LOUISVILLE — They took the trash can. Again.
Louisville city workers were supposed to dump the trash from the wicker-wire trash can near the Abramson's grocery store on Preston Avenue and put it back. But frequently, the can would disappear.
One day, 12-year-old Jerry Abramson turned to his exasperated father, Roy, and said: "Don't worry Dad; someday I'll be mayor and I will have that can bolted down."
Roy Abramson, now deceased, loved to tell that story about his son, Louisville's longest-serving mayor. But Jerry Abramson, 65, who spent much of his childhood working at his father's three-aisle grocery store in Smoketown, said he doesn't' remember that conversation or having aspirations for public office at that age.
Yet, 50 years later, Jerry Abramson has become almost synonymous with the city of his birth.
Abramson's long tenure as Louisville's mayor, three terms as mayor of the city and two terms as mayor of the merged city government, is on trial as he seeks his first statewide elected office. Rather than run again for mayor, he decided in 2009 to join Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's campaign as Beshear's pick for lieutenant governor.
Danny Briscoe, a Democratic political consultant, said Abramson's long tenure in politics is unparalleled in Kentucky political history. Abramson's approval ratings remained high during his 20 years in leadership.
"Typically, the longer a politician stays in office, the worse his numbers are," Briscoe said. "But Jerry's approval ratings were high throughout his career."
His tenure as Louisville mayor has not been without controversy. The last four years of his administration were his most trying, Abramson acknowledges. In those four years, there were several scandals, including the resignation of his housing director for gross mismanagement of federal housing grants, and the resignation of his animal-services chief over poor management of the city's animal welfare offices.
Abramson also has had rocky relationships with the city's public unions, resulting in protracted and expensive legal fights with the city's police and fire departments over overtime pay and use of take-home vehicles.
Yet, even Abramson's critics say that he excels at bringing people together and attracting businesses, and that he would do well promoting Kentucky throughout the world.
Abramson said his greatest legacy to Louisville was a sense of optimism.
"I think anybody who is going to be even vaguely objective would say the city significantly improved under his tenure," said David Karem, a former state lawmaker and president of the Louisville Waterfront Development Corporation. "He was a great cheerleader for the city, and it was contagious."
If he becomes lieutenant governor, Abramson said, he probably will focus on economic development and working with local officials and Washington bureaucrats, who he has dealt with as mayor of Louisville.
"I think I will be the most active lieutenant governor the state has seen since Wilson Wyatt," Abramson said, referring to a former Louisville mayor and lieutenant governor.
Inspired by RFK
Abramson graduated from Seneca High School in 1964. Future governor Martha Layne Collins was his homeroom teacher, and veteran television journalist Diane Sawyer was a year ahead of him. ("We never dated," Abramson deadpans. "She was an older woman.")
He went to Indiana University and later to Georgetown University law school in Washington D.C. A stint in the military briefly interrupted his law school years.
It was as a student at Indiana University that he first became interested in politics. He volunteered for Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in Indiana and spent a lot of time with the Democratic presidential hopeful.
"I found him to be so inspiring," Abramson said. "He was the reason that I made the decision that if I had an opportunity to run for office, that public service was something that I really wanted to do."
After graduating from law school, Abramson returned to Louisville and joined a law firm. He ran successfully for alderman in 1975 and worked as general counsel for then-Gov. John Y. Brown in 1980.
Brown, a well-known businessman, didn't know much about government statutes, regulations and budgets, Abramson said. Frequently, Abramson would find himself in the first-floor Capitol office of then-Attorney General Beshear, talking about legal issues.
The two have been close friends ever since.
Abramson first ran for Louisville mayor in 1985. During his first term, he succeeded in attracting the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to Louisville, even after the group had decided to move its headquarters to Kansas City, Mo.
Having people pull together — religious leaders and the city's business leaders — to attract the headquarters was a watershed moment in the city's economic development, Abramson said.
Over the next 20 years, Abramson and city leaders were able to attract a host of businesses to Louisville. He also championed the city's waterfront, encouraging the development of Slugger Field and Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and leading charges to revitalize downtown.
Abramson returned to private practice in 1998 after his third consecutive term as mayor, the most allowed by law. But Abramson soon emerged as a champion of merging the city and county governments in 2000 and was elected mayor of the merged governments in 2002. He won re-election in 2006.
His last four years in office were the most difficult. The economy tanked, and that meant slashing budgets and laying off employees. Abramson, who had approval ratings of nearly 90 percent in some public polls during his tenure, was rocked by several spending scandals.
The director of the Housing Department was forced to resign after an audit showed "gross mismanagement" in that department. The Metro Animal Services department director was forced to resign over allegations of sexual misconduct and mismanagement. Later, it was found that a part-time special assistant to Abramson was earning $85,000 a year even though some co-workers said she rarely showed up for work, according to a police investigation.
"You put your trust in people, and every now and then someone would let you down," Abramson said. "It didn't happen often, but when it did, it hurt."
Abramson also got into protracted lawsuits with the fire and police over overtime and later over the use of city police cars while officers were off duty. Two lawsuits concerning firefighter overtime pay have cost the city $59 million so far.
Ann Oldfather, a Louisville lawyer who represented some of the firefighters, said she thinks the city would have had to pay less than $2 million if Abramson had settled the overtime lawsuits much earlier.
Bill Stone, a prominent Republican businessman and longtime friend of Abramson, said he thinks that some people in Abramson's administration took advantage of Abramson.
"There is not a financially dishonest bone in that man's body," Stone said of Abramson. "I think they really took advantage of Jerry, but Jerry must take some responsibility for lack of oversight."
Louisville Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, a Republican who ran against Abramson in 2006, said Abramson tried to run the merged government the way he did the city. But the merged government was bigger and more complex.
"He has a difficult time admitting that he put his faith in the wrong person," Downard said. "That came up time and time again."
Downard said one of his main objections to the Abramson administration was that there appeared to be no long-term plan.
"The city of Louisville was run from press conference to press conference," Downard said. "There was no one-year plan; there was no five-year plan."
'I wanted to be a dad'
Because of his high approval ratings, many people encouraged Abramson to seek higher office over the years.
Abramson said he toyed with the idea several times. Beshear had even asked him to run for governor in 2007 before getting into the race himself.
Ultimately, Abramson said he stuck close to home for two reasons — Madeline, his wife, and Sidney Abramson, his son.
"I wanted to be a dad," Abramson said. "I wanted to be there for my son. So many of my friends told me that they have all of the money in the world, all of the time in the world, but what they don't have is the time with their kids when they were young."
Now the younger Abramson is in college, and Jerry Abramson says the time is right for him to seek statewide office. Abramson scoffs at Republican political pundits who have said Beshear will step down in two years and let him take over.
"He's promised me four years," Abramson said.
Abramson also rejected the tag that he is a "liberal from Louisville" who is out of touch with the rest of Kentucky.
On the campaign trail, Abramson said, he hears the same concerns from city and county leaders that he faced in his two decades as mayor of Louisville — escalating jail costs, paying for infrastructure improvements and creating jobs.
His opponents also frequently accuse Abramson of not supporting the Second Amendment, a notion that he disputes.
"I believe in people's right to bear arms," he said.
But Abramson has supported a ban on assault weapons, a stance he said he took at the urging of top brass in his police department.
"I have never met a hunter who has used an M-16 assault weapon to hunt a deer," Abramson said.