Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton looks back at her decades of service at city hall

The following is the sixth of eight exit interviews with members of Louisville Metro Council who will be leaving their seat in early January. In this interview, Insider talks with Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, about the highs and lows of her 16 years on Metro Council — and three years on the Board of Aldermen before that — and what she plans to do now.

Hamilton, a Democrat, served as a legislative assistant on the Board of Alderman before serving eight terms as its clerk, and was elected in 2002 to the inaugural Metro Council after the merger. She lost her primary race this year.

Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5

Insider Louisville: Throughout your over 19 years of service on the Board of Aldermen and Metro Council, what are you most proud of accomplishing for Louisville? 

Hamilton: There’s quite a few things. When I think back to the Board of Aldermen, I know we passed a civilian review board (police oversight). 

On the council we passed a minimum wage increase. We tried to pass some gun control legislation, but the state overruled us and said we couldn’t do those things. So when you talk about disappointments, those two things — gun control and minimum wage — were two things that I was disturbed about.

When I think about Thursday’s meeting that went until almost 3:30 a.m., it reminds me of the dangerous dog ordinance that I passed in 2006. We were here almost as late, so I guess you might say I kind of became known for the dog ordinance. The boarding and lodging houses ordinance. The tree canopy (ordinance)

But when I think about what I’m most proud of, it’s the things that have happened in District 5. Not necessarily things that were passed up here — besides jumpstarting the interest in Waterfront Park Phase IV, by putting the initial money in the budget for the master plan and the design for Phase IV, which will come after I’m out of office. It may take 10, 20 years down the road, who knows, but we at least got it started to extend the park west. 

I could name a couple more. The revitalization that has occurred in the Portland neighborhood and the Shawnee neighborhood especially, because we put in $1 million for neighborhood revitalization. And neighborhood organizations sprung up… Portland Now, the Shawnee Neighborhood Association after the wet-dry vote. But those kind of things empowered the neighborhood to know that city hall was listening. Because when I was clerk of the board in here initially, Portland would come down and never feel like they were heard, that they were ignored and they didn’t get their fair share. 

So seeing that the city was putting money into its revitalization for infrastructure and economic development that inspired Gill Holland and people like him to look to the neighborhood and to do what the money was intended to do, to spur other people to do economic development as well. So seeing that and riding those streets and those neighborhood organizations’ leadership. The city is listening to Portland and Shawnee, and they’ve been residents who have been sought after by other neighborhoods. “How did you do this? How did you do a wet-dry vote? How did you stop alcohol and liquor from coming into your community?” So a lot of the grassroots things are what I’m most proud of. 

IL: You mentioned a couple of the issues the state knocked you down on — the minimum wage and gun control. What are some of the other major disappointments that you’ve had in your time here that stand out? 

Hamilton: You try to move on from disappointments and not dwell on the negative. I think it took too long for both sides of the aisle to try to work together. When the board first merged into Metro Government, there was a lot of suspicion on both sides about folks’ motives and there wasn’t a lot of working together. I’m pleased to see that it has developed, but it took too long and a lot of that suspicion had to be overcome. 

We haven’t been able to get this vacant and abandoned property totally eliminated. I think that’s one of the biggest things. We’ve done things, we’ve gone to Frankfort, we’ve gotten laws changed that would make it easier for the Landbank to acquire properties and get control away from some of these third-party investors coming in who didn’t have the best interests of the neighborhoods in mind. But that’s a lingering issue that I hope will continue to be addressed. 

IL: Beyond specific public policy and legislation, are there any aspects to how a Metro Council functions that you think need to change, whether that be how council members interact or how the council interacts with the mayor’s office? 

Hamilton: I think the council functions pretty well. I mean, it’s a coequal branch of government, so I don’t think council should be expected to kowtow to whatever the administration wants. We’re a check and a balance, and ultimately we have the checkbook. 

I haven’t really had any problems with communication, with information sharing in the various positions I’ve had as Labor and Economic Development chair. The administration was very forthcoming with projects they were working on and things that were going on, even when they couldn’t necessarily tell you who. 

When you first come in and the mayor comes over and congratulates everybody, you think it’s going to be working together, Kumbayah. Not necessarily. It’s sometimes too hard to get support for some projects that people want and it takes longer to get the dollars flowing to get the projects done. Like right now, there’s a lot of paving going on in my district that has been on the books for awhile and has been funded for awhile that we’re just now seeing. But when you have to share resources with 26 other districts — rather than 12 with the Board of Alderman — it takes a little longer to get things done. 

I don’t know whether things could be divided up into zones, or increase the number of code enforcement officers working. Some restructuring in how services are delivered is be something that could be looked at. 

IL: So the Democrats expanded their Metro Council majority to 19-7 this November and Mayor Fisher got re-elected by a wide margin. Why do you think the Democratic Party has been able to expand its power even further in Louisville? 

Hamilton: I think we had good candidates. A good message. 

IL: So Democrats now have an even larger supermajority on Metro Council, and hypothetically they don’t really need any Republican votes to pass legislation. How do you think they should handle that kind of power? 

Hamilton: Well, like I said, you want to work together as Metro Government to move the community forward. I think that people should respect each other’s districts. I think there should be tours of each other’s districts to find out what are the issues. There ought to be a way to see, not just hear about, something from District 20 when it’s on the floor. If you’ve got an issue about affordable housing or not wanting it in your district, or density issues … there needs to be some communication. 

And we used to have lunches monthly in each other’s districts when we were on the board. It would take two years, I guess, if you did every month or so now. We have Committee of the Whole, where people talk and share, and that’s the only time we all get together besides council meetings. 

But I think it’s all about communication and trying to get support. Kelly Downard and I worked together when he was here, paying off the mortgage for Neighborhood House in Portland, even though it wasn’t in his district. He saw the need and when I was here early on I gave a traveling tour of my district, so people could see what we’re talking about. Angela Leet was here. We rode and showed her things that were going on. So people have to see it’s not just about what’s happening in your backyard, it’s about the best interests of the city. So I think if people get that message and council members get that message then everybody will work together. 

IL: The Democratic caucus in recent years has been known for some pretty vicious infighting among themselves. What do you think is the cause that? 

Hamilton: That’s just Democrats being Democrats (laughs). It’s nothing unique to Louisville and Jefferson County. And having observed the Board of Aldermen, even when it was just 12 Democrats representing the whole city, they would fight over differences. I don’t think it’s anything you need, but I think we put it behind us and move forward. But it’s healthy. It’s a healthy discussion (laughs). It keeps it lively! 

I was caucus chair in my first year of merged government, and here the last year of my tenure, too. And I was like, “oh my gosh, you all are sending me out in such a way.” But it will be all right. 

IL: Do you have any advice for Councilwoman-elect Donna Purvis, who is taking over the seat in your district? 

Hamilton: (Shakes head) Good luck. 

IL: What do you plan on doing now? 

Hamilton: First of all, I’m going to step back and just take some time to relax, to read, to finish writing. I’ve been working on some family history, personal history, things like that. Lois Morris always used to say “you’ve got to know the history.” So I feel like I’m almost taking Tom Owen’s place about sharing the history of what happened around here. I think I’ve got the longest tenure (on council) at this point, so a lot of people ask me things about what happened. And I’ll say “well, it just so happened I was clerk at that time,” or “it just so happened I was a legislative assistant. 

When we first passed the fairness ordinance — that’s another thing I’m proud of — we passed it, even though the board had been voted down before. So a lot of things opened doors, and that was one. But I think these these new people need to not just look at their district. They have to look at the community as a whole and to be broadminded and support their colleagues that are trying to do good in other areas.

IL: So when you say writing history, do you mean for public consumption, or just for your own… 

Hamilton: We’ll see. We’ll see. Because when Blaine Hudson was alive I supported the Saturday Academy, which was about teaching African-American history to the broader community. And I’ve brought in speakers and tried to get council members to go see certain black movies or to talk about certain books or to share things, so that we grow and not just stay in our own little silos. Like The Color of Law, or Life Behind a Veil. How did things get the way they are in Louisville with housing, with the jobs situation, education. 

So I don’t know yet what’s going to become of it, but it’s taken me all this time to kind of clear out 30 years of stuff my office and clippings that we’ve got. And what’s going to be archivable, what’s going on with me, what I’m going to take out to UofL. 

Bill Wilson, who was president of the board at one time when I became clerk, one thing he told me that you have to know the rules. So one thing I would say to the new people is that they need to know the rules. You need to know the policies and procedures, and you need to know that nothing happens overnight. It takes building relationships. It takes finding money. It takes to accumulating money. It takes getting support. It’s a whole process to get things accomplished here and it’s not as easy as it looks. 

IL: Is there any chance that you’ll run for office again, or is that chapter behind you? 

Hamilton: I would hope that it’s behind me (laughs). You know, you never say never, but that’s not in my plans. I want to travel, I want to enjoy myself. To see what it feels like to not have anything I have to do, have nowhere I have to be. This will be the first time since I was a teenager, or I guess right out of law school. 

And I’ve got a stack of books I have bought that I have not finished. I’ve got Fear. I’ve got Doris Kearns Goodwin’s about leadership. The stack keeps growing. So I want to read. I want to write. I want to travel. 

People are coming at me left and right all week. “What are you going to do? What are you going to do? We’ve got this for you.” And I’m like “not right now.” I said give me through the winter, through the spring to kind of figure out what my next step is, if there is a next step. So it’s all up in the air. But it’s a good air, so I’m fine.