For city politics, back to the future: GOP returns without guarantees

December 31, 2007

The Republican party dominated city government here in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and for much of that time it was assumed that the party's lock on city hall was tamper-proof.

Voters proved that theory wrong in 1999. Whether it was changing demographics or the fatigue that sets in when one party rules for too long, the public turned the mayor's office over to Democrat Bart Peterson. Four years later, Peterson easily won re-election and the Democrats won the City-County Council. The assumption, even among some Republicans, was that Marion County had become a Democratic stronghold and that the party would rule for a very long time.

After Republican Greg Ballard's victory in November, it should be clear to both parties they can't take anything for granted. Marion County voters, though small in number where participation is concerned, are independent enough to reward-or punish-either party.

For all but the most hardened party stalwarts, that's good news for Indianapolis. The two-party system is alive and well here and should keep our leaders on their toes.

Not that the city has a legacy of bad leadership. Republican Richard Lugar became mayor in 1968 and helped engineer the merger of city and county governments that made Indianapolis a model for the rest of the country. Over two terms, his administration created a vision for revitalizing the city's core. Four-term Mayor William Hudnut took the vision and ran with it, adding amateur sports-and the NFL-to the mix, among his many other achievements.

Steve Goldsmith kept the Republican string alive by bringing together the team that financed Circle Centre mall, engineering the development of Conseco Fieldhouse and introducing competitive business principles to the delivery of city services.

When the baton was passed to Bart Peterson in January 2000, it represented a major shift politically, but progress didn't suffer.

Mayor Peterson beat the drum for streamlined government and embraced the innovation and choice made possible by charter schools. He also kept the Indianapolis Colts here, and championed construction of Lucas Oil Stadium, an expanded convention center and the airport's midfield terminal.

The vision the mayor showed by embracing the arts, cultural districts and private initiatives like the Cultural Trail was welcome in a city that hadn't done enough to acknowledge their value.

But bad stewardship of the City-County Council by Peterson's party and a storm of protest over property taxes were his ticket back to private life.

Now it's time for another change. As unexpected as Greg Ballard's victory was, it can pay dividends for the city. With Ballard's fresh eye and a team of seasoned veterans, we're confident Indianapolis can meet the significant challenges that lie ahead while building on the progress of the last 40 years.

To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.
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