KRULL: The weird election for Indianapolis mayor

April 23, 2011

John KrullBefore long, the race to determine who will be the next mayor of Indianapolis will begin in earnest.

The campaign between Republican Greg Ballard and Democrat Melina Kennedy is likely to be a strange one.

Normally, an election with an incumbent—which, in theory, Ballard is—cannot avoid being a kind of referendum on that incumbent’s performance.

In such races, the narrative generally goes like this: The incumbent begins the re-election campaign by reminding everyone of the plans and promises from the last campaign. The successes get touted as promises fulfilled. The failures get rewritten as reasons to be granted a second term.

The mandate the voters delivered the last time around, the incumbent says, can be fulfilled only with another turn in office.

Sometimes, incumbents try to break out of this narrative and make their opponents the issue in the campaign.

Incumbents most often try this when their tenures in office have been disastrous by even their partisans’ standards. And the technique of running away from one’s own record rarely works.

That’s the narrative for a normal election, but this isn’t a normal election.

And Greg Ballard isn’t a typical incumbent.

Four years ago, he was supposed to be a sacrificial lamb. At this time in 2007, Democrat Bart Peterson was a prohibitive favorite to win his third term as mayor of Indianapolis.

Ballard? Well, Ballard was the guy who got slapped on the Republican ballot after everyone of weight in the GOP either ducked the fight with Peterson or got knocked out of the race for reasons not related to public policy.

Ballard ran with no money and even less hope.

Then stuff happened.

Voters all across Indiana reacted with rage to the way property taxes were reassessed. The state’s mayors had nothing to do with that reassessment process, but, through a quirk of the election cycle, the mayors were the first ones to face the voters after the new reassessments came on line.

In city after city, regardless of party affiliation, mayors got mowed down as the ballots were counted.

Peterson compounded his problems by turning a deaf ear to strange dealings by the Democratic caucus of the City-County Council, specifically Monroe Gray. And he smiled genially as taxpayers groaned under the weight of a local tax increase.

By Election Day, the anger had reached critical mass.

Peterson lost. And Ballard, the lamb who was supposed to bleat his way to the chopping block, became mayor.

Even though Ballard won the election, he lost whatever chance he had to claim a mandate.

Ballard’s most potent campaign message wasn’t a policy statement. In order to get elected, all he had to say was, “I’m not Bart.” As a result, Ballard came to office an unknown quantity.

Four years later, that’s still pretty much the case. After 40 years of mayors—Richard Lugar, Bill Hudnut, Steve Goldsmith and Peterson—who courted and attracted publicity the way a fire consumes oxygen, Indianapolis now has a mayor who fades into the background. He is the mayor we still do not know.

Ballard’s inability to put his stamp on the Mayor’s Office means the triumphs that have occurred on his watch, such as landing the Super Bowl, don’t seem to accrue to his benefit. And the disasters—the ongoing dysfunction in the police department, for example—don’t seem to stick to him much, either.

That’s because the voters who elected Ballard four years ago didn’t expect him to be anything other than a way for them to express their anger. He fulfilled that mandate—the only one he had—the minute the votes were counted.

For that reason, we’re looking at a mayor’s race in which the incumbent still has to find ways to get voters to actually see him as the mayor and, with Kennedy, a challenger who will be trying to do something resembling a restoration, a reassembling of the coalition that kept Democrats in power for nearly a decade.

It’s going to be an odd race—an interesting race, but an odd one, nonetheless.•

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Krull directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and hosts the weekly news program “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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