By John David Dyche
Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson is mulling a run for governor and may announce his decision around the Fancy Farm political picnic on August 3. It is ironic that Abramson is using Fancy Farm as a reference point.
He is skipping the event again this year. After bypassing it last year, ostensibly for his wedding anniversary, Abramson told his political base at the Louisville Rotary Club, saying, "I think the days of yelling and screaming at folks who are up on stage – just to yell and scream and make fun of them are days of the past."
His condescending comment was roundly and rightly criticized. The annual Graves County get together is much more than mere speech-making and heckling. Abramson's ridicule of the rural tradition vividly illustrates the image of an arrogant urban liberal he will have to overcome if he runs for governor.
It will not be easy, especially since the verbose Abramson, 66, has never had a hard campaign or run a statewide race on his own. He would also be seeking to become only the second Jefferson County native to become governor and the first Jew.
The latter should not matter any and might not matter much. As the invaluable Kentucky Encyclopedia says, "Cases of overt anti-Semitism have been rare in Kentucky." But Abramson's not being a Christian could nonetheless be a liability with some nominal ones in the benighted provinces of this Bible Belt commonwealth.
Abramson's record as Louisville mayor poses a much bigger problem for a gubernatorial candidacy. He got some good things done in his first four terms and remains relatively popular in the River City. But the "mayor for life" moniker went to his head in his rocky final four years at the helm of the state's largest city.
For example, then-Auditor Crit Luallen, a potential Democratic rival for governor, issued a scathing report about Louisville's financial reporting and federal grant oversight. Abramson could not explain why such basic financial functions were so fouled-up seven years into his tenure atop merged metro government.
His hand-picked head of the city Housing Department was indicted on felony charges for misusing public money (and still awaits trial three years later). His much-ballyhooed director of Animal Services resigned amid allegations of various misdeeds.
Abramson put a pair of his personal friends in charge of the Neighborhoods Department at hefty salaries. One rarely showed up for work, the other falsified invoices to back up improper payments to the first, and both resigned.
Another Luallen audit exposed millions of dollars in waste and mismanagement under Abramson's appointed leadership of the Metropolitan Sewer District. This was just one of many messes Abramson's mayoral successor, Greg Fischer, has had to clean up.
Abramson ran for reelection in 2006 on a platform of building new libraries without raising taxes. Safely returned to office, however, he did an abrupt about face and backed a new library tax. Voters rejected it.
Other controversies included secretive sweetheart deals with an out-of-state casino and downtown developer, diversion of public ballpark rents to a private entity that cheerleads for his projects, and dubious spending on dinners and celebrations.
Abramson's only big assignment as lieutenant governor has been chairing a tax reform task force. He apparently backs its recommendations, including raising taxes $659 million annually, but neither he nor his boss, Governor Steve Beshear, is doing anything to get them passed into law.
Kentucky Public Radio recently quoted Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, another potential gubernatorial rival, as saying, "I've never even spoke to Lt. Gov. Abramson about the recommendations. He's never come by to explain to me and as far as I know he's not been explaining them to other members of the General Assembly, or very few members of the General Assembly I would say."
If Abramson runs for governor his adversaries will likely also renew longstanding attacks about the estimated $2 million windfall he and his wife enjoyed from stock and stock options she got as director of a savings and loan in the mid-1990s. But the state's big newspapers will likely continue the kid glove treatment Abramson has enjoyed for decades.
Abramson says running will require raising $15 million, and he is deciding whether he can "really be a transformational public servant and make a significant difference in the future of Kentucky." His record shows he can make a big difference, but the real question is whether it would be for the better.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.