What The Establishment's Consolidation Around Greenberg and McGarvey Tells Us About Louisville Politics
Louisville’s Democratic political class (campaign donors, former and current officials) mobilized behind Craig Greenberg’s mayoral campaign early last year, providing him with endorsements and campaign money that both gave him a huge advantage compared to other people already running and likely scared off some potential candidates from entering the race. After Congressman John Yarmuth announced his retirement in October, essentially the same thing, with many of the same people, happened again. State Sen. Morgan McGarvey got a flood of endorsements and money, making him the favorite and likely clearing the field of potential opponents.
Last month, this consolidation around Greenberg and McGarvey was completed. Yarmuth formally endorsed McGarvey, while a bloc of Democratic city council members endorsed Greenberg. There have not been many candidate forums or a public debate yet in the race. Most people in Louisville likely don’t know who many of the candidates are. But Greenberg has been endorsed by the city’s political bigwigs over a field of candidates that includes two influential black leaders in Louisville, Tim Findley and Shameka Parrish-Wright, as well as David Nicholson, who is white and has been Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk since 2006. McGarvey has been endorsed in a U.S. House race against State Rep. Attica Scott, who is black and one of the city’s most local leaders on racial issues.
So Louisville’s Democratic powerbrokers, after the city’s politics were dominated by current Mayor Greg Fischer and Yarmuth, two white men who are the scions of upper-income, well-connected families, decided to embrace as the city’s next two major leaders two different white men who are the scions of upper-income, well-connected families. This was quite a choice. Louisville has never had a black or female mayor or a black U.S. House representative. The protests in 2020 seemed to be a call for a change in the city’s direction—namely a bigger voice for black people. (Louisville’s population is about 66 percent non-Hispanic white, slightly above the nation overall (60 percent); it’s 22 percent black, compared to 13 percent in the United States overall.)
McGarvey and Greenberg had long been positioning themselves for these runs—they aren’t at all candidates who represent the ethos of those protests or a changing of the guard in Louisville.
It’s important to emphasize several caveats. First, these endorsements don't guarantee victory. The primaries aren’t till May 17, and as I said before, most voters likely don't know who any of the candidates are. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with white men being elected to major offices. I’m probably one of the biggest John Yarmuth enthusiasts whose last name isn’t Yarmuth. Third, anti-Semitism has been and remains and very powerful, negative force in American life. So it’s commendable that Louisville has elected a Jewish mayor (Jerry Abramson), a Jewish congressman (Yarmuth) and maybe elect another Jewish mayor (Greenberg.) Finally, while the black candidates largely aren’t getting endorsements, some black elected officials are making endorsements ….of Greenberg and McGarvey.
But I think the consolidation behind McGarvey and Greenberg is worth exploration and honestly, a little examination and perhaps critical self-evaluation in the community. First of all, this consolidation matters electorally. Greenberg and McGarvey have raised much more money than their opponents, which will pay for tv ads, campaign signs and other things that will allow them to become better well-known than their rivals. And if voters aren’t convinced by those ads or other campaign tactics, these endorsements are really helpful. Voters who don’t know who to choose will likely take cues from elected officials that they do know. And almost all of those endorsements have gone to Greenberg and McGarvey.
Secondly, my sense is that this consolidation happened somewhat organically–or at least not totally consciously. Many of the people who have embraced these two candidates are strong Democrats who likely supported President Biden’s decision to promise to choose a black woman for the Supreme Court. In Louisville, like in the rest of America, white people, particularly the top 5 percent of so, have significantly more wealth and political power and influence than black people. So in our society, the inclusion of black people, particularly in powerful spaces, often comes from some intentional effort to include them. If Biden had just asked his five closest advisers for their favorite judge, I doubt Ketanji Brown Jackson would be the nominee.
For Louisville to have more black people in the top jobs, it will likely require the city’s powerbrokers to actually consider the elevation of black people to be a priority. We actually have an example of this in Kentucky—Mitch McConnell directly and aggressively interjected himself into the process to get Daniel Cameron elected attorney general.
So how did Louisville end up in this current dynamic? Here are six ways to think about this:
1. It is probably not the case that Greenberg and McGarvey are far and away the best people in Louisville to be mayor and congressman.
I know McGarvey personally, agree with him on most issues and think he is both smart and well-intentioned. I don’t know Greenberg, but many of my friends do and they speak well of him as well. But I am skeptical that it was just a meritocratic process that produced two white men from well-connected families as the clear favorites.
2. Some of the endorsements of Greenberg and McGarvey are really anti-endorsements of Findley, Parrish-Wright and Scott. It’s hard to know if those anti-endorsements are grounded in justified concerns.
The private buzz is that Scott is hard to work with, Findley and Parrish-Wright lack experience and none of those three could win a general election.
I tend to be very skeptical of electability claims–in part because “Candidate X can’t win” is almost always said by someone who doesn't like Candidate X anyway. It’s often a pretext.
Also, Yarmuth, Barack Obama and Donald Trump are among the politicians who couldn’t win until they ….won. Finally, Louisville is about 60 percent Democratic and partisanship is very strong right now. If one of these three won the primary and say Yarmuth, Abramson, Andy Beshear and other prominent Democrats in the community strongly endorsed them, I think any of those three would be favorites to win.
In terms of experience, running a bail group and months of protests (Parrish-Wright) or a church (Findley) I would argue are more relevant experiences right now in Louisville than having been a developer and businessman (Greenberg.) Neither Greenberg nor Findley nor Parrish-Wright has ever held elected office. Scott has been in elective office about 10 years, same as McGarvey.
I gather that Scott has annoyed lots of her fellow politicians and activists, including some black ones. I’m not sure what to make of that. Many Democratic officials here and nationally find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders annoying too. That reflects both ideological differences (the people who find progressive lawmakers annoying are usually more centrist) and differences in roles. You will always have politicians who are pushing the political system aggressively, fully aware that their proposals won’t be adopted immediately but playing a long-term game, as well as politicians who are focused on more incremental, immediate change.
It’s hard to tell if Scott annoys people because she is a rabble-rouser in the form of AOC and they don’t like rabble-rousers or if she is a particularly bad, ineffective rabble-rouser who doesn’t even work well with ideological allies. Most of her critics in Louisville are play-within-the-system institutionalists who don’t like even effective rabble-rousers.
3. Greenberg and McGarvey are qualified, had prepared for a while for these races and that turned into early and strong support.
This is certainly a big part of the story and a credit to them. McGarvey in particular had courted all of the major players in the community, from black leaders to labor groups to teachers, and long signaled he would be running if Yarmuth retired. He is good at politics. That’s a skill. There are plenty of people with the right connections who aren’t good at politics.
4. Louisville’s Democratic powerbrokers are a kind of club and Greenberg and McGarvey are part of it.
I’m not allowed to give money to candidates because of my job. I have never given any indication that I support Greenberg or McGarvey’s candidacies. But I personally have been invited to two fundraisers for McGarvey and one for Greenberg. I suspect this is because I live in the Highlands (where many of the influential Democrats in town live), am friendly with many of the donors and campaign staffers who are powerful in Louisville and probably seem like an ambitious guy (based on my career) who wants to be on the winning side of things.
I think these kinds of club dynamics have in part driven these endorsements. McGarvey and Greenberg are in the same social circles as the campaign donors and other officials. People know them and are comfortable with them. Having spent some time in these circles, they are overwhelmingly white, which puts the black candidates at disadvantage. And it seems like McGarvey and Greenberg are destined to win and that everyone else is endorsing them, which likely helps them get even more support and endorsements.
5. The black elected officials backing Greenberg and McGarvey are in a complicated position.
Political scientists describe black Americans as a “captured” group in American politics. The embrace of anti-black racism in the Republican Party keeps most black people in the Democratic Party. But that leaves black people totally beholden to the Democrats. So the Democrats often take black interests for granted in search of white swing voters. And though black people are about 20 percent of Democratic voters (and more than a quarter in Louisville), black people don’t have 20 percent of the wealth among Democratic voters.
So if you are black elected official or black person who wants to gain more political power, there are strong incentives for you to endorse a white candidate who seems likely to win. First of all, the winning candidate, particularly a mayor, will have political positions that he or she can appoint you to. So while I doubt there is overt horse trading, it is in the career interests of the black officials in Louisville to endorse Greenberg in particular.
Secondly, even if these black officials don’t want jobs, they often represent communities who really need government help. An early endorsement of the person who was going to be mayor anyway might get your call returned 10 minutes faster once he is in office than if you didn’t endorse early—and that 10 minutes might matter.
It’s likely that some of the black officials who have endorsed Greenberg and McGarvey truly prefer them over the other candidates, black or non-black. But black politicians are strategic actors within a broader system that is worth understanding.
6. Ideology and race are probably both at play.
Greenberg and McGarvey are probably to the left of President Biden overall. They aren’t at all conservative Democrats. But their roots in the city’s establishment probably mean that they will be somewhat defensive of it, certainly more so than Findley, Parrish-Wright and Scott. In the more common terms we think of, it’s likely that Findley, Parrish-Wright and Scott would govern in a more left-wing way than Greenberg and McGarvey. So some of the people supporting Greenberg and McGarvey are driven by ideology, not race, clubbiness or any other factor, as are the more left-wing people who favor the black candidates.
That’s why I’m skeptical of the views that I often hear —Charles Booker would be cruising to victory if he had run for the House seat, and that Urban League President Sadiqa Reynolds would be getting much of the support that Greenberg has. It is easy to say, “I would vote for a black person, just not that one” and easy to support hypothetical candidates.
I think there might be support for a black person who seemed “safe” and non-threatening to the city’s status quo. But Booker and Reynolds have made enough blunt comments about the city’s lack of progress on racial issues that I think there would have been a desire to find a more moderate, white alternative if they ran too.
But I worry that Louisville has a racial barrier, ideology aside. City council President David James, who is black, bowed out of the mayor’s race early last year, citing his health. But by the time he ended his campaign, much of the city’s Democratic establishment had already mobilized Greenberg, who as I noted earlier, has never served in office before.
In 2010, the last time there was a wide-open Democratic primary for mayor, David Tandy, who was the city council president at the time and is black, ran a full campaign. Tandy is no radical. The city’s Democratic establishment embraced Fischer, who at the time had never held elective office but was very tied into the city’s business and elite class, like Greenberg now.
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