“All politics is local.” That saying, popularized in 1935 by the late U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr., might seem outdated in these days of global reach. But not according to Jerry Abramson, the former lieutenant governor and Louisville mayor who returned to Bellarmine as executive-in-residence in January after two years of working for President Obama.
“It’s exciting to be 30,000 feet up at the White House,” he says, “but the reality is, the action’s at the sidewalk level. If you’re going to make change and you’re going to get the satisfaction of seeing it implemented, it’s really where you ought to begin.”
He’s not just speaking metaphorically. During his combined 21 years as Louisville’s “Mayor for Life,” Abramson periodically shopped at Kroger stores in different parts of the city, carrying a notebook to record citizen complaints such as broken sidewalks, he told Bellarmine graduate students in February. In Washington, after walking on a cracked sidewalk from his apartment to the West Wing and back for months, he finally notified D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. The sidewalk was repaired within a week.
The point he was making in Dr. Gail Henson’s Ethical Issues in Communication class was this: When you make a personal connection with people in office, you can get things done. The message gave hope to her 14 students, Dr. Henson said. “Every Monday we spend the first 15 or 20 minutes talking about media ethics—what is going on in the news, how do we approach it and understand it—and I think they were feeling kind of overwhelmed and depressed. He left them feeling like they can make a difference, even if it’s something small.”
“Mr. Abramson’s perspective on leadership was inspiring,” agreed Haley Word, a writer at Humana. “It was great to hear his stories and examples of situations where ethical leadership helped him make an important decision.”
In addition to serving as a guest lecturer as Bellarmine’s executive-in-residence, a position he also held in 2011, Abramson will teach courses on leadership and civics and will develop and direct a new Institute for Local Government Leadership that will bring elected local government officials from across the country to Bellarmine for training. He also hopes to use his many connections to help the Career Development Center secure student internships or interviews.
Few elected officials in the country can claim the connections and experience that Abramson has accrued at the local, state and federal levels. He served three terms as Louisville mayor beginning in 1986 and was then elected the first Louisville Metro mayor following the merger of the city and Jefferson County in 2003, serving two terms. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a longtime friend, then persuaded Abramson to run as lieutenant governor in his successful re-election campaign.
With a little more than a year left in Frankfort, however, Abramson left for the nation’s capital when the president hand-picked him to be his director of Intergovernmental Affairs, overseeing the Obama administration’s domestic agenda with state, city, county and tribal elected officials across the country.
“I wasn’t surprised when President Obama stole Jerry away from Kentucky … and I’m not surprised that Bellarmine University has tapped him now,” Gov. Beshear said, citing Abramson’s experience at all levels of government, his dedication to his constituents, and perhaps most of all, his attitude. “He truly is a positive force. In this era of cynicism and bitterness, I think Jerry’s enthusiasm and relentless energy can help flip the negative narrative so many people have about government.”
Mr. Abramson goes to Washington
Abramson needed that relentless energy in Washington, where his typical day at the office began at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. One of just 45 people working in the West Wing, he reported to Valerie Jarrett, the president’s senior advisor.
“I quickly realized why they called for me to come up,” he said, pointing to a framed photograph on the wall of his office in which he and Jarrett sit in as President Obama meets with officers of the National Governors Association. “The guy in the red tie—the [NGA] president—is the governor of Colorado. He was the mayor of Denver that I brought in to speak to Leadership Louisville. The guy next to him, the incoming president, is the governor of Utah. He was lieutenant governor of Utah when I was lieutenant governor … The guy here with the gray hair is the guy who collapsed in Minnesota giving the State of the State [Gov. Mark Dayton]; he’s heir to the Target fortune … and he graduated Yale with [U.S. Rep. John] Yarmuth” of Louisville.
Abramson’s experience in state and local government also gave him additional perspective on some issues. One of the first initiatives he worked on, for example, was President Obama’s proposal to provide two years of free community college to eligible students. In a meeting with those drafting the legislation, he asked whether the bill included money for remedial education.
“They said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Education was one of the issues I worked on as lieutenant governor, and I just happen to know that in Kentucky, about 46 percent of all the incoming students in our community college system need a remedial class in either English or math or both before they take Math 101 or English 101 for credit. If we aren’t paying for the remedial class, they are not getting a free ride in the community college institution.’ So we changed it.”
Ultimately, however, the America’s College Promise Act of 2015 was stranded in committee—just one of many pieces of legislation blocked by Congressional Republicans. Instead of being frustrated that he had arrived during this stalemate, Abramson called it “great timing.”
“I got there when they realized once and for all that they couldn’t get anything done on the Hill, and a pivot occurred. If we were talking minimum wage increase, if we were talking community college, if we were talking investing in early childhood, sick leave, family leave—we took it on the road,” he says. “It was the cities and counties and states that ultimately implemented so many of those initiatives.”
His two years and three months in Washington were “wonderful,” Abramson said, and at the end of President Obama’s second term, he had several job opportunities. “But I missed my hometown and I missed my family. I was ready to come home.”
Back to Bellarmine
Coming back to Bellarmine felt like coming home, too. “People were so kind to me here at Bellarmine [in 2011], and with the family feel that it has and the enjoyment I got from teaching and interacting with the students and the support from administration and faculty, it was an easy choice.” Both Abramson’s wife, Madeline, and their son, Sidney, received degrees from Bellarmine in 2014.
His enthusiasm is now inspiring the next generation of leaders. A young woman raised her hand after one lecture and asked what students can do to get engaged. “I said, ‘How many of you all know who your state rep is?’ Not one hand went up. ‘How many know who your state senator is?’ Not one hand went up. OK, ‘How many of you know your congressmen?’ One person. ‘How many know your state senators?’ The Kentuckians knew McConnell but couldn’t come up with the other name. [The ones from] Ohio, Illinois and Indiana didn’t know either of their U.S. senators. And so my point to them is, for a representative democracy to work, people first have to educate themselves on the issues, but then they have to know who they should speak to about whatever their position might be.
“If you don’t hold people accountable in your elected positions, then they are all nothing but independent contractors. And independent contractors don’t have to respond to anybody.”
And, he told them, you don’t have to run for public office to be engaged in your community. “For every person who puts their name on the ballot, there are 15 [staff members] who didn’t—but they were in the room when policy was being decided, and they ultimately were able to help guide their community. … There are so many other things beyond ‘I want to be elected.’”
For those who are elected, and want more training, Abramson is developing the Institute for Local Government Leadership, which will provide the same kind of networking and development opportunities for city council presidents, leaders of large urban counties, and legislative whips that other organizations currently provide for governors, mayors and state House presidents and speakers.
Asked to name his favorite of the many jobs he’s held, Abramson is quick to answer. “Oh, I think it would be mayor. There is nothing more satisfying than accomplishing something in a positive way for your hometown.
“But, you know, going out to Camp David several times for meetings, flying on Air Force One, flying with the Vice President on Air Force Two, meetings in the Roosevelt Room, in the Situation Room, in the Oval Office—I mean, those are all ‘Oh, my gosh’ [experiences]. You just pinch yourself, thinking that a little kid from Seneca High School is sitting there.”
By Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org