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EDITORIAL: Hudnut’s legacy: vision and risk

Both are needed like never before

December 24, 2016

It’s probably not fair to compare William H. Hudnut III, who died Dec. 18 at the age of 84, to any of those who have followed in his large footsteps.

As the city’s longest-serving mayor, Hudnut had four terms to make his mark on Indianapolis. Time wasn’t his only advantage. He was 6 feet 5 inches tall and had a booming voice that he honed over more than a decade as a Presbyterian minister. Add to those physical attributes his political baptism as a one-term congressman before he was elected mayor in 1975, and you had a man who seemed custom-made for the bully pulpit. He occupied it to great effect on the city’s behalf.

But Hudnut was more than the city’s cheerleader-in-chief in his 16 years on the 25th floor of the City-County Building. He was a visionary who saw great promise in a city whose best years could easily have been behind it. And he was simultaneously a collaborator and a risk-taker. He strove to be inclusive and build consensus, but he went out on a limb if he thought what he was doing was best for Indianapolis.

Championing the construction of the Hoosier Dome before there was a team to play in it, as Hudnut did before he spirited the Colts out of Baltimore, was but the most famous risk he took in his long quest to remake downtown. It wasn’t a politically safe move, but it was what he thought needed to happen.

Today’s challenges seem more daunting than the problems of the Hudnut era. Downtown remains—more or less—on the positive course Hudnut and his predecessor Richard G. Lugar set it on. But much of the rest of the county struggles with crime, receding incomes and an eroding tax base, problems that won’t be solved by salvos of bricks and mortar. We need Hudnut’s vision and appetite for risk now more than ever before.

History will judge whether Mayor Joe Hogsett is up to the task—whether, in his own way, he’ll bring vision to the job and take the necessary risks for the city to succeed.

One year into his first term, there is cause for hope. Hogsett recently laid out his vision for a criminal justice system that would do more than efficiently dispatch justice and house the convicted. It would incorporate mental health into the system like never before, a bold stroke that could have a big upside. It could change the lives of those who receive intervention and, ultimately, make the city safer, an outcome that would have cascading economic benefits.

Hogsett’s plan isn’t as flashy as a new stadium or a rebuilt downtown, but in 2016 it’s every bit as important. And no one would be rooting harder for him to succeed than a visionary, risk-taking mayor who now belongs to the ages.•

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

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