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Local Tea Party group takes aim at Carmel mayor

January 27, 2011

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard has faced his share of political challengers, none of whom have come close to beating the four-term Republican.

But as he runs for a fifth term this year, he’s expected to face new opposition from a local branch of an increasingly powerful national force: the Tea Party. A new Carmel-based Tea Party group, the Constitutional Patriots, has set its sights on Brainard as a target.

Members—mostly residents of the upscale Southwest Clay section of the city—take issue with Brainard’s spending.

That includes, in particular, the $170 million Center for the Performing Arts, and another roughly $230 million in debt issued through the city’s redevelopment commission. That money will be paid back through property taxes generated by businesses in the area of new development, and residential taxpayers are backing up about $80 million of the total should those commercial taxes not come through. 

The Patriots think their efforts to campaign against the popular incumbent will play well against a backdrop of debate over the national deficit and federal spending.

“It’s a silly way to spend money when the rest of the country is going bankrupt,” said Dwight Lile, the group’s 62-year-old founder who owns an automotive store in Zionsville. “It shows a complete lack of sensitivity.”

Brainard isn’t brushing off the threat, but he’s confident that once the Tea Party folks hear his side of the debate, they’ll support him.

He said spending on projects such as the arts center is an economic development investment that benefits the city’s tax base. That will allow Carmel to keep tax rates—which he touts as among the lowest of major cities in the state—down in years to come, he said.

“We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t think it were good for the economics of the city,” Brainard said of the performing arts center. “I think most people who are concerned about fiscal responsibility are going to vote for us.”

For now, though, the Patriots are strategizing the best method to campaign against him. They haven’t endorsed either of Brainard’s opponents, Marnin Spigelman and John Accetturo, who plan to challenge him in the critical Republican primary in May. But Lile says the group is still in its nascent stages.

Lile and his wife, who worked on Tea Party candidate Richard Behney’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid, started the Constitutional Patriots in October as part of an effort to expand the party's statewide reach. So far, the group's 12 members have mostly found the Patriots through word of mouth, since the group has operated without a website or other publicity. But once they start recruiting, Lile said, he expects “the thing to balloon.”

Local political experts aren’t so sure.

A New York Times/CBS News poll last spring showed Tea Party backers are wealthier and more educated than the general public, not unlike Carmel’s population. But Brian Vargus, a political science professor at IUPUI and longtime observer of Carmel politics, said he doesn’t think the Tea Party message will resonate enough in the suburban community to gain serious traction—or overshadow Brainard’s popularity in Carmel.

“There are always rumors about Brainard getting beat, but he always survives because he can point to a fairly impressive record,” Vargus said, noting the attention the arts center has drawn. “I would be surprised if [the Tea Party] got very far with it, but they’ll make noise.”

Lile isn’t letting the prospect of failure deter him.

The group’s core mission is bigger than unseating Brainard: It aims to bring all local elected leaders in line with the limited government that Lile said is mandated by the state Constitution.

“We figure this is a lifelong commitment,” Lile said. “Even if we lose some small battles, we’re going to create awareness.”

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