City Government and Elected Officials and Local Government and County Government and Greg Ballard and City-County Council and Elections and Politics and Government & Economic Development and Government

Outsider appeal, moderate stance helped Ballard win

November 9, 2011

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard maintained an appeal as a political outsider and moderate Republican that drew enough Democratic support to secure him a second term Tuesday, experts said.

Democrats beat Republicans in Marion County straight-party ticket voting by more than 12,000 ballots in Tuesday’s election, enough to shift control of the City-County Council to Democrats, who now hold a 16-13 seat advantage. But Ballard’s win, with 51 percent of the vote compared to Democratic challenger Melina Kennedy’s 47 percent, in the midst of those dynamics signaled voters picked candidate over party. About 181,000 Indianapolis residents voted, a turnout of close to 30 percent of registered voters.

“This is personal mandate for Greg Ballard,” said Robert Dion, a professor of political science at the University of Evansville who followed the Indianapolis race. “It wasn’t an expression of party loyalty. It was a mandate on his leadership.”

Republican officials—and Ballard himself—attributed that mandate to efforts he’s made in his first term: repairing roads and sidewalks, holding the line on spending and reforming the Department of Public Safety.

“We have provided that fiscal responsibility, the safer streets, the stronger neighborhoods—all that and more,” Ballard said during his victory speech Tuesday night at the Murat Centre. “I know the progress must continue.”

But Adam Kirsch, executive director of the Marion County Democratic Party, said the outcome was hardly an endorsement of Ballard’s agenda, since Democrats campaigned on a contrary platform and won a majority of the council races.

He said Ballard’s incumbent status gave him a sizable boost, and Kennedy’s attempt to became the first female mayor could have made it more difficult for her to gain traction among some voters.

“Female candidates for mayor have had trouble in Indiana,” Kirsch said, pointing also to other offices, such as governor and U.S. Senator, that a Hoosier woman has yet to occupy.

Brian Vargus, a political science professor at IUPUI, agreed that Ballard had done a “good enough job,” particularly given financial constraints. But Vargus attributed his appeal more to the first-term mayor’s lingering status as a political outsider—a dynamic that plays well with voters in the current climate. Ballard never held a political office before being elected mayor in 2007.

“He’s not considered your typical politician. He’s not smooth; he’s not articulate,” Vargus said. “He escaped the label of politician, and right now politicians are not popular.”

By contrast, Kennedy, who served as deputy mayor under former Mayor Bart Peterson, appeared the more political of the two, Vargus said, particularly because she ran unsuccessfully for prosecutor in 2006.

Ballard’s moderate stance—buttressed by his support for green initiatives like bike lanes and his opposition to measures such as allowing guns in public parks—also is appealing in a predominantly Democratic city, experts said.

Based on early data, Republican insiders said Ballard over-performed in typically Democratic areas such as Pike and southern Lawrence townships and in swing areas such as parts of Wayne Township and southern Central Township. He also had support from a handful of African-American ministers, which bolstered his appeal among some black voters, who typically vote Democratic.

Jennifer Wagner, a Democratic communications strategist, said Ballard’s likability plays well among most voters. She compared the outcome of the Indianapolis race to the 2004 presidential election, in which the folksier incumbent President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry, who was perceived as having a better mastery of policy.

“I think Melina made the case that she could be a competent, hardworking, visionary mayor," Wagner said. "But the case wasn’t necessarily made to throw Greg Ballard out of office.”

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