Elected Officials and City Government and Greg Ballard and Elections and Government & Economic Development

Ballard pulls off long-shot campaign, defeats Peterson

December 31, 2007

In early 2007, many expected Marion County Republicans to punt on the chance to unseat Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson. After all, the two-term incumbent had high approval ratings and a campaign war chest of $2.5 million.

Attractive GOP candidates willing to embrace the challenge were in short supply.

A series of better-known people turned the nomination down, so local Republicans turned in desperation to businessman Bob Parker. But Parker stumbled on his way out of the gate when The Indianapolis Star in late February published racist comments he made in a recorded interview. Jewish groups reacted with outrage.

Peterson's re-election seemed certain, and the Republican nomination fell to Greg Ballard, a 52-year-old former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines. With few financial resources and even less support from community leaders, Ballard staged a long-shot grass-roots campaign based on wearing out his shoe leather. He spent all summer meeting with church and neighborhood groups.

Ballard's big break came unexpectedly in the summer, when Indiana's property-tax crisis began to crest. Behind closed doors, Republican leaders bemoaned their missed opportunity to oust Peterson. But Ballard attempted to ride the wave of ire.

He appeared at public protests and advocated eliminating property taxes entirely. Ballard's blue "Had Enough?" campaign signs began popping up in yards around Indianapolis.

Despite the turmoil, Peterson still looked unbeatable. Feeling secure of his lead, the mayor approved a local income-tax hike to underwrite improvements to public safety and pay off the city's long-standing debt for police and firefighter pensions. For many voters, it was a tone-deaf decision.

On Election Day, Peterson's lead had clearly narrowed, but most pundits still expected him to win. When Ballard pulled off the victory, it was Indiana's most stunning political upset in decades.

Left flat-footed, reporters and business leaders alike scrambled to meet Ballard and learn his agenda, which includes slashing at least $70 million a year from local government spending and reorganizing the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department under his direct command.

But Ballard's views aren't yet clear about a host of other public issues, including downtown development projects, whether Indianapolis should pursue a bid to host the 2012 Super Bowl, or how the community can sustain its progress on arts and cultural initiatives.

As the year concluded, Ballard was quickly embraced by the Republican elite who once wouldn't take his calls. In the wake of his victory, Ballard's transition team of longtime insiders and 150 volunteers evaluated the current status of local government. Their work will set the stage for Ballard to restructure department management hierarchies, replace dozens of board members, and release long-standing government service contracts for competitive bidding on the open market.

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