For school reform activists, anti-violence advocates and ambitious mayors throughout the nation, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson’s Election Day defeat was a sobering reminder of how easily one can go from an overwhelming lead to colossal defeat. After parlaying his ties to U.S. Senator (and aspiring vice president) Evan Bayh into two terms as mayor of the nation’s 13th-largest city, the Democrat’s multi-million-dollar bid for a third term — and aspirations for national glory — fell apart when he lost to Republican challenger Greg Ballard, who had raised just $300,000 and had little support from his own party.
Across the nation, Peterson was lauded by education reform wonks for breaking with the Democratic Party — and its support for the public education establishment — and becoming the only mayor in America to authorize charter schools. Harvard University’s Kennedy School also recognized his efforts last year by awarding him its Innovations in American Government Award. He also took his campaign against gory videogames to the national level this year after he became president of the National League of Cities. At a conference he organized on the issue last April, Peterson declared that “a lot of us … continue to be concerned about our violent culture.”
Those matters, however, aren’t paramount on the minds of residents in urban communities, who want crime-free streets, neighborhoods free of vandalism, pothole-free streets, family-friendly parks and low taxes. Rudolph Giuliani’s success in attending to those desires while serving as mayor of New York is one reason why he is now the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Peterson’s failure to do so cost him his job. It has also kept Indianapolis, once a shining Rust Belt metropolis, mired in the same blight, mayhem and malaise that have long made Detroit an unlivable slum.
A near-record 153 reported homicides last year — including such headline-grabbing incidents as the savage mass murder of Emma Valdez and six of her relatives — shows that Indianapolis is in some ways less safe than either New York or Detroit. It was the only one of eight mid-sized cities (along with the Big Apple) to experience increases in incidents and crime rates per 100,000 people in every category — including a 44-percent increase in the burglary rate — between 2000 and 2005.
Rampant, flagrant vandalism has become an increasingly common feature of the city’s landscape, as even downtown office buildings are “tagged” in graffiti. So has abandoned housing, with both poor and otherwise middle-class neighborhoods such as Fountain Square blighted by ramshackles that attract drug dealing, vagrancy and arson. City government, once-known for embracing privatization and merging local government operations under such legendary mayors as Stephen Goldsmith and Richard Lugar, has become addicted to tax increases. Peterson burnished this reputation — and likely sealed his fate — this past July when he convinced the Democrat-controlled city-county council to approve a 65-percent increase in the county-option income tax, just as homeowners were livid over a new round of double-digit property tax increases.
Now Indianapolis, whose population and labor force has barely budged since 2000, is struggling to combat the kind of suburban flight it had expertly avoided in the last century — and which crippled most other American cities.
THE SEEDS OF THE CITY’S decline began long before Peterson’s tenure in 1970, when the city government was merged into that of Marion County under the so-called Unigov plan. While urban scholars hailed it for stemming flight to the suburbs, its failure to merge the city’s two police departments, consolidate its nine main fire departments or eliminate the archaic sprawl of nine township governments resulted in even more inefficient operations. Compounding matters were decisions by three generations of city officials to ignore the need to fully fund pensions for police and firefighters, add enough police officers to keep up with population growth and ignore aging sewers.
Peterson could have mitigated the pain by concentrating on quality-of-life issues and by building upon the privatization and community policing initiatives undertaken by predecessor Goldsmith. He didn’t. His Indy Works plan to eliminate local government agencies was laudable, but he couldn’t get either Republicans or fellow Democrats on the state and local level to fully embrace it. An effort to eliminate abandoned buildings was poorly executed. And he tapped future tax revenues and borrowed heavily — including a $100 million pension obligation bond in 2005 — in order to finance existing operations
He also enraged taxpayers with his support of corporate welfare. By 2010, residents will likely face another round of tax increases to finance the operating costs of Lucas Oil Stadium, the new home of the Indianapolis Colts. They are already footing part of the $700 million construction tab.
Peterson can now devote time to his other initiatives, including an effort to improve the city’s traditional public schools by luring innovative school reform outfits such as Teach For America. But he’s likely giving a lot of thought to how he failed to embrace Giuliani’s attention to potholes and crime. Other mayors should do the same.