NOTIONS: Profiles in courage and political consequences

November 12, 2007

After Tuesday night's vote tallies, after the candidates' acceptance and concession speeches, after Wednesday's

Indianapolis Star

trumpeted Greg Ballard's upset of Mayor Bart Peterson in 120-point type, I pulled from my bookshelf my copy of John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage." There were two courageous acts on the Indianapolis mayoral stage this year. First, there was courage by Ballard. When all the prominent Republican politicians chose not to challenge Democrat Peterson; when most of the usualsuspect Republican donors gave to Peterson instead; when the GOP effectively conceded the mayor's race; Ballard jumped in and kept believing. He believed even when the polls showed he was dead meat. He believed even when he couldn't muster money for TV advertising. He believed even when the Star said he had "not shown he is remotely ready to lead a large and complex city as mayor." "Six months ago, I was the only one who believed," Ballard said Tuesday night. "But now, everybody believes." They say it's lonely at the top. Ballard survived solitary confinement en route.

Ballard also may find isolating the foundation of his victory: For in a democratic society, we may vote for someone or against someone. Ballard's brilliant slogan-"Had enough?"-was an engraved invitation to vote against the incumbent's actions and circumstances, rather than for Ballard's ideas and expertise.

Mayor-elect Ballard's key challenge: Prove that he's a leader in his own right and not just "anybody-but-Bart."

If he continues on a course of notbeholden-to-anyone, miracle-working independence, that should be doable.

And then there's courage by Peterson.

Long ago, some wise political leaders combined city and county governments in these parts via Unigov. Like many smart solutions, it required compromises. One concession resulted in the retention of duplicative city and county police forces. Peterson had the courage to finally fix it. But he compromised with the sheriff to get it done.

Some voted against him for that.

Long ago, Indiana established an oftenunfair, difficult-to-manage property-tax system. A storm of circumstances-most beyond city government's control-resulted in sharp property-tax spikes this year. Peterson had the courage to try to fix it via local government reform that was thwarted by the Legislature.

Some voted against him for that.

Long ago, the federal government told Indianapolis to do a better job of dealing with its sewage overflow. Mayor after mayor deferred. Peterson had the courage to fix it. But the solution cost ratepayers money.

Some voted against him for that.

Long ago, Indianapolis buried itself with unfunded pension obligations for police officers and firefighters. Mayor after mayor deferred. Peterson had the courage to fix it. But he had to raise taxes to do so.

Some voted against him for that.

Long ago, many people of means fled urban Indianapolis for the suburbs. That left the city with a higher percentage of economically poorer citizens with greater human-service needs. When those services didn't keep pace (because citizens are loath to raise taxes), it contributed to higher crime rates and more costly services. Peterson had the courage to address that-via charter schools, crime-prevention programs and a long-overdue end to early jail release. But all of the above cost taxpayers money.

Some voted against him for that.

"Profiles in Courage" is loaded with lessons for candidates and citizens. Among them are reminders that we shouldn't condemn officeholders for acting in good conscience, for compromising when something is better than nothing, for doing what's right long-term and not just what's best for re-election.

Compromise cost Peterson votes. That wouldn't surprise Kennedy, who said, "Compromise need not mean cowardice. Indeed it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents."

Tax increases-even to fund long-overdue obligations and fight crime-cost Peterson votes. That wouldn't surprise Kennedy, either. He said, "The fanatics and extremists and even those conscientiously devoted to hard-and-fast principles are always disappointed at the failure of their government to rush to implement all of their principles and to denounce those of their opponents."

Taking positions of any kind cost both candidates votes. That wouldn't surprise Kennedy, who quoted Abraham Lincoln as saying, "There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded."

Mayor Peterson has given us eight years of his best judgment. A few of those judgments cost him his job.

Mayor-elect Ballard must now give us his best judgment. May he do so with courage, principle and an eye toward what's right in the long run for all-and not just reactionary to extremists du jour.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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