing black candidate to thrive in a white-majority city.
It’s important to emphasize that individual candidates matter too. Lee in Pittsburgh really coalesced the city’s left wing and black community around her in a way that Scott in particular did not. This is a credit to McGarvey, who is quite progressive himself and had a lot of strong relationships with major progressive groups and individuals and black leaders and groups in Louisville.
Charles Booker, with his fundraising and support base from his 2020 run for Senate, would have started off with advantages that these black candidates did not if he had run for mayor or the House. Since he opted to run for the U.S. Senate, a job other prominent Democrats aren’t seeking in part because it is almost impossible to win, we don’t know if he would have won the mayoral or House races. (I don’t have a scale to rank people on Obama-ness and am not going to develop one. Everyone finds Booker charming and likable; he has some left-wing stands but is establishment-friendly; he was also heavily-involved in the 2020 protests.)
That said, I’m pretty skeptical about all of the “I would have supported Charles for mayor or the House” I have heard in this community for the last year. “I would vote for a or that black candidate, just not any of the ones running” is not a particularly convincing statement to hear, particularly if you are like me, a black person who wasn't born yesterday and has heard lots of promises and great rhetoric on racial issues but seen much less action and results.
Thanks for reading. If you have more data on the mayoral results, I am looking for that. Please send my way. (email@example.com)