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    Photo by Jessica Ebelhar

    As the first snow of the season has Louisvillians in their annual panic and the streets become sparse, Ryan Fenwick wraps up his day at his mayoral campaign headquarters on Logan Street between Germantown and Shelby Park. It’s a ’60s-era wood-paneled office across the hall from his law practice, which shares a building with an acupuncturist and a massage therapist, one or both of which emits essential oil scents. “I’m in love with the paneling,” Fenwick says with a drawl that often creeps into his speech. Not much embellishes the walls, just a map of the city, a list of names and dates of planned house-party fundraisers and a “Ryan Fenwick for mayor” poster with his slogan: “Compassion through action” — a jab at Mayor Fischer, whom Fenwick will challenge in May’s Democratic primary. The clean-shaven 33-year-old wears blue-framed glasses and a blue-and-white button-down. Ask him why he’s running for mayor, and his dimpled smile gives way to a furrowed brow. He says he’s “deeply dissatisfied” with the direction the city is going — in combating crime, in funding development, in addressing poverty.

    Through five years of volunteering with the environmental- and economic-justice organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Fenwick saw firsthand plans for a methane plant in west Louisville, which already has a history of industrial plants and poor air quality. “The official line coming out of the administration was just that if people understood how great the methane plant was gonna be, they’d be fully in support of it,” Fenwick says, “but what the actual state of affairs was was that the residents who were coming to KFTC in this large coalition were actually very well educated on what the implications for the plant would be.” Plans were eventually scrapped. Originally in support of Fischer for his talk of uplifting neighborhoods and his push for a “compassionate” government, Fenwick’s experience with the methane plant discussions encouraged him to explore the possibility of running for mayor himself.

    Fenwick grew up in Graves County, in the far western tip of the state, the son of a farmer dad who, Fenwick says, grew “soybeans and corn like most everybody in western Kentucky who doesn’t raise chickens,” and a mom who retired as the plant manager at a seed company. “In Graves County you could very much see people whose families had been left behind by the economy, whose fathers had lost their jobs in manufacturing, who were being supported by parents who were making minimum wage, and you could really see the disparity,” he says. Following high school he went to the University of Louisville, where he studied English and philosophy, followed by law and urban planning. It was in a political philosophy class that he learned what he says is the difference between where the city and country are in politics and where we could be. “Politics is empty rhetoric, directed mostly toward the donor class,” Fenwick says. “We could be (having) honest, straightforward political discourse that really looks out into the community for answers to our problems and is honest about what our problems are.”

    Through his urban-planning lens, Fenwick says he has watched, with disappointment, the current administration give out numerous tax-increment-financing subsidies, or TIFs, to large developers, such as the Omni Hotel, luxury housing projects and a planned soccer stadium in Butchertown. Fenwick says he loves soccer but questions why the $15-an-hour living-wage demands from labor organization Kentucky Jobs With Justice weren’t part of the deal. Fenwick cites studies out of the University of North Carolina and the academic journal Urban Studies that have examined Chicago, where TIFs have been given out for more than 30 years, and he says there hasn’t been evidence showing increased economic-development benefits to residents. At times as though talking from a podium, with arguments constructed in triads, Fenwick says he supports instituting a fund that would allow residents who see something missing in their community to come together and create a democratically owned and controlled business. He’s for participatory budgeting, which gives residents the power to directly identify and then vote to fund projects they believe benefit the community. “Running (the city) like a corporation is really missing an opportunity to unleash the collective genius of Louisville’s residents,” Fenwick says. Fischer, who did not have a primary challenger when he ran for re-election in 2014, has a statement on his campaign website touting $10 billion in current capital investments, plus 63,000 new jobs and 2,600 new businesses since he took office in 2011. (He was not available for comment for this story.) Fenwick says the Louisville Metro Democratic Club and grassroots station Forward Radio have both offered to host debates.

    Fenwick supports rigorously funding TARC to make it a convenient alternative to cars as Louisville grows and faces urban-density and transit and air-quality issues. He’s critical of Fischer opposing a proposed minimum-wage increase from $7.25 in 2014 that would have gradually gone up to $10.10 in 2017. (Metro Council then compromised on $9, which Fischer agreed to and signed, but that was later struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court, reverting the city’s minimum wage back to the state’s, at $7.25 an hour.)

    Perhaps most urgently, the city has seen several years of record rates of violent crime and murders, particularly in the West End. Fenwick doesn’t agree that beefing up the police presence, as Fischer did when he added $18 million in police resources to last year’s budget, is the right solution. “When I represent people in criminal courts, it’s amazing what they know about their community,” he says. “They know who did what and why. They know who all has been drawn into it, but they’re not gonna tell anybody because the decision to tell somebody means that some other family is gonna be broken apart. It means that they might be retaliated against. There’s a lot that goes into why someone would choose not to tell the police what they know. A lot of it has to do with not trusting the police.” Fenwick says he would promote policing that builds community trust. “What we really need is a restorative approach to justice where we’re trying to provide services to people with mental-health problems; where we’re trying to make sure that people are getting any kind of drug treatment that they might need to overcome addiction,” he says.

    Fenwick expects about 60,000 people to vote in the primary and says he and his team are on track to reach those people by phone and going door to door. The day after I meet Fenwick, he and nine volunteers hit the snowy pavement in Germantown. “For anyone who thinks Louisville is a small city, I can tell you your perspective changes when you start imagining running for mayor,” Fenwick says. “You have to worry when you’re a Democrat challenging an incumbent that people will be kind of mad at you.

    “I think people recognize that there is room for a more progressive vision in Louisville.”

    In Birmingham, Alabama, a younger, progressive mayor recently upset the Democratic incumbent after campaigning on the issues core to Fenwick’s campaign: raising the minimum wage and criticizing the use of tax dollars for corporate developments. Fenwick says he’s had his eye on Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi, who last year upset the Democratic incumbent, promising to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”

    Does Fenwick think he can win? “Certainly,” he says. “I strongly believe that if a person doesn’t believe they can win a political race, then they shouldn’t enter it. If you’re trying to raise issues, what you should do is get a billboard or maybe buy some radio advertising, because it’s really a massive undertaking. You have to understand that the hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours…and the thousands of dollars of well-meaning people’s money that has been donated — I take it very seriously. Really the only reason to run for office is because you intend to win it.”

    This originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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