BY QUIN WELCH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Bellarmine University recently announced the hiring of Jerry Ambramson as an executive-in-residence. The former Louisville mayor, Kentucky lieutenant governor and director of intergovernmental affairs for the Obama administration will teach courses on leadership and civics. Abramson will also develop a new institute for local government officials from coast to coast to train and develop their leadership abilities. He sat down with The Concord for a Q&A. This is the first part of a two-part series.
QW: You’re back in Louisville after a few years in D.C. How’s it feel to be back in your home city?
JA: Well, it’s great to be home. I was in the White House for the last two years and two and a half months. I enjoyed living in Washington, but I really missed my hometown. My wife was here and my family was here. I got home once a month. I’d say from 7:30 in the morning in Washington when we started each day with senior staff until about 8:00 at night when I left to walk to my apartment, things were great because the job was fabulous. But the evenings and the weekends when I was there were very lonely.
QW: How’d you find out about the opportunity with the White House? You were lieutenant governor at the time, so was it an immediate yes from you or was it something you had to really think about?
JA: You know, I was in my third year as lieutenant governor. I had already announced a year earlier after spending about two years in the position working hand in glove with Gov. Beshear, I realized that I didn’t want to run for governor. I made that public so others could get in line to run for governor. Most people, when they run for lieutenant governor, run because they want to be governor. I ran because Steve Beshear is a personal friend. I had 21 years as mayor and we merged the city and county. I was just hopeful that I could get a feel for what it would be like to be governor, and if I felt it in my gut, then I would run, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t.
So I got a call from the White House, asking if I would be interested in this position: assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs, which means you deal with mayors, city councils, county executives, county commissioners, governors, state legislators and tribal communities. Those were all a part of the portfolio.
I said, ‘Look. I’d been mayor for many years and I’ve interacted with many presidents since Ronald Reagan. You guys never listen to what we think anyway. I have a job. I’m fine, thank you very much.’ They said, ‘No, no, no, it’s different. Give us an opportunity to pitch.’
So I went home, and my wife said, ‘Yeah, you ought to do it. Go up and see.’ So I went up to see. Every person I met with, the president’s chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, the senior advisor to the president, Valerie Jarrett, I said the same thing: You guys never listen. And they both promised that I would be able to attend any meeting on domestic issues that cities, counties and states deal with.
They also said I would be able to speak up and give the focus of mayors, governors and county executives on whatever the issue might be. I came home and said to my wife, ‘If what they say is true, it would be a really exciting experience.’
Finally, I got a call, and they asked if I could hold for the president and it was President Obama calling from Camp David. He said, ‘I need you for the fourth quarter. A lot’s going to happen in the fourth quarter and I need you.’ Well, what do you say? You salute and say ‘yes sir, I’ll be there.’ Two weeks later, I showed up for work.
QW: Donald Trump has been inaugurated as president. What are your hopes for him and the country during these next four years?
JA: Well, as you can imagine, it was a pretty devestated White House the day after the election. I had a lot of discussions with a lot of the young people who were in tears over the outcome.
Having said that, we only have one president at a time and therefore, I wish him the best and I hope he’s successful because if he’s successful, we as a nation will be successful. Having said that, I think it’s our responsibility to hold him accountable.
So, if he does some of the things he said he’s going to do, although he seems to be mellowing on positions, if he implements some of the things he said he was going to implement, I’m very concerned. But at the same time, I’m hopeful. What else can you be? I appreciate the smooth transition. My team met with the Trump transition team.
I am a person who sees the glass half-full, so I’m hopeful, but I’m very nervous and very concerned. I’ll do everything I can to hold him accountable.