Political Hay

The Accidental Mayor

Will Indianapolis' Republican reformer be the second mayor to fail to live up to his promise?

By 10.29.09

Send to Kindle

Greg Ballard captured the national spotlight in 2007 when he managed to defeat the re-election bid of the Indianapolis Bart Peterson, one of the rising superstars on the national Democratic Party scene. With just $300,000 in campaign donations, little support from the local Republican establishment, and the heckling of local news outlets, the former marine colonel -- selected after the GOP failed to field a single candidate for its primary -- Ballard managed to end the aspirations of U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh's protégé.

On the national scene, Peterson was lauded by centrist Democrats and school reform activists for becoming the first mayor in America to authorize charter schools. But for city residents, Peterson stood out for his inability to end an eight-year spate of rising crime, ineptitude in addressing vagrancy and vandalism, and unwillingness to end corporate welfare for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and the NBA's Indiana Pacers. He also angered residents by levying an array of tax increases -- including a 65 percent hike in the local income tax -- and, as in a $100 million pension bond float, by borrowing heavily against future tax revenues.

Ballard managed to end Peterson's tenure and restore Indianapolis to its storied position as one of the few big cities under Republican control by promising to reverse the tax increase, exercise fiscal prudence, and address the very quality of life problems Peterson neglected. In the process, he won the support of community activists, homeowners groups, grassroots Republicans, and muckrakers who tangled with Peterson during his second term. Proclaimed lawyer and blogger Gary Welch, whose Advance Indiana site championed Ballard during the campaign: "He is the right man at the right time given to us to correct the mistakes of the past and put us back on the right path."

But two years later, Ballard's grassroots supporters accuse him of being "disgusting" and of "abandoning" Republican principles by failing to roll back the income tax increase. He has also taken flack for successfully pushing an $8 million increase the city's hotel and beverage sales taxes. The latter move, along with a loan from Indiana's state government, will help bail out the city's Capital Improvement Board, operator of the city's two horse barn-like sports complexes. Declared Welch in a recent post: "[Ballard] devotes all of his energies to raising taxes for the billionaire sports team owners."

Ballard isn't the first mayor to be disappointing to grassroots allies. Given the group of equally uninspiring aspirants, Ballard may still limp his way into a second term. But for a politician with few sources of long-term political support among more-established political constituencies, betraying promises to grassroots activists, and ditching Republican values isn't the way to win re-election. As shown by chief executives as varied as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Ballard's fellow Hoosier, Gov. Mitch Daniels, it pays to stick to one's agenda.

WITH ITS SPARKLING DOWNTOWN HOTELS, the presence of the state government and thriving hometown firms such as healthcare giant WellPoint and Eli Lilly, Indianapolis isn't wrestling with the same levels of blight and mayhem plaguing sister Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and Detroit. But the city is no longer resistant to urban decay.

Not far from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in University Park, vagrants drink, smoke, and loiter next to the statue of onetime U.S. vice president Schuyler Colfax. Just outside the downtown on the Near-Northside, abandoned and burned-out homes are as much of the landscape as the city's Fall Creek. On the city's Westside, middle class residents drive out of their tony condominiums to work and past an increasing number of half-empty strip malls, seedy strip joints, and neon-lit check cashing outlets.

At the very least, Ballard can claim to have steadied the city's homicides -- 114 of them were reported last year versus a near-record 153 two years earlier. But incidents of other reported crimes, including aggravated assaults and robberies, remain near all-time highs. The police department has been busy struggling with scandals within its own ranks. This includes federal convictions against two officers for shaking down drug dealers, and news that 50 off-duty cops worked for a local scrap metal firm now under indictment for receiving stolen cars and pilfered aluminum siding.

Embracing the pursuit of government efficiency and privatization that was a hallmark of his more-successful predecessor (and current Harvard University professor) Stephen Goldsmith, Ballard has convened an "Infrastructure Advisory Commission" that is spearheading a likely re-privatization of the city's water and sewer system. It has already received bids from several companies -- including Australian-Spanish consortium Macquarie-Cintra, which has helped a string of politicians, notably Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. Daniels, with their lease of much-neglected highways. Ballard also successfully eliminated the city's nine township-level property tax assessors and consolidated their operations into a countywide office.

But it is the promises not kept that have exposed Ballard to scorn. The mayor, once a staunch opponent of tax increases, now champions an initiative by the city's hospital agency to replace its 17-building campus -- which boasts the state's highest safety and health accreditation -- with a spanking new $754 million complex. Opponents of the plan complain that the plan will pile another $29 million a year in property taxes onto homeowners just as they have begun absorbing a decade of two-fold hikes. Ballard also increased city water and sewer rates by 11 percent even as the state's utility commission declared that his administration didn't attempt any cost-cutting efforts. In September, the mayor proposed another as-yet unspecified rate hike.

But it's the bailout of the city's convention and stadiums agency that has earned Ballard the most vitriol from friends and foe alike. The effort was prompted in part by the agency's decision to absorb $15 million in cost increases at Conseco Fieldhouse that would have otherwise been absorbed by the Pacers. By the way, the Pacers are owned by the estate of recently-deceased mall baron Mel Simon and his brother Herb (who is worth $1.3 billion, according to Forbes).

The causes of the bailout, along with memories of past subsidies and angst over the newly-built $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium won Ballard no cheers. Nor did his ham-handed efforts before skeptical state legislators and Gov. Daniels (who, having helped back the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium, was forced to bless the mess). Wrote local radio talk show host Abdul Hakim-Shabazz: "[Ballard's administration] did not do a very good job of making the public case for a solution."  

CERTAINLY BALLARD IS WRESTLING WITH fiscal problems that have begun crippling the city long before he took office. A merger of the city government with that of Marion County in 1970 under the so-called Unigov plan, failed to fully integrate the city's archaic sprawl of government operations, police departments, and township governments.  Decisions by three generations of city officials have ignored the need to fully fund pensions for police and firefighters, add enough police officers to keep up with population growth, and improve aging sewers.

An additional burden was introduced in the late 1960s, when city officials such as future U.S. Senator Richard Lugar began luring sports teams, exhibitions, and eventually the NCAA, with a string of new stadiums, training centers, and subsidies. The deals have saddled taxpayers with millions in debt service and steadily increasing taxes -- and focused the minds of his predecessors on matters that have little to do with improving quality of life.

Ballard could have chosen a different path. Instead, he has followed their example in a uniquely tone-deaf style. This past June, as he pitched his stadium agency bailout to state and local leaders, he shut down pools in the city's parks. Although a sensible move -- the pools were leaking water after years of neglect -- the manner in which Ballard carried it out didn’t endear him to local families.

He has also exposed himself to the same charges of "country club" living that he decried during his campaign. Last December, the mayor spent $30,000 in taxpayer dollars to fund an economic development trip to China; previous mayors used private fundraising for similar junkets. Then in August, Ballard revealed that he received a free membership to a sanctuary for local powerbrokers, the Columbia Club, which usually costs more than $2,100 a year to maintain (on top of a $1,500 initiation fee).

At this rate, Ballard may blunder himself out of the country club and the mayor's office altogether.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.