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Can a Red State Get Along With Its Biggest, Bluest City?

Kentucky’s Republican-controlled Legislature is sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Louisville this year. Local leaders hope strong cross-partisan relationships will help the city over the long term.

A street scene in downtown Louisville.
Louisville leaders have sometimes clashed with state officials, but the current mayor is striving to make deals. (David Kidd/Governing)
In Brief:
  • Kentucky is sending record investments to Louisville this year, including $100 million for downtown revitalization.

  • Craig Greenberg, Louisville’s Democratic mayor, is a former developer and building on relationships with Republican leaders in the state Legislature.

  • Despite political conflicts between officials, the investments reflect Louisville’s importance to the overall state economy.

  • There are plenty of issues where Kentucky’s urban and rural communities don’t see eye to eye, such as gun control and abortion. But earlier this spring, when the Kentucky Legislature approved its two-year budget, some of the state’s top Republican and Democratic leaders sounded like they were singing the same tune.

    “For far too long, folks have talked about this urban-rural divide that has divided Louisville and the rest of the state,” Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, a Democrat, said at a news conference after the budget was passed by the Republican-led Legislature. “Those days are now behind us.”

    Time may prove that to be an overstatement. Still, Louisville has real reasons to celebrate the outcome of this year’s legislative session. Amid a historic budget surplus, state lawmakers directed more than $600 million in one-time spending to projects in Louisville, including $100 million to revitalize the city’s downtown. Greenberg, a lawyer and business leader who took office last year, credits strong relationships and “good old fashioned conversation” with Republican state leaders for brokering the deal.

    He says it honors Louisville’s importance to the state economy. “This is a Democratic city with a Democratic mayor, and a Republican-controlled Legislature voted to invest $100 million in the heart of our city because they agree that a thriving Kentucky requires a thriving Louisville, and a thriving Louisville requires a thriving downtown,” Greenberg says. “I hope we’re just getting started.”

    Investing in the City

    New investments in Louisville include millions of dollars for cultural and performing arts organizations, job training programs, social services and improvements to the international airport, among other allocations. The Louisville Metro Government received $100 million to spend on downtown projects, such as revitalizing a waterfront plaza on the Ohio River called the Belvedere. The state also allocated more than $400 million for projects at the University of Louisville, including $280 million for a new health sciences center.

    Republican Robert Stivers has been the president of the Kentucky Senate since 2013 and represents the areas around Manchester. He says that investing in Louisville is just a smart fiscal strategy. Kentucky has 120 counties, but about one-sixth of the population lives in Jefferson County, home to Louisville. Stivers says he thinks about it like a business: If 16 to 17 percent of the revenue is coming from one of more than 100 parts of the business, you’d want to invest in that part.

    Louisville is the economic and cultural heart of the state too, Stivers says, a place where all Kentuckians go to shop, attend concerts, visit the state fair and see health specialists. “Nobody flies out of the Manchester international airport,” Stivers says. “I don’t care if you’re the most strident social conservative: If you’re gonna catch a flight, you’re gonna fly out of Louisville.”

    ‘Old-Fashioned Conversation’

    Greenberg, who worked as a developer before running for office, is only the third mayor of Louisville Metro, which was created in 2003 when the city and county merged. Stivers says Greg Fischer, the previous mayor, “had very little in the way of attempting to have substantive conversations” with state leaders.

    But Stivers and Greenberg are friends. They’ve known each other for more than a decade. Greenberg has worked to keep open the lines of communication with Stivers and other Republican leaders in the Legislature. “We often talk about our differences but we do it in a very respectful way,” Greenberg says. “It’s just good old-fashioned conversations.”

    There are reasons for urban and rural communities in Kentucky to work together. The state’s bourbon industry is booming. Tourists fly into Louisville by the millions every year and spread out around the state for whiskey tastings. Distilleries are clustered throughout the counties, and pull corn from farms around the state. Nurturing the conditions for a thriving bourbon industry, which includes investing in Louisville, “helps everybody,” Stivers says.

    Social issues remain a sticking point. After a mass shooting last year, Greenberg and U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey, a fellow Democrat, called on the state Legislature to pass stricter gun control laws. Greenberg says he “would love for the state to give Louisville some more local autonomy so we can take action to reduce the number of illegal guns on our streets.”

    The state has barely budged, and isn’t likely to under Republican control. It’s a stubborn reminder of the urban-rural divide. “When I went to high school it was not unusual for me to have a shotgun in the back of my car, because that evening I may go squirrel hunting,” Stivers says. “If you did that in Jefferson County, there’d be a panic. It’s a bit of a different culture.”

    State in the Driver’s Seat

    Despite the warm feelings between city and state leaders, and the big investments in Louisville, the state isn’t exactly giving away the store. The Legislature has been criticized for underinvesting in housing and education even in a budget-surplus year. Critics say Republican lawmakers are trying to suppress spending and trigger automatic tax cuts.

    Other cities got much less in the budget than Louisville. And the state has stymied Louisville in other ways, for example by passing a bill that prevents Louisville from making changes to its land use rules for at least a year.

    Some Louisvillains are unhappy with Greenberg’s priorities as well. Progressive groups have criticized him for increasing the budget for the Louisville Metro Police Department, which came under fire after three of its officers killed Breonna Taylor in 2020. They say Greenberg is underinvesting in housing and other social services.

    The recent harmony between city and state leaders in Kentucky, relative to widespread conflicts between blue cities in other red states, masks the fact that the power dynamic isn’t equal, with the state having the upper hand.

    Greenberg and Stivers say the political conflicts between city Democrats and rural Republicans are real and trenchant. Some of them won’t be resolved. “But we’re also reasonable, rational and adult enough to understand there’s a lot of common things we need to work on together as well,” Stivers says.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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