As mayor, Fischer has yet to burn anything in effigy (and, indeed, he’s been conducting reviews of the offices of Public Works, Planning and Design Services, and Animal Services), but he has taken a symbolic tack with the Metro Council that seems to have had nearly that impact.
“I understand he’s going to come Thursday night to our first meeting this year, and that’s something that we’ve never seen before,” Jim King, the incoming council president, told me on inauguration day. King was Fischer’s most critical opponent in the Democratic mayoral primary, running one ad suggesting Fischer was a closet Republican who exaggerated his awards and had kept his company’s jobs in Indiana out of convenience. But King stressed to me that he was the first public official to support Fischer after the primary. “Instead of (the council) formulating our thought process and him formulating his and then us having to compromise on it, we can just work together to begin with,” King said.
Tom Owen, the outgoing council president who’d invited Fischer to the meeting, initially thought the address would be “just a symbolic one and a half, two minutes.” Instead, the mayor gave a substantive seven-minute-long speech in which he referenced the views of the council members themselves, drawing from a survey he’d previously given them to discern their priorities. “Many times I’m going to be asking you all for input on various matters which you may not have been asked for input on before,” he told the chamber. Then he took a seat in the front row and respectfully stayed for another 20 minutes until King politely excused him.
To Owen’s mind, Fischer’s inclusive approach isn’t merely political expediency for someone elected by a narrow margin; it’s just how he works. Owen told me that as a businessperson, Fischer had studied participatory Japanese management practices — “rather than top-down, it was bottom-up,” Owen said.
Fischer’s management training falls under the name of Total Quality Management, or TQM, which indeed first came about in the 1980s through an effort of some American businessmen to catch up with their Japanese rivals by importing Japanese business management practices. Fischer got into TQM in the early 1990s, when he was looking for a common language and processes for improvement that SerVend and other local businesses could use. So Fischer helped found the first outside chapter of the Massachusetts-based Center for Quality Management (CQM).
After selling SerVend, Fischer became a venture capitalist and helped start other businesses (apart from city-related corporations, he’s still listed as a member, director or executive for one active Indiana corporation, two in Kentucky and seven Kentucky LLCs; in an email, his spokesman told me that while the mayor remains an investor and property owner, he’s not active in running any businesses), but he continued to teach quality management classes around the country until 2006, when CQM ran into financial trouble and a similar quality management nonprofit took it over.
“That’s where he’s coming from,” Owen said of Fischer’s business management background. “Now will this particular niche chew him up? That’s to be seen.”
The mayor’s office is on the fourth floor of Metro Hall, the Greek Revival building on Jefferson Street between Fifth and Sixth streets that used to be the Jefferson County Courthouse. The ceilings are high, and the huge windows let in a lot of white natural light that bounces nicely off the cornflower carpet and butter walls chicly playing on Louisville’s blue-and-yellow theme. Paintings on loan from the Speed Art Museum, by such eminent Louisville painters as Carl Brenner, give the room a stately cachet.
When I walked in, the 53-year-old mayor was in shirtsleeves, making his way from his desk across the long room to the table where we were to conduct our interview. We shook hands, and I thought he looked tired, which one would certainly expect after more than a year of what Fischer estimates are 85-hour workweeks.
We sat down, and the mayor put his elbows on the table. I noticed his blue tie with little white polar bears, which he later told me was from the Louisville Zoo. Seventy-four days into his new job, he said it had been “very interesting. It’s good, positive energy. I definitely like it.”