As a political science major, I learned about the theory and practice of obtaining and exercising power.
I read Hobbes and Machiavelli, Jefferson and Madison, Woodward, Bernstein and Theodore White.
I pored over the history of political parties, analyzed voter demographics, and debated issues du jour.
But it was Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” that opened my eyes. While I’ve never lost my belief that government and governmental leaders can do good—and that most want to do so—those 1,344 pages left me ever alert to behind-the-scenes machinations that influence money, public policy and elections.
When I went to work in government—for both Republican and Democratic administrations—I saw firsthand how the game is played. As a campaign donor, volunteer, adviser and “political junkie,” I’ve learned even more.
Here are four stories to consider at the mayoral ballot box in November.
You can’t blame your predecessor forever.
At every level, newly elected officials blame their problems on those who preceded them.
They say, “We inherited a mess,” or, “My predecessor spent all the money,” or, “We first had to right the wrongs and turn the Titanic.”
But there’s a statute of limitations on this strategy. Two years in, new leaders have had time to build their teams and ensure their philosophies and budgets are driving results.
Woe to re-election candidates who are still pummeling the previous paradigm for all their problems.
The gift of public improvements won’t keep on giving.
During my first local-government gig, I learned about stashing cash and stockpiling public improvements.
In essence, for the first 2-1/2 years of an administration, you fill the potholes, patrol the streets, and answer the action line—but not much more.
Then, in the last 15 months before re-election, you pave roads, pour curbs and build everything possible. And all these projects are miraculously finished and the ribbons cut in the final three weeks before Election Day.
In Indianapolis, this year’s build-a-thon is even bigger, because it’s multiplied tenfold by dollars from the long-term lease of parking meters and the water company sale to Citizens Energy.
But remember: If we’re spending years’ worth of public improvement money now, whoever’s mayor will be spending less later.
Mayors drive the public agenda, even when they aren’t nominally in charge.
In the Indianapolis mayoral race this year, education has become a big issue. Our urban schools are failing and the candidates are debating how, and whether, the mayor should help.
Years ago, I helped elect an instant majority to the Hartford, Conn., school board. They struggled to make the improvements they’d hoped to make. Eventually, the state of Connecticut had to take over the entire system, assigning the schools to a private operator (sound familiar?).
I asked my friend Ted Carroll, now a former school board member, how that worked out. His reply is telling:
“I supported the takeover in Hartford,” he said, “reasoning that it made sense to tie the political fortunes of the governor and legislative leaders to the success of the schools. Normally, we only tie school success to the political fortunes of school board members—who have so much less power.
“In Hartford, we saw an infusion of new money, the creation of more student-centered work rules, and more civil school board meetings.
“That said, we never saw much actual improvement until the district returned to school system control, hired a reform-minded superintendent and elected a mayor who provided enough political muscle to get the reforms through (emphasis mine).
“State control of Indiana schools, then, may be an important transition step, but probably not the final step, if Hartford’s example is any indication.”
Don’t believe every promise.
In October 2007, I e-mailed candidate Greg Ballard to ask whether he’d support a smoke-free workplace law that covers all workers, including those in bowling alleys, bars and private clubs.
His quick, personal reply impressed me.
“I can assure you,” Ballard said, “that I am a supporter of the smokefree workplace. Second-hand smoke is a proven health hazard and I would support any legislation to limit the impact of second-hand smoke.”
Two years later, when that legislation was being considered by the City-County Council, I wrote Mayor Ballard again to ask the same question.
I got a canned response from “Constituent Services.”
It said, “Mayor Ballard wants to strike a balance between the rights and liberties of businesses and citizens and the public’s health. Since the Proposal was announced, Mayor Ballard and his Administration have taken input and continue to gather data in efforts of reaching a conclusive position.”
Mayor Ballard subsequently threatened to veto the bill, said Indianapolis “isn’t ready” for such a law, and said that service employees in smoky environments don’t count because they’re “transients.”
As the old political anthem says: “Promises, promises, I’m all through with promises, promises now.”•
Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.