TOM HARTON Commentary: On defense, Republicans get divisive

After Republicans Scott Keller and Lance Langsford broke party ranks at the Dec.19 City-County Council meeting and voted for cop consolidation and an expanded human-rights ordinance, fellow Republican Jim Bradford e-mailed them and questioned whether they were true Republicans.

Lately, it’s Bradford and other Republican hard-liners who don’t seem like the Indianapolis Republicans of old.

Republicans mayors Richard Lugar, William Hudnut and Steve Goldsmith provided pragmatic, progressive leadership here in the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s.

Lugar and longtime Council President Beurt SerVaas, working with Democrats in the late 1960s, championed and achieved Unigov, the merging of city and county governments still being copied today in cities across the country.

Hudnut won broad support for his efforts to remake Indianapolis as a sports town and resurrect the center city with the risky Circle Centre mall project.

Goldsmith wasn’t very popular with other Republicans, but his strategy of bringing competition to city services and promoting faith-based initiatives to plug gaps in the city’s social-service network drew national acclaim. And it was Goldsmith and his team who were creative enough to finance Circle Centre, ensuring that the vision of Hudnut and Democrats Mel and Herb Simon was realized.

Council Republicans were largely supportive of those creative, risky initiatives over three decades. The old Republican leadership subscribed to the theory that a healthy downtown was good for the entire county, and under their watch the city changed for the better.

Granted, today’s Council Republicans don’t have it as easy as their predecessors. They’re saddled with a mayor from the opposing party and minority status on the Council, but, unlike the Democrats of old, they’re still powerful enough to make a difference.

Unfortunately, they’re using that power to drive a wedge between those who live in the old city and residents of the townships that were consolidated into the city-or so we thought-35 years ago.

“We’re trying to be a good neighbor with Indianapolis,” Warren Township Trustee Tom Marendt, a Republican, said as he argued for preserving township government shortly after Peterson unveiled his Indianapolis Works consolidation plan in the summer of 2004.

Greenfield is our neighbor. Warren Township is not. In a city that some would argue now stretches beyond the county line and at a time when cities elsewhere are organizing regionally to market themselves to the world, now is not the time to retreat to Indianapolis circa 1960.

Yet the party once synonymous with efficient government has reduced itself to preserving outdated government structures and party fiefdoms. In trying to thwart at every turn the mayor’s efforts to extend Unigov, Marion County Republicans have distanced themselves from the party’s past.

They’re at odds with large segments of the business community, like the once reliably Republican Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, which supports consolidation and the human-rights ordinance, and they’re pursuing a strategy counter to their predecessors, who tried to unify the county, not just governmentally, but psychologically.

Councillor Keller is relatively new to politics, but he’s no stranger to the kind of cooperative thinking that gave Indianapolis an advantage over places like Louisville, Omaha and Des Moines.

Keller was a pioneer in the city’s downtown renaissance, a real estate developer with vision who used favorable federal tax laws to renovate old buildings into apartments. He was among the Republicans who brainstormed with influential Democrats like Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm and the late Larry Conrad about how to move the city forward.

“When a good idea came up, you never heard a Republican say ‘let’s not consider that, it’s from a Democrat,'” Keller recalls. “There was a spirit of cooperation. People were solutions-oriented.”

That spirit, wherever it went, must be recaptured. The “us vs. them” mentality that plagues Indianapolis is bad for our psyche. And it’s bad politics in a city with many problems to solve, problems years in the making that don’t stop at township lines.

Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to

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