Covington mayoral race becomes heavyweight bout

Posted at 11:42 AM, Jan 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-20 20:27:52-05

COVINGTON, Ky. — The race for mayor of Northern Kentucky’s largest city and ostensible urban center just became a heavyweight bout.

Former Kentucky State Representative and Senator and Secretary of Education Joe Meyer — a fourth generation Covington resident — announced Wednesday his candidacy for the city’s top executive office. He will face incumbent Sherry Carran, who is wrapping up her first term as mayor after three terms on the Covington City Commission.

Political rookie Matthew Winkler has also filed to run in the mayoral race.

The prevailing opinion initially — among the candidates and other Northern Kentucky political insiders — is that this will be one of the toughest races the city has seen in years.

A lot of that has to do with the candidates' similar backgrounds and experience, particularly when it comes to their shared focus on conserving and preserving Covington's historic structures and resources.

Meyer, who represented Northern Kentucky in Frankfort for 15 years, is credited with the revitalization of Covington’s Seminary Square neighborhood, nestled between the now re-emerging Central Business District and historic Mainstrasse Village, where he has lived for four decades. It was a movement he spearheaded in the 1970s, in addition later to providing leadership in the revitalization of 12th St./Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr.

Meyer's four children are also heavily involved in the community: His daughter heads up Renaissance Covington, a Main Street-esque urban revitalization initiative, while two of his sons — one recently hired on at Covington-based architecture firm Hub + Weber — are rehabbing two neighboring buildings on Pike Street on the southern edge of Mainstrasse Village. His third son owns the LaRosa's located on Madison Ave. in downtown Covington.

"I've been here a long time," Meyer told WCPO Wednesday morning. "I really love this city, and am heavily invested in it. I know this city's potential."

Likewise, Carran made a name for herself championing code enforcement reform toward the goal of upgrading the city’s blighted and vacant properties. She is also credited for launching in 2014 the city’s 5-year Community Investment Plan, set to raise and invest $30 million in infrastructure improvements. She has served on the Urban Forestry Board, the Kenton County Conservation District and the Kenton County Government Study Group, among others.

She and her husband also bought and renovated the historic Stevenson House on Greenup St. in the city's Licking Riverside district back in the late 1980s, the first of a number of properties the pair rehabilitated over the years.

"I have a lot of history here," said Carran, who lives in Covington's Botany Hills neighborhood. On the Kenton County Conservation District, I worked for 8 years to address land-use, transportation and watershed issues. That's when I really began to realize the city of Covington, even though it's Northern Kentucky's largest city, it really wasn't taking the leadership role it should have been taking.

"(Meyer and I) share a lot of that vision," Carran said. "But how you reach that vision might be where we differ."

One example both candidates mentioned as a point where they differ is the contentious Brent Spence Bridge replacement plan.

Both candidates said they see the bridge as an economic development issue: While Meyer represents the anti-toll advocacy group NKY United — which has voiced recent concerns that tolls would hurt traffic in and around Covington and its local businesses — Carran said the most important thing to do is to get a new bridge built to open up new avenues into the city's western neighborhoods.

Balking at the term "pro-toll," Carran said, "I'm pro-bridge," pointing to safety concerns that she said puts not just motorists but also Covington's emergency response personnel at risk on a weekly basis, if not more frequently.

"(The bridge) isn't structurally compromised, but it's functionally compromised, with multiple emergency calls each week," she said.

For Carran, the Brent Spence Bridge can only become a productive campaign issue if the candidates have what she called a "productive, healthy dialogue," something she said the region is currently lacking.

When asked what role the Brent Spence Bridge would play in the upcoming election, Carran said, "It's all according to our citizens. Will they really delve into the issue and learn the facts, or will they just listen to sound bytes?"

Former Covington City Manager turned PR and government relations consultant Jay Fossett's firm represents the pro-toll group, the Build Our New Bridge Now Coalition. Acknowledging that his client and Meyer might disagree on what's best for the Brent Spence, Fossett agreed that both candidates bring a lot to the city's political dialogue, but wonders how much impact the bridge discussion will have on Covington voters come November.

"I'm sure it will be discussed during the campaign, but, quite frankly, most people in Covington don't use that bridge," he said. "They use one of the other bridges," referring to the Clay Wade Bailey and Roebling Suspension bridges, both of which connect Covington to Downtown Cincinnati.

Instead, Fossett thinks an equally important issue between the candidates will be government transparency and efficiency, something both candidates echoed to WCPO.

"The key thing for us will be transparency, good government and accountability," Meyer said. "We'll find some room for discussion in those areas," all topics Carran's time on the Kenton County Government Study Board, which looks at ways to streamline local governments across the county, will inform.

When asked where he sees each candidate's stance on those issues, Fossett said, "I think they both want the same thing, especially after the issue (the city) dealt with with (former finance director) Bob Due."

Due pleaded guilty in 2014 to embezzling roughly $700,000 from city coffers.

"I think it's going to be a hard-fought battle," Fossett said. "They both are veterans on the campaign trail, so I think you'll see a pretty tight race."

Carran echoed this Wednesday afternoon. "It's going to be a difficult race," she said. "Joe's been involved in politics in many different forms and so he's going to be tough to beat. But I'm up to it. I've always been up to the challenge... It's always been about the city for me."

It was that diverse political experience that voters can expect to hear Meyer tout on the stump in the months to come. 

"I know how to chair a governmental body that is made up of people with diverse points of view and has to interact with people in the public," Meyer said. "In the executive branch, I supervised and managed a $3 billion budget and 3,000 employees. 

"That's a set of experience that's, quite frankly, unmatched," he said.

Fossett said it will be interesting to see how the candidates' respective types of governing experience will play out on the campaign trail: "(Meyer) definitely has a lot of experience, but it's been on the state level," he said. "Sherry's been on city commission, and mayor for 4 years (after that). Then again, Joe has contacts downstate, which I'm sure he'll tap.

"I respect both candidates, and I think both would do a great job," he said, a perspective that mirrors the sense of mutual respect both candidates hold among voters across the region (and, it seems, for each other) and could preview the tone this campaign might take.

The mayoral election in Covington will take place November 8, 2016.