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KENNEDY: Losing Bill Hudnut, a leader with vision

December 24, 2016

Sheila Suess KennedyA week ago, at the end of an already depressing year, we learned former Mayor Bill Hudnut had died. With his passing, many of us lost a longtime friend, but what is worse is the dawning recognition that we have lost the kind of politics he exemplified.

My husband and I both held positions in the Hudnut administration (we actually met there), and we saw firsthand the priorities, strengths and weaknesses of a self-described “citizen of no mean city.”

The strengths far outweighed the weaknesses.

Before entering politics, Hudnut was a Presbyterian minister and many of those strengths came from his understanding of what his faith required of him. In stark contrast to Gov. Pence and other “culture warriors” who see public office as an opportunity to impose their doctrinal beliefs on everyone else, Hudnut believed his religion required him to work for the well-being of others, particularly the marginalized and disadvantaged, and to respect political and religious differences.

He was a Christian of inclusion, not demonization.

Hudnut worked closely with both the Democrats and Republicans who represented Indianapolis in the General Assembly. He communicated regularly with Concerned Clergy and other groups representing the African-American community. He established and met regularly with a mayoral labor council. He appointed a police liaison to the LGBTQ community at a time when that community was subject to considerable discrimination. Relations with these and other groups weren’t all sweetness and light, but the outreach was genuine and the disagreements usually civil.

Unlike politicians who see the job of mayor as a low-level “stepping stone” to higher office, Hudnut reveled in being Indianapolis’ mayor. He had a passion for—and an intellectual engagement with—urban policy, and he understood the importance of a vibrant central core. As he often said: “We want our city to be like a cookie, solid clear through, and not like a doughnut with a hole in the middle.”

It was a privilege to serve as corporation counsel in the Hudnut administration—but more than a privilege, it was exciting. The successive teams he assembled over the four terms and 16 years he held the office varied, but with few exceptions, we were all inspired, all caught up in the task at hand, participants in a great adventure. We were going to build a world-class city.

We don’t see much evidence of that sort of excitement today, largely because we have lost faith in the ability of government to improve citizens’ lives. For the past 40 years, we’ve been told that government is always the problem, never the solution, that taxes are theft rather than the dues we owe if we want a functioning society, and that public service is an oxymoron.

Hudnut’s approach to governance was diametrically opposed to that crabbed and impoverished ideology, and the city we occupy today owes an enormous debt to his vision, determination and far more capacious understanding of how the public sector can advance the public interest and improve a community’s quality of life.

Bill Hudnut genuinely loved this city, and for 16 years, he devoted himself to improving its physical and social infrastructure.

Hudnut—and Dick Lugar, who preceded him as mayor—represented a Republican Party that no longer exists. I miss that party, and I miss the optimism, integrity and humanity of people like Lugar and Hudnut—men and women who saw public service as a calling rather than as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Their loss impoverishes us.

Rest in peace.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com.

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