Opinion and Forefront

BONIFIELD: The Kennedy campaign left an impact

November 26, 2011

Jake BonifieldElection night 2011 was a mixed bag for Democrats. A loss in Evansville was disappointing, even as wins in Fort Wayne, South Bend and Gary helped overshadow close losses in cities like Crawfordsville and Anderson. In the end, it all came down to Indianapolis, where challenger Melina Kennedy, around whom Democrats built their statewide campaign efforts, managed to out-raise incumbent Mayor Greg Ballard by about half a million dollars.

The Indiana Roof Ballroom was filled with patrons, enthusiastic supporters, community leaders and a host of state and local Democratic leaders. They each crowded at the foot of the stage, hoping to hear the first female mayor of Indianapolis give her victory speech. As it turned out, they would have to wait for a different night, another November some years away, to hear that version.

Deflated from the sobering news that, in spite of Democrats’ besting Republicans in straight-ticket votes by more than 10,000, Kennedy would fall some 7,500 votes shy of defeating Ballard, the crowd waited for their candidate to speak.

A tearful Kennedy delivered a brief but eloquent concession address, thanking supporters and afterward greeting the line of friends and admirers waiting to impart their sympathies.

While the somber procession came to an end, news of the loss awakened media and pundits across the state. Almost as soon as the votes were counted—and perhaps even before—the Wednesday-morning quarterbacking began. Did the county party focus too much on straight-ticket voters and not enough on independents and Republicans? Was the city simply not ready for its first female executive-in-chief? Were Kennedy’s ads, seemingly at odds with her message of hope and reform, simply too negative?

These questions are the type that elicit cocksure answers from so-called “political insiders,” whose staying power often has more to do with confidence than accuracy. It will take time to sort out what went wrong, but for now it seems enough to say that the people of Indianapolis preferred the non-controversial status quo to an uncertain but promising new direction.

The most pressing question today and in the weeks ahead has to do less with what happened than what happens next.

While Kennedy supporters were lamenting her loss, across Marion County Democratic City-County Council candidates were celebrating. After regaining control of the council by a decisive margin, Democrats now hold a 17-12 majority over Republicans.

Ballard, termed the “accidental mayor” following his defeat of Mayor Bart Peterson in 2007, has won points among many observers for his ostensibly non-political leadership. Of course, it is easy to appear apolitical when your party also controls the Legislature.

Perhaps the greatest test of Ballard’s tenure will come as he attempts to push his agenda through a newly divided government. Already, there are signs that Republicans will attempt to push through a version of the smoking ban—complete with exemptions for local fraternal organizations, tobacco stores, cigar and hookah bars—before the Democrats take all their 17 seats in January.

Though lame-duck legislating has a tendency to shorten debates and encourage hastily crafted laws, Council President Ryan Vaughn’s comments in recent days suggest the momentum may be enough to see a smoking ban passed before the new year.

This progress is a testament to Kennedy’s dedication to the issue and her success in elevating the level of public discourse on the topic. Her emphasis on employee rights in a conversation usually dominated by the interests of employers is laudable, and the council would do well to continue that conversation.

This issue, along with common-sense economic development that rewards real job creation and not far-fetched promises of future prosperity, should be the sorts of issues Ballard embraces as he and the City-County Council work together in moving our city forward.•

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Bonifield is a political science major at DePauw University and president of Hoosier Youth Advocacy, an organization focused on increasing youth participation in the Indiana General Assembly. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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