For many people in Louisville (myself included), Ryan Fenwick represents a shift in the political landscape of the Kentucky state DNC. Fenwick has put his money where his mouth is, so to speak, both working within government and taking stands on issues that he gets behind by working with activists to find viable solutions plaguing their community. Fenwick is the kind of voice we need in politics that privileges people over the corporate interests, social justice initiatives, and a balanced and considered economic development strategy. Most importantly, Fenwick is kind and inspiring, which perhaps more than anything in the world, is something we all need right now.
To get better acquainted with Fenwick, we reached out to him for an interview to ask him about his political work and campaign, SCALA, and victory music…
Never Nervous: Tell us a little about yourself first. What’s your backstory?
Ryan Fenwick: I grew up in a small town called Water Valley in Western Kentucky. I spent my childhood working on the farm before moving to attend the University of Louisville. After graduating with a degree in law and urban planning, I began my career as an attorney with a focus on helping ordinary folks find justice.
As an attorney I’ve helped people start nonprofits, worked to make government accountable, and fought for regular people against big money interests. I have never focused my legal practice on making money for myself. Instead, I have made a commitment to justice by dedicating my career to causes and people that couldn’t normally afford an attorney.
In addition to my legal work, I have had the privilege of volunteering countless hours as a grassroots activist and community advocate. I was involved in the Move Louisville Transportation Plan, the Vision Louisville Report for Improved Urban Infrastructure, the Vision Smoketown report, as well as Louisville People’s Guide to the Budget. I have served on the steering and executive committees of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and I am a member of the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee. I showed up to oppose the West Louisville Methane Plant, and stood with workers during the Omni and Steelworkers Strike. I have been on the ground and seen how grassroots organizing can mobilize community-led decision making.
I’m a daily bike commuter and live with my partner of 10 years, Brett Holsclaw.
NN: You seem connected in the Louisville scene. Have you been in any bands or anything like that?
RF: I was very briefly the keyboard player in a noise rock band called Space Whales. They kicked me out. I’m not much of a keyboard player, but I do love the scene. I used to watch Ayin and Vampire Squid shows all the time. Now you can find me at pretty much all the Twenty First Century Fox, Jaxon Lee Swain, Lung, and Killii Killii shows.
NN: What drew you to politics? And why now?
RF: I was political in the sort of abstract way for a very long time. I started learning about electoral politics when I decided during grad school that studying wasn’t enough and that I needed to engage with local politics if I was going to start seeing the change I wanted to see. I started volunteering with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and over about six years started to see a lot of ways we’re missing the mark in local politics.
I’d thought about going into politics for a long time, but but decided now was the time to run for office because there were too many ways the current mayor is missing the mark. He talks like a progressive reformer, but gives us top-down, corporate style governance. I’ve lobbied, made calls, written to the paper and done everything else I could think of to do to make things better, but none of it changed the direction of the city government. The city should not have to endure four more years. I believe it is essential to democracy that people not leave an unresponsive incumbent in office. The very last straw for me, the moment when I knew Fischer shouldn’t be mayor any more, is when he continued to support a methane plant in the California Neighborhood despite overwhelming community opposition.
“You never know where the good ideas are going to come from and that good leaders listen.”
NN: Why do you think you would be a better mayor than Fischer? What do you think he’s done wrong? What do you think he’s done right?
RF: I will be a better mayor than Fischer, because I know from my experience in the grassroots that you never know where the good ideas are going to come from and that good leaders listen. Fischer has privileged the interests of big money interests time after time and failed to listen to the voices of communities and local experts on our most pressing issues like violent crimes and environmental issues. His economic development strategy has failed to reach into neighborhoods and spur investment in the traditional city, instead focusing attention on highly subsidized downtown development. There is good reason based on Urban Planning literature to be skeptical of the strategy.
I like about Fischer that he has instituted an open data policy, though I think we aren’t doing enough to make sure the data is truly accessible to the community and that we are making policy decisions based on the data we’re collecting. Also, though I think it has largely been empty rhetoric as implemented by his administration, I think Compassion is a good benchmark for city policy. I’m certain the repetition of the phrase has done a lot to change how we think about governance in the city.
NN: You have a robust platform of ideas and reforms. Where would you start and why? How would you develop Louisville?
RF: I would start with transitioning out ineffective department heads. We need to replace our police chief with someone who can implement community policing and who will have the respect of their officers. Our chief of economic development needs to be replaced with someone who understands how to center the community and devop neighborhoods. I would start there because violence and lack of economic development vision is at the heart of why West and South Louisville neighborhoods are not seeing the kind of investment as other parts of the city and our failure to support these communities is not only immoral but also a financial bottleneck preventing us from developing in a direction that will be authentic to our community.
RF: Thank you for saying so. I think that when people see the effectiveness of what I’m proposing it will just be the new normal here. The programs in my platform are programs drawn from local experts who have thought long and hard about what is missing from Metro Government. They are programs that are vetted in other communities and supported by research. It’s hard for future politicians to run against good ideas, so I’m confident they will be sustained into past my term
NN: How would you stand for Louisville against Governor Bevin or President Trump, both of which have enacted policies that can very well effect our city?
RF: I believe it is our moral duty in the current political climate to retain our moral compass at any cost. That said, there is no real reason to poke the bear. When our immigrants are threatened, we have to stand up. When Bevin backs a racist Gang Bill that is going to target people of color, we have to stand up. From my participation in Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Rural Urban Exchange I am confident the state is by and large filled with reasonable people who understand an attack on Louisville is an attack on Kentucky.
NN: Relative to that, should Louisville be a Sanctuary City? If so, how would we hope to mitigate any financial penalties that have been threatened in the past?
RF: Mijente Louisville was the driver of the Sanctuary Policy ordinance enacted by Metro Council last year. It was carefully crafted to protect our immigrant populations without incurring federal consequences. I think the ordinance is a model of responsible participation and I fully support it. I do not believe there will be financial penalties for the policy, and from what I understand the penalties are not so significant they could not be absorbed by the budget. This is, though, truly a moral issue. No matter what your status you should be able to trust the local police.
NN: How do you respond to things like SCALA? Is there any benefit to an organization like that?
“SCALA is fundamentally undemocratic.”
RF: SCALA is fundamentally undemocratic. There is no use for such an organization. The idea that the super-rich of the city feel so entitled to making decisions on our behalf is a major reason I’m in this race. It’s not the super-rich who govern in a democracy, it’s us, the working class people of the city. If SCALA members want to make a difference they can provide their funds and times to the many grassroots organizations in the city that are ready to listen to directly impacted people from every walk of life and broker thoughtful solutions to our problem.
NN: How would you welcome a creative class?
RF: We should stop building the city for people who don’t live here yet. I would welcome the creative class by building an equitable, diverse local economy, improving public transportation, and addressing lingering environmental issues. Millennials of any class want to live in a city that works for its residents. Louisville is an amazing city, we don’t have to market it like Nashville or Portland. We need to drill down on what is unique about us.
NN: On a spiritual level, are you ready for some football? Can anyone really be?
RF: Sorry, not really a fan. I sure do miss my weekly tennis match though…
NN: I’m sure you have no time, but when you do, what do you do with it? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth mentioning lately?
RF: I read To the Lighthouse a few months ago and it was amazing! I was really shocked by how good it was. My favorite food to mention is the Dak Shin Indian buffet. Really it just doesn’t get any better.
NN: Tell us your victory music. What is your top three albums at the moment, and what would be the best music to listen to when accepting your victory?
RF: I’m not sure I really have victory music. I always want to listen to complicated stuff. I’d let my boyfriend pick, he’s a way better DJ.