With Rep. John Yarmuth retiring, what does Louisville want in its next member of Congress?

Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth stops to speak with the media as he arrives on Oct. 13, 2021 at Muhammad Ali Louisville International Airport.
Morgan Watkins
Louisville Courier Journal

This year's election will bring Jefferson County a brand-new member of Congress.

So what, exactly, do people want to see in a successor to longtime congressman John Yarmuth, who is retiring?

To get a better understanding of that, The Courier Journal recently interviewed people from the Louisville metro area, including local leaders, high school students, entrepreneurs and more, to find out what they're looking for in the 3rd Congressional District's next representative.  

Here are eight priorities that emerged from those interviews:

More:2022 race for Yarmuth's seat: Who's in, who's out, who's a maybe

Someone accessible to all

The most common theme that came up was accessibility.

People want their next representative to take the time to meet with and listen to people throughout the community, and not just to those who share their political party or come from the same walk of life.

"I want somebody who’s not just going to be the politician of Louisville and the politician of Kentucky," said 14-year-old Malachi Ibn-Mohammed, who's part of Justice Now, a Jefferson County Public Schools learning hub that combines social justice and deeper learning. "I want somebody who’s going to really be in tune with who we are as a people, and someone who’s going to actually listen to our problems and our concerns."

He hopes whoever's elected won't ignore the mental health issues young people face, explaining: "Because still, you see a lot of adults brushing youth mental health off. … 'Oh, it's just kids, so their problems aren't really problems.'"

Donna Lawlor, the Louisville GOP's 35th legislative district chair, wants a representative who pays attention to people of differing political views.

"I would like to see equal respect without partisan lines," she said. "Be willing to listen to me as well as you listen to people who agree with you."

Donna Lawlor is the Louisville GOP's 35th legislative district chair.

She'd also like to see them make their political ads and statements accessible to people who are deaf and to people who speak Spanish.

"I have not seen a politician on either side of the fence put their message out in ASL (American Sign Language)," said Lawlor, who's hard of hearing. "And that is not a partisan issue."

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David Clark, who's on the Louisville Democratic Party's executive committee, wants his next representative to devote time and staff to helping constituents navigate the labyrinthine federal bureaucracy.

"If there’s someone in your district who is having a problem getting their VA benefits or just access to any government services, whether it’s public assistance or whatever, I think that a congressperson should have some staff who are well-versed in those issues, know who to contact and how to navigate the system … to get help to those folks," he explained.

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Constituent services are a vital, albeit under-the-radar, part of a congressperson's job, especially if they want a long career, said University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton. 

"Studies have consistently shown … those that get reelected pay attention to their constituents and pay attention to their individual needs," he said. "It is not sexy, but people will remember that when they go to the voting booth."

A supporter of small businesses, immigrant entrepreneurs

Attorney Patrick Schmidt, a member of the Louisville Independent Business Alliance's board, said he hopes Yarmuth's successor understands the importance of small businesses and advocates for legislation that helps level the playing field for them against big corporations. 

"Our bread and butter is homegrown businesses, and so we need people in Washington to help foster that kind of growth," he said of Louisville.  

Adam Robinson, a fellow LIBA board member who's also a serial entrepreneur, likewise suggested the area's next representative can help out by encouraging a climate in which businesses can succeed.

"Let’s not layer in a whole bunch of red tape … increased taxation or anything like that that’s going to make it more difficult to compete in the marketplace," he said. 

Suhas Kulkarni, an entrepreneur who was the first director of Louisville Metro Government's Office for Globalization, noted a lot of local businesses are run by immigrants, many of whom have a strong "entrepreneurial spirit" out of "pure necessity."

Suhas Kulkarni, an entrepreneur who also was the first director of Louisville Metro Government's Office for Globalization, in Louisville, Ky., on Dec. 7, 2021.  He's also the father of State Rep. Nima Kulkarni.

"The foreign-born population naturally gravitates to business," he said, especially since they often are offered limited or no job opportunities when they arrive in the U.S.

Kulkarni, who's originally from India and whose daughter is Democratic state Rep. Nima Kulkarni, said Yarmuth's successor must pay "enormous attention" to immigration issues and work on fostering more immigration here, which will lift up the region as a whole.

Kulkarni also noted politicians often approach well-off immigrants when they need campaign donations and then fail to be a champion for their community between elections.

He'd like to see that change.

Someone who listens to, and cares about, the next generation

The Courier Journal interviewed several high schoolers who are part of Justice Now, the JCPS learning hub.

A recurring theme popped up: They want a representative who takes the time to listen to them, even though they can't vote yet.

"I think what me and most people my age, or my demographic, are probably looking for is somebody that’s going to be willing to give us a voice or give us a seat at the table," said Armelle Bondonga, 17, of Waggener High. "Me being a Black woman — a young Black woman at that — we don’t get to have a seat at those big tables as often, so I would want somebody who’s open to listening to all kinds of different groups of people."

Jamia Fletcher, who's also a Waggener High senior, would even like to see someone elected who's younger than your typical member of Congress, where a lot more folks are in their 50s, 60s and 70s than their 20s, 30s and 40s.

"I feel that it’s very important that we see somebody in office who has more of an understanding of what the younger generation, you know, needs," Fletcher said. 

University of Louisville business professor Nat Irvin II. Dec. 8, 2021

University of Louisville business professor Nat Irvin II stressed Yarmuth's successor can't ignore the young members of this community.

"I really can’t emphasize this enough: Any representative for the commonwealth should be looking at the next generation of Louisvillians," he said. "They have got to understand that our people have got to be competitive. They’ve got to be competitive in the marketplace, they’ve got to be competitive in the classroom, they’ve got to be competitive globally."

He's a big advocate for education and investing in young people, explaining: "We need to substantially increase the funding and resources for that part of our future. ... We’ve just got to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the next generation of Americans."

A 'champion of public education'

Teachers need the federal government to provide more support and improve public policies affecting schools and educators, said Tammy Berlin, vice president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

“Right now, teachers are really frustrated, very highly stressed," she said. "And so we need better working conditions, which are also student learning conditions."

While much education policy is made at the local and state government level, the U.S. government and Congress have a hand in this, too. 

"I would hope that we would have somebody who’s a real champion of public education," Berlin said. "And not somebody who wants to get involved in culture wars around what we should be doing or what we should be teaching. We just want to teach our kids."

Fletcher, of Waggener High, also wants a congressperson who's committed to investing in education, saying: "I feel like one of the main reasons why we see ignorance and things like that is because we need better education."

Someone who confronts racism and white supremacy

Talesha Wilson, founder of Diversity at the Table and director of community engagement for Change Today, Change Tomorrow, would like a bold representative who confronts white supremacy head-on.

"If we address conflict the way that white supremacy has taught us since birth to handle conflict, then we will avoid it," she said. "I am looking for someone to hold that seat who is ready, who is bold and is fearless… We cannot address these issues in the world in this very soft and kind way because the issues we are addressing are not kind and soft situations."

Talesha Wilson - founder of Diversity at the Table, leads direct action training for protesters

“Any issue in Louisville is rooted in white supremacy," she said.

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Raoul Cunningham, the Louisville NAACP's president, said he hopes Yarmuth's successor will continue the congressman's record of earning an A rating from the national NAACP on its legislative report card.

Bondonga, one of the Waggener High students, wants a representative who focuses on "changing the narrative on how race is taught in America and giving kids the full stories."

"I think that it would be important because Louisville … is a very racially diverse city," Bondonga said. "We can create a safer environment for Louisville, period."

A great compromiser who puts citizens first and politics second

Attorney Jack Richardson IV, the Louisville GOP's member-at-large for the 3rd Congressional District, wants to see less partisanship.

"We need somebody that understands that we’ve got to care about the city and do what’s right for the city and not the politics," he said.

Richardson said he wants to see "competent" representation, which he defined as putting politics second and the citizenry first, adding: "And let’s start making decisions not based on what’s going to advance whose party’s platform better — let’s start making decisions based upon what is in the best (interest) of the whole."

Kathryn Hargraves, a former government employee who's the Louisville Democratic Party's 41st legislative district chair, wants a representative who can dig into the complexities of legislating.

"We have complicated statutes and administrative regulations and policies, and it’s hard work to learn everything that you’ve got to learn to make an informed vote on any given piece of legislation," she said. "You need to be smart and hardworking, and get down into the drudgery of stuff."

Hargraves also seeks someone skilled at collaboration, not just punditry, saying: "Sloganeering is not governing, and as a lawmaker you’ve got to be able to collaborate with people you disagree with. …We don't have to look too far to find those members of Congress who are good at pontificating, but are they effective?"

Cunningham, the local NAACP president, said he hopes Yarmuth's successor takes their congressional committee assignments seriously.

NAACP Louisville Branch President Raoul Cunningham played a large role in the demonstrations that led to the passing of the May 14, 1963 law that made it unlawful for anyone to be refused service in a public place because of race, color, religion, or national origin. 
Nov. 5, 2021

"I would hope that they would try to get on committees that will best benefit the city and work their way up the ladder of influence," he said, noting how Yarmuth has become chairman of the House Budget Committee.

More:5 takeaways from John Yarmuth's surprise announcement that he won't run for reelection

Clayton, the U of L political science professor, indicated the seniority Yarmuth gained in Congress went over well with voters.

"People like to see their local congresspersons in positions of power," he said, pointing to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as an example.

While the 3rd Congressional District is likely to elect someone on the progressive side, like Yarmuth is now, Clayton said voters also probably will want a person who can compromise, especially with moderate Democrats.

"The reality is Congress is about building majorities," he explained.

Someone who sticks up for worker's rights, labor unions

Tim Morris, of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, hopes the 3rd Congressional District's next officeholder will follow in the footsteps of Yarmuth, who has a 98% lifetime score from the AFL-CIO for his legislative work.

“We need someone that would be a similar type of voice in Washington for us, that’ll take the hard fights on and vote the right way to make sure that working people in Louisville and all across our country have a strong voice," said Morris, the council's executive director. "We want someone that would be willing to go to bat for us ... to make sure that every worker can have the freedom to join and organize a union, to have a voice at the workplace."

Labor issues are wide-ranging, Miller said, encompassing educational needs as well as workplace safety concerns, which shifted to the forefront during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Clayton noted Louisville has plenty of blue-collar jobs, so focusing on economic issues that matter to the working class could win over Independent voters during the 2022 race for Yarmuth's seat. 

"Labor is having a resurgence," he said. 

An advocate for the environment

Erin Crittenden, a Fern Creek High senior, and Alesha Thorn, a duPont Manual High freshman, both hope their next representative will push for more action on climate change.

"Because if we don’t start now, then it’s going to be pretty much irreversible by the time I’m even the age to run for Congress," Crittenden, 17, said. "It would be too late for me to make those decisions, so it’s up to the people now to make those decisions, to get things started on the federal level…"

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Thorn, 14, is concerned about how pollution and air quality issues are affecting Louisvillians and wants a congressperson who takes the long view. 

"They should focus on long-term issues for us … because in the end, the things that are happening in the long term (are) going to affect us way more than the small things that are happening," Thorn said.

Morgan Watkins is The Courier Journal's chief political reporter. Contact her at mwatkins@courierjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter: @morganwatkins26.