Political Hay

Prince of the City

Have Indianapolis voters tired of Carson family rule?

By 2.26.08

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As the grandson of the late Indiana congresswoman Julia Carson and the favorite of the Indianapolis political machine she so carefully cultivated in her lifetime, Andre Carson should be a shoo-in to take over her open congressional seat.

The fact that the district is a Democrat stronghold, along with the backing he has gotten from such prominent leaders as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senator (and fellow scion) Evan Bayh, should ease his path to power.

But as the seat comes up for a special election next month, Carson petit-fils is struggling to defeat his Republican opponent, Jon Elrod, who made a splash two years ago by ousting a Democrat from the state house from a seat that both he and his brother had held for 30 years.

At the same time, Carson junior faces challenges from three heavy hitters within his own party in the congressional primary in May. If he can clear both of those hurdles, he will still have to take on Elrod again in the general election in November.

He is also is dogged by suspicions about his ties to the Islamic community, especially after Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan essentially endorsed the younger Carson during a eulogy at his grandmother's funeral two months ago. Carson the younger distances himself from Farrakhan by claiming that his grandmother invited him. Said Carson in a recent interview about his faith: "I am multifaceted."

The younger Carson could manage to keep the seat in the family. But his struggles show the difficulty of sustaining old-style black political machines, many of which were built during the Civil Rights era on race-baiting, appeals to black pride, and the doling out of welfare benefits.

As younger generations of blacks realize the extent of the damage to their communities wrought by this archaic form of leadership, even heirs apparent will strain to articulate reasons for continuing the status quo.

OVER A FIVE-DECADE career, Julia Carson parlayed her ties to the United Auto Workers union and her mentor, former Congressman Andy Jacobs, into a powerful coterie of churches and political officials that took control of one of the nation's few urban Republican strongholds.

Her power was hard-won. Carson grand-mere worked all the angles, from sending out condolence letters to grieving constituents to cutting through the bureaucratic red tape of the welfare system, to accusing her opponent during her last congressional race of having "beat his wife into a pulp."

Carson fils is a onetime rapper, former state excise police officer and flunky in the state's homeland security agency. He snagged his only political office -- a seat on Indianapolis' city-county council -- after one of his grandmother's proteges resigned when it was revealed that he didn't live in the district. Although physically imposing, the soft-spoken youngster lacks his grandmother's authoritativeness.

He also has horrible timing. This past November, Indianapolis voters replaced nationally lauded mayor Bart Peterson (who won his first campaign for office eight years ago with Julia Carson's help) with heavily underfunded Republican rival Greg Ballard, while ousting several members of the city-county council.

The corrupt antics of the elder Carson's allies -- especially then-council president Monroe Gray -- along with rising crime and a 65-percent increase in the city's county-option income tax, finally brought voter anger to a boil.

Those scandals and grievances reminded voters of the reality that quality of life hardly improved under Carson's grandmother. The city's largest school district, Indianapolis Public Schools, admitted that four in ten students who made up its original class of 2007 dropped out, while another 13 percent will likely follow. The city's job base, once far more robust than its Rust Belt rivals', has barely grown this decade.

Blacks, including the 25 percent who live in poverty, were especially hard hit as seven years of skyrocketing felonies -- including a near-record 153 reported homicides in 2006 -- devastated their neighborhoods.

This decline, along with the corruption of her allies and her own dirty politicking, colors the very legacy of the elder Carson on which her grandson is running. His own brief record resembles a typical black Democrat precinct captain rather than a change-agent, which essentially makes him a creature of the very culture voters are rejecting.

This is especially true with younger, college-educated blacks, who realize that real gains can only be made through economic and neighborhood improvements, not through traditional graft and race-pimping; someone like Newark Mayor Cory Booker or former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. (another dynastic successor) is preferable over an old-school pol.

So a challenger like Elrod, a socially moderate Republican who is known for attending closely to his constituents, would seem more attractive than the younger Carson, who, like his grandmother, represents more of the same.

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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.