The Most Innovative Mayor in America?

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer introduces the American rock band A Day To Remember live onstage during the 2014 Louder Than Life Festival at Champions Park on October 5, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.

SourceJoey Foley/Getty

Why you should care

Local mayors can successfully pull at both big data and heartstrings. Is yours?

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As an inventor, businessman and, now, politician, Greg Fischer speaks in platitudes — but only the practical kind. So when President Donald Trump and many Washington, D.C., politicians talk about eliminating America’s health care system without suggesting a better replacement, it incurs an incredulous response from Fischer: “It’s absurd, it’s just absurd,” the 59-year-old mayor of Louisville says, tossing open the black SUV door and walking out into the gray of a recent rainy Sunday morning.

Soon, Fischer’s voice is booming from loudspeakers inside the community center, where hundreds have gathered. Scattered applause keeps interrupting his discussion about health care. “The irony is that we as a society will be paying for this no matter what … It’s not [about] money; it’s about how we look at this — are we in this together, or are we apart?”

Fischer is a Democrat, true, but he boasts a sort of results-oriented impartiality that allows him a perch above the political fray. He claims that data, not partisanship, informs his policy; that empathy, not keeping score, is his North Star. That assumed party agnosticism has let him transform Louisville both physically — adding 23 hotels, 2,600 businesses and 58,000 jobs since he took over as a first-time elected official in January 2011 — and spiritually, into a “global city” and an “urban laboratory for innovators,” as he describes it to OZY. His oft-cited mantra: Create jobs, improve education and make Louisville “an even more compassionate city.”

Gettyimages 457265020

Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville, speaks during an interview in his office at Metro Hall in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014

Source Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty

His plan to welcome foreign-born residents is grounded in the realities of what it takes for communities to be successful.

Jack Markell, former governor of Delaware

His hard-data-meets-soft-heart approach seems to be working. American mayors named him the “Most Innovative” among them in a 2016 Politico poll, and he won his city a share of a $150,000 U.S. Conference of Mayors grant for his data-driven Cradle to Career education platform. Now, Google Fiber is in line to help install super-speed internet to Louisville, while CNET’s Smart Apartment, which tests connected-home devices, is working with the city’s civic innovation hub, LouieLab, to relay city weather, traffic data and public events through tools such as Amazon’s Alexa — a project that earned Fischer a speaking invitation at the latest Consumer Electronics Show in January. “People think about appliances, security, information, and that’s one part of residents’ experience,” says Fischer. “But, really, the smart home should be the entire city.”

Fischer recently pushed his Global Louisville Action Plan to help integrate new immigrants, and he shows that Democrats “can have an agenda that is consistent with our party’s values and appeals to people in diverse areas across the country,” says Jack Markell, who just recently hung up his stirrups as the governor of Delaware. “His plan to welcome foreign-born residents is grounded in the realities of what it takes for communities to be successful.”

While listening to Fischer — with his polished black shoes, green tie, somewhat sparse graying hair and smartwatch-laden wrist — it’s easy to walk away thinking every problem has a statistical solution. Wooing immigrants becomes a numerical no-brainer to help fill the city’s 30,000 unfilled jobs, Fischer says, since half of Louisville’s population growth comes from foreign-born residents. He aims for 50 percent of Louisville adults to boast a college degree by 2020; the number is already at around 45 percent, up from 38 percent when he took over. And that Cradle to Career program operates under the premise that educational outcomes “are predictive,” he says. Streamlining and diagnosing potential roadblocks early, even in the womb itself, will let social services intervene before fates become ingrained.

That bloody wrinkle complicates Fischer’s plans for a globally attractive Louisville.

However, outside his office in city hall, there are some figures not easily solved by digital wizardry. The city saw a shocking uptick in homicides over the past 18 months, up to about 14 per 100,000 people, compared with 8.3 per 100,000 in 2014 — while trailing similar-size cities such as Detroit (42) and St. Louis (59). In fact, Louisville has set new city highs for murders each of the past two years. That bloody wrinkle complicates Fischer’s plans for a globally attractive Louisville. Indeed, one Russian immigrant, who moved into the city’s more dangerous west side late last fall, tells OZY she now fears walking down the street — after a murder occurred at a drug dealer’s home recently, just two doors down from hers. It’s not a rare story in the area, which has lost most of its grocery stores yet remains rich in liquor shops, seemingly “on every corner,” describes Dewey Clayton, a political scientist at the University of Louisville. It’s a “very racially segregated city,” he adds, noting that unemployment, poverty, gun violence and a “digital divide” separate the poor (mostly Black) West End from the affluent (mostly white) East End.

Yet Louisville is far from the only trouble spot. Almost two-thirds of America’s 61 largest police agencies saw spikes in murder from midyear 2015 to the same time in 2016, according to a report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association. While Fischer has attempted to limit access to handguns in his inner city, he’s hamstrung by a Republican-controlled statehouse, which Clayton says is unlikely to approve Fischer’s initiatives. The violence, some say, is indicative of a deeper crisis. As former NAACP director Ben Jealous once said: “Jobs stop bullets.” Critics partially blame Fischer, who failed to close the deal on a long-planned Wal-Mart for the West End in October. (For his part, Fischer points to a lawsuit from an anti-corporation citizens group as the real culprit for the shuttered deal.) But Ed Springston, a local conservative radio host, says the mayor should have pursued a less controversial job creator.

Fischer acknowledges the problem is essentially an economic one, and, in the past, he hasn’t minded taking controversial action to effect swift change. He partnered with his city’s traditional rival, Lexington, just 80 miles down the road, to form a global trade plan that’s been accepted into the Brookings Institution’s Global Cities Initiative. And when he felt like the city’s old commerce organization, Greater Louisville Inc., was faltering, he eliminated it and created Louisville Forward, in 2015. It was soon named one of the top 10 national economic development groups by Site Selection magazine, an Atlanta-based publication that helps corporate leaders decide where to invest, after it attracted $500 million in investments in just 10 months following its creation. Of course, there are more bumps on the horizon. “The challenge is the world is changing faster than our government’s ability to respond to it,” says Fischer. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying, anyway — one heartfelt (and, yes, Microsoft Excel-heavy) step at a time.

What issues and ideas in your state have caught your eye? Who are the little-known innovators we should be watching? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below, or email us at editors@ozy.com and follow us on Twitter and Instagram for regular updates from this special series.

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