Opinion and Forefront

MAHERN: What Ballard means when he says 'private'

May 19, 2012

Louis Mahern“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, to Alice, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’”

—“Through the Looking Glass”


Throughout the smoking ban debate, the mayor’s mantra has been, “When I say ‘private’ I mean private.” This has been his explanation for exempting private clubs from any smoking ban. When council Democrats wanted to prevent children from being exposed to second- or third-hand smoke at private clubs, the mayor threatened another veto. His explanation? “Private means private.”

Councilor John Barth, whose devotion to children’s health far outstrips that of the mayor, swallowed his pride and agreed to the mayor’s demand. A new draft of the ordinance was prepared incorporating the mayor’s requirement that children be permitted to visit the exempt private clubs. All in the name of “Private means private.”

When the council Democrats scheduled the proposed ordinance to be heard in committee, the mayor or his representatives declined to testify. The mayor’s office’s explanation was, “The mayor’s position is pretty clear on the issue.”

The committee took testimony pro and con on the proposal and reported it out of committee with the exemption for private clubs and their ability to host children. After all, “Private means private.”

Fourteen days passed after the proposal was voted out of committee before the ordinance was eligible for a vote by the full council.

During these 14 days, the general speculation was the mayor would probably sign this version although the mayor, as is his wont, would not make plain his intentions.

Fourteen days during which the mayor might have made any objections known. Two weeks when any technical problems might have been discovered and corrected. A fortnight during which the mayor and his platoons of lawyers on staff and retainer might have recommended any amendments.

Instead, the mayor waited until less than two hours before the council meeting to offer his changes. The mayor’s amendment removed the requirement that a club member accompany any guest at the “private” club.

In other words, an unaccompanied non-club member could step inside the “private” club and order a cold beer with no problem. It’s kind of like, well, a public establishment. You know, the sort that holds itself out to the public. In some countries, they actually call them public houses or pubs.

Not only did he wait until the last minute to make known his desired change, he didn’t even afford Barth the courtesy of a personal visit from a staff member.

You probably thought I was going to write that Barth didn’t get a personal visit from the mayor. The mayor doesn’t do personal visits to Democratic councilors. Instead, he had his press person send a text message with the desired change. This mayor’s interpersonal communication skills may need a little work.

The mayor was banking on Barth’s and Councilor Angela Mansfield’s desire to get the ordinance passed no matter what.

Small wonder that bar owners are upset. Not only will they face unfair competition, but the 11th-hour offering of the amendment meant bar owners were not permitted to even point out the unfairness.

It turns out when the mayor says “private,” he doesn’t really mean private. In this instance, when he says “private,” he actually means public. The only real difference is that in private clubs smoking will be allowed and in public clubs smoking will not be allowed.

In Orwell’s “1984,” the Newspeak word blackwhite has “two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”

For a guy who claims to not do politics, the mayor is getting pretty good at Newspeak.•

• Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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