Louisville mayor’s race plays out amid lingering tensions
Louisville mayoral candidate Craig Greenberg had a bounce in his step as he made his way from house to house in search of voters on a cold spring afternoon. But when people recognized him, it wasn’t for reasons he’d anticipated when he announced his run last year.
Some had seen news reports from Feb. 14, when a man showed up at Greenberg’s campaign headquarters and fired multiple rounds at the candidate and his staff, who barricaded the door with tables and chairs. No one was hit, but a bullet grazed Greenberg’s sweater. A local social justice activist was charged in the attempted shooting.
Now Greenberg has resumed his campaign in a city roiled by racial tension, a spike in gun violence and deep misgivings many harbor about the Louisville police department.
Two years ago, this city of roughly 600,000 was known primarily as the home of the Kentucky Derby, bourbon whiskey and Muhammad Ali. Then a botched police raid in March 2020 left Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, dead in her own apartment at the hands of white police officers.
Her name was plastered on T-shirts and magazines. It swept across social media and resounded in city streets as thousands marched nationwide, demanding justice. And her death still reverberates in local politics.
Not long after the attempt on Greenberg’s life, the only officer criminally charged for his actions in the Taylor raid was acquitted by a Kentucky jury, leaving many with a sense that the justice system had fallen short.
The suspect in Greenberg’s shooting, Quintez Brown, 21, was also on the May 17 ballot, a candidate for metro council. Now he’s in federal custody, charged with state and federal crimes that could put him away for the rest of his life. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Brown, who is Black, was released two days after the shooting when the Louisville Community Bail Fund paid his $100,000 bond. Republican minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell took to the floor of the U.S. Senate almost immediately, calling Brown’s release “jaw-dropping” and suggesting that it reflected badly on his political rivals on the left.
But the blowback from Brown’s release crossed partisan lines. Charles Booker, a Louisville Democrat running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Rand Paul, insisted that “anyone who has been arrested for attempted murder — and is feared to be a harm to themselves and others — should be in custody.”
Now finding himself at the center of that uproar, Greenberg speaks cautiously about the attempt on his life but doesn’t hesitate to draw connections to his campaign.
“I believe it’s made me a stronger person who can hopefully work with others more effectively to make Louisville safer,” he explained.
He’s back to normal campaign activities, but with added security. He also vows to address the concerns of Black voters by increasing transparency and accountability if elected.
“I share their frustrations,” he said. “I’m not interested in any more studies. We all know what the problems are here in Louisville.”
One of Greenberg’s opponents, Shameka Parrish-Wright, has her own connection to Louisville’s troubled recent past. She trails Greenberg in fundraising, but as she makes her way around Louisville’s predominantly Black West End, some residents recognize her, too.
After Taylor’s shooting, Parrish-Wright joined monthslong protests in downtown Jefferson Square Park, where she became a voice for protesters.
“I want to be the change I seek,” she said of her mayoral bid.
Many of the Black voters she’s talked to doubt that any mayor can deliver on their promises. They also resent that no one has been charged for Taylor’s death, while the white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have been convicted of murder.
Parrish-Wright worries that some voters might conflate her actions as an activist with Brown’s or the group that funded his release. She said she didn’t know Brown very well but hopes he gets the mental health resources he needs.
If elected, Parrish-Wright would join a growing group of Black female mayors in cities like New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Representation in the mayor’s seat, she said, could restore faith in a city where nearly half of Kentucky’s Black population lives. The state legislature is dominated by white Republicans, and while there’s a Democratic governor, the city often finds itself at odds with the Capitol in Frankfort.
Greenberg and Parrish-Wright are among eight Democratic candidates on the primary ballot. The contenders have plied voters with plans for economic development and other matters, but public safety and policing are never far from the conversation.
The primary winner will be heavily favored in the general election come November, because Democrats outnumber Republicans by a wide margin.
The next mayor will be called on to lead the city through a complicated period, and leaving the past behind won’t be easy. Louisville’s police department remains under federal investigation, and many activists want to be heard. The two-year lockdown during the pandemic has left empty storefronts and office buildings downtown.
“There are lots of people who feel discouraged because we have had two of the worst years, for many of us, in our lifetime. We’re exhausted,” said Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League.
Reynolds, who endorsed another Black candidate for mayor, the Rev. Tim Findley Jr., said the task facing the winner will be formidable — and patience is wearing thin.
“It’s not enough to create good programs; you actually have to be able and have a desire to change the structures,” she said. “The current system we have — it’s just not working fast enough.”
Hudspeth Blackburn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.