A year ago, Greg Ballard stood poised on the edge of defeat in the mayor’s race.
The David Bissard case made it seem as if the police were out of control and managing law enforcement was an issue—in fact, perhaps the only specific issue—the Republican Ballard had trumpeted in taking down Democrat Bart Peterson in the 2007 election. In public appearances, Ballard often looked ineffectual and out of his depth. His political obituary already had been written.
Somehow, though, he won on Election Day, beating a well-funded Democratic candidate in a year Indianapolis elected a Democratic council.
How did he do it?
The prevailing wisdom is that Ballard’s opponent, Democrat Melina Kennedy, did herself in by going “negative” too early and too aggressively.
The people who make that argument don’t understand the nature of campaigns. Winning candidates, whether they are incumbents or challengers, have two arguments to make. The first involves demonstrating that he or she is worthy of the office. Those ads can be positive, even feel-good ones.
The other argument is that his or her opponent isn’t the best choice for the office. Those ads have to be critical or negative.
And, as far as the tone of the campaign, it was almost surprisingly mild. The ads and phone blitzes were hard-hitting, but they focused almost entirely on the candidates’ performances of their public duties.
Unlike previous Hoosier campaign donnybrooks, there were no whispering campaigns about the candidates’ rumored infidelities or sexual orientation. There were no attempts to get reporters to investigate one of the candidates for rape or delve into his or her divorce. There were no forays into the candidates’ college-age experiences with drugs.
Instead, the campaigns focused on the stands the candidates took. If the ads’ interpretation of where the other candidate stood was selective to the point of being misleading, that’s the way things always have been and likely always will be. As Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley said a century ago, “Politics ain’t beanbag.”
Nor should it be.
Most likely, the candidate who wilts under the pressure of a hard-hitting campaign won’t be tough enough to negotiate with corporate bigwigs or union leaders.
So, Ballard didn’t win because Kennedy self-destructed.
He won because he deserved to.
The reason is simple. He won because he did things—things that mattered.
There’s a lesson in that for Democrats.
In 1999, when Peterson became the first Democrat to be elected mayor of Indianapolis in 32 years, he focused most of his and the public’s attention on one issue. It wasn’t reforming education or rebuilding the city’s infrastructure or making sure the political process was open to everyone.
Nope, the first Democratic mayor in more than three decades spent his political capital on a largely meaningless and unconstitutional attempt to ban violent video games.
Ballard, on the other hand, has focused his time and energy on things people care about.
He has tried, with varying success, to get an out-of-control police culture into some kind of harness. He has pushed the city to start repaving streets, including some that haven’t been touched by road crews since Richard Nixon was president. And he has attempted to make it easier for people to park downtown by punching through a controversial plan to privatize city parking meters so they can accept credit card payments.
Reasonable people can—and should—debate whether some of Ballard’s solutions were wise ones. They also can—and should—argue about whether his style of government is as transparent as it should be, particularly when it comes to the bidding process for some of his pet projects.
What they can’t argue about is the reason he won re-election.
Ballard won because he identified significant problems and has tried to solve them. He has used the power he sought to rebuild the city.
Ballard won because the voters want a mayor who focuses on work, not on games.•
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.