Several prominent local Democrats are lining up to challenge Republican Mayor Greg Ballard just two years into his first
Only venture capitalist Brian Williams has officially declared his candidacy, but fellow party heavyweights Joe Hogsett, Melina Kennedy and Kip Tew—all attorneys—also expect to run for mayor in 2011. So do former WellPoint Inc. executive and congressional candidate Woodrow “Woody” Myers and freshman City-County Councilor José Evans.
The wealth of candidates includes several talented politicians such as Hogsett, Kennedy, Tew and Williams who “came up” with Sen. Evan Bayh and former two-term Mayor Bart Peterson and now are looking to strike out on their own, said Bill Blomquist, a veteran observer of local politics and dean of the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI.
But that’s not the only factor at work. Most of the likely candidates have run for office before, and they see opportunity in the county’s gradual move into the Democratic column as Republicans migrate to the suburbs.
Ballard won by a small margin in 2007 thanks in large part to discontent over rising property taxes.
And Republicans only narrowly outnumber Democrats—15 to 13—on the 29-member City-County Council
(there is one Libertarian).
Otherwise, Marion County is a Democratic stronghold. Democrats have the elected positions of sheriff, clerk, auditor, assessor, treasurer, surveyor and coroner. And last year, President Barack Obama won Marion County by a margin of more than 105,000 votes. In the last mayoral election, neither candidate even received that many votes.
“People are looking at the longer-term voting trends and sensing reasonable chances for a Democrat in 2011,” Blomquist said. “This is a substantial talent pool, and a winnable city for the Dems.”
Still, it’s way too soon to handicap which candidate will have an advantage, Blomquist said.
For Ballard, who ran as a political novice to upset Peterson, the best move is to associate himself with a few key issues and use his bully pulpit.
“We’ve seen election years where prior experience and name recognition works well,” Blomquist said. “And we’ve seen years when being new to the scene or not having held office bodes well.”
Tew believes experience will matter in the 2011 election. The partner at locally based law firm Krieg DeVault said the current mayor isn’t providing “strong leadership” the city needs.
“It feels like we’re drifting,” said Tew, 47, who most recently headed the Obama campaign in Indiana. “The last time the city voted for an outsider, we see where it’s gotten us. I think [Ballard] is a nice guy, but there’s no real vision for what he wants to do.”
If Tew enters the mayoral race, he could face off against two friends he has helped on their prior campaigns, Hogsett and Kennedy.
Kennedy in 2006 lost a bitter and expensive race for prosecutor against incumbent Carl Brizzi. Since then, she has focused on her roles as partner at law firm Baker & Daniels and co-owner of an athletic shoe chain called The Running Company LLC.
But Kennedy, who served as deputy mayor under Peterson, is eager to return to public life.
Her focus as deputy mayor—on job creation and economic development—would emerge as a key platform promise if she ran for mayor.
“We need a relentless leader,” said Kennedy, 40, who credits her Greek immigrant father for inspiring her interest in public service. “With four stores and 40 employees, I have seen firsthand what it takes to grow jobs in this city.”
The Democratic field includes only one sitting elected official, Evans, a City-County councilor who represents Pike Township. Evans, the first Democrat to represent the district on the council, wants to work on fixing infrastructure and ensuring a living wage for city residents.
He believes Ballard won the last election because too many Democrats stayed home on Election Day.
“I don’t owe a lot of people favors,” said Evans, 37, who grew up in Haughville. “I got here with hard work and dedication.”
Taking on an incumbent mayor also will take a lot of money. Ballard won by about 5,000 votes in 2007 against an opponent who outspent him 10 to 1.
If Ballard is the Republican nominee, he already has a substantial money advantage for 2011. At the end of 2008, Ballard had more than $550,000 in the bank for a re-election campaign—more than the $375,000 he spent during the entire 2007 election. Peterson, on the other hand, spent $4.2 million.
Ballard hasn’t decided yet whether he will seek re-election, but he’s building a record that should put him in a strong position if he does, said Robert Vane, his deputy chief of staff.
Vane points to a drop in crime, balanced budgets two years in a row, potholes filled in days when it used to take weeks, and a new Office of Sustainability.
“On the nuts-and-bolts issues, Mayor Ballard has performed time and time again,” he said. “He’s focused on being mayor.”
If Ballard opts not to run, likely Republican candidates include Baker & Daniels partner and former state Sen. J. Murray Clark, Central Indiana Corporate Partnership CEO Mark D. Miles and Prosecutor Carl Brizzi, who has to decide whether to seek re-election to his current office in 2010.
The most well-funded of the Democratic challengers likely would be Myers, 55, a former medical director for WellPoint Inc. and Ford Motor Co. who spent about $1.8 million to bankroll his own campaign for congress in 2008.
“I’m certainly looking for the right opportunity to continue in public service,” said Myers, who wants more public-private partnerships and for city leaders to hone their focus on transportation and education infrastructure. “We have an educational gap in this city that’s unacceptable—and there’s no outrage. We need outrage.”
Williams also wants to see improvement in education, namely higher graduation rates at Indianapolis Public Schools and the township school districts. The former Bayh speechwriter and policy adviser also wants a long-term solution to the Capital Improvement Board mess.
Williams, 42, described his potential fellow candidates as “a great group of friends who have the same interest in making Indianapolis a great city.”
But not everyone can run. If the wide field of Democrats is able to unite behind a “strong, well-organized, well-financed” candidate, that person should present a formidable challenge to Mayor Ballard, said Hogsett, a partner at Bingham McHale and a former Indiana secretary of state and chief of staff for then-Gov. Evan Bayh.
Hogsett, 52, has been attending community events and meeting with residents and business owners to gauge support, all while trying to strike a balance between looking forward and acknowledging the important elections on tap before 2011.
Voters this year will consider a referendum on a possible new Wishard Memorial Hospital, and in 2010 they will vote for prosecutor, sheriff, all U.S. representatives and the U.S. Senate seat held by Bayh.
“It’s a delicate balance between laying the kind of groundwork for an election that will take place in 2011 but at the same time be respectful and mindful of those who are running in 2010,” said Hogsett, who ran an unsuccessful race for attorney general in 2004.
The mayoral campaign should focus on Ballard’s tenure, he said, asking whether citizens are satisfied with “the vision and leadership he has provided.”
“Indianapolis is a world-class city that deserves a leadership team that treats it as such,” Hogsett said. “I think the mayor’s office should be doing everything it can to reach its potential. In some ways, the current leadership seems to be content with standing still.”•