Democrats grooming Schellinger as candidate for governor

March 5, 2007

In the Democrats' field of potential candidates to unseat Gov. Mitch Daniels, there are few household names. That's why they're preparing to spend the next 19 months introducing you to Jim Schellinger.

The 46-year-old Indianapolis architect has little political experience. Nor is he widely known outside his field. But supporters say Schellinger has other compelling qualities, including a warm, friendly personality and a track record at the helm of a business that successfully handled some of Indiana's highest-profile public projects.

Associates and industrial competitors alike laud his reputation as a consensus builder. And his personal story is straight out of Horatio Alger. Transforming a virtual unknown into a viable candidate is a tall order. But it's not unprecedented.

After all, it worked for Bart Peterson, who'd been an aide to Gov. Evan Bayh but had never run for office when he was elected Indianapolis mayor in 1999.

"Clearly, his name recognition probably doesn't register statewide. But neither did Mitch Daniels' in 2003 before he started to run," said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker. "People might be looking for a fresh face."

Taking on Daniels would cost a bundle. According to state records, Daniels closed 2006 with nearly $2.6 million in his campaign war chest. As an incumbent with plenty of enthusiastic supporters, he can raise a lot more, and he controls the bully pulpit. Indiana Republican Party Chairman Murray Clark expects Daniels to surpass the $17 million he raised in his last campaign.

"The state was starved for leadership when he was elected in 2004," Clark said. "We had gotten relatively good at identifying problems, but it took Mitch Daniels to propose courageous solutions."

Democrats question those same initiatives. They say Daniels too often conceives sweeping changes behind closed doors--like the privatization of the Indiana Toll Road and Hoosier Lottery--then dictates from above. Democrats will seek to paint Daniels as an isolated elitist, and position Schellinger as a populist alternative.

Daniels won't be toppled easily. Parker admits he spent 2006 attempting to woo better-known Democrats like Peterson or former Gov. Joe Kernan. Their chorus of "no's" led the party to Schellinger, who's interested but hasn't formally announced his candidacy.

At the moment, Schellinger is best known as president of Indianapolis-based CSO Schenkel Schultz, and as a major donor to Democratic campaigns. State records show contributions totaling $178,622 for candidates since 2000.

South Bend roots

Back home in South Bend, they still call him "Jimmy." Schellinger grew up in the shadow of the University of Notre Dame in a tiny three-bedroom house, the sixth of eight Catholic children. He shared his room with four brothers. For nearly 20 years, they succeeded one another on the same paper route. Each brother wore No. 50 on St. Joseph High School's football team.

Schellinger's father was a quality-control engineer for Bendix Corp. His mother was a homemaker. It was a working-class life. And Schellinger had no choice but learn to share.

"We didn't have much as kids, in terms of material goods," Schellinger said. "But we had a lot of love and a lot of care."

Little Jimmy had every local boy's dream back then: to be captain of Notre Dame's football team. Then, at age 8, he discovered architecture. Seeking elbow room, he wanted a fort in his back yard. The crew building a nearby apartment complex offered a deal: Clean their site and take all the wood you want. Schellinger worked so hard that the crew built his fort with him, using his design.

When it was time for college, Schellinger was too small to play for Notre Dame. He did land a football scholarship at Butler University, but gave it up after a year for the chance to transfer and attend Notre Dame's School of Architecture.

To pay for his education, he worked nights and summers at Capitol Tool & Dye, taking out trash, cleaning bathrooms and grinding the rough edges off of unprocessed steel.

After school, he applied to 10 architectural firms in Indianapolis. Nine sent polite declines. The 10th--CSO Schenkel Schultz--didn't respond.

Schellinger ultimately landed in the Indianapolis office of South Bend-based Cole Associates. He moved to CSO in 1987 and has been president since 1996. He said he now makes sure every applicant receives a response.

Les Olds, CSO's retired chairman, recalls assigning Schellinger his first office-building project during Schellinger's 120-day tryout period. Olds asked for results in a week.

"The next day, he comes into my office and he has a great big three-ring binder, all tabbed with all the information and a whole series of sketches," Olds said. "He had worked all night and said, 'What's next?' I realized we may have a keeper here."

The projects got bigger and bigger. CSO has had a hand in landmarks like Circle Centre mall, the Carmel City Center, the Indianapolis International Airport's new midfield terminal, WellPoint Inc.'s headquarters and the Imax theater downtown.

"He has represented our industry well," said Monte Hoover, chairman of Indianapolis' largest architectural firm, BSA Lifestructures. "I think he is a good leader."

Building consensus

In recent years, CSO has focused much of its attention on schools. Its specialty is building local support for controversial projects.

For example, Columbus' Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. in 2002 called on Schellinger after it lost a bond remonstrance for a $115 million project involving five schools.

To salvage the project, he methodically led a series of lengthy public meetings designed to find compromise on scope and cost. The input led the district to scale back to a $34 million plan.

"That's what Jim's very good at, listening to folks," district Superintendent John Quick said. "Every question that was asked in every forum, the next forum it got an answer. I'm not saying everyone was happy with the answer, but everything was documented and everyone who came got an answer to their questions."

Locally, Schellinger followed the same playbook for the $11 million renovation and expansion of IPS School 84 at 57th Street and Central Avenue.

Neighbors--including some who send their children to private and parochial schools--questioned the scope and cost of the project.

So Schellinger led 24 public meetings, three times the number IPS usually holds, to build support. The first discussions established common ground and the need for the renovation. He didn't broach how to address the need until much later.

"Probably the most important thing he did was take the time and effort to hear every person's comment," said IPS Chief of Facilities Management Steve Young.

"Frankly, we were starting from a high level of apprehension. To be able to work through that wasn't easy. They weren't all pleasant meetings. But giving people an opportunity to be heard, even if you can't do specifically what they want, gives them a sense they can accept the conclusion."

If Schellinger were to become governor, such skills might prove handy in working with state legislators and political opponents.

But he's a long way from that point. While Democrats are beginning to coalesce around Schelllinger, he's not the only Democrat expressing interest. His competition at the moment includes State Sen. Richard Young, who hails from the southwestern Indiana hamlet of Milltown, and former congresswoman Jill Long Thompson of northern Indiana.

And a race against Daniels would be a long shot to win, said Stephen A. Graham, an associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis.

"I wouldn't say [Daniels' lead] is insurmountable, but it would be difficult to overcome," he said. "It's about name recognition and, obviously, it's about money. It'll take all the time [Schellinger] has before the 2008 elections to make himself credible."

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