It's July. The Summer Solstice has come and gone. The baseball season is at its halfway point. In Indianapolis, we're getting ready for a mayoral race.
The candidates, incumbent Greg Ballard and challenger Melina Kennedy are doing what amount to political stretching exercises.
For Ballard, this means standing beside handsome architectural drawings of new or proposed building projects — a parking facility in Broad Ripple, the reclamation of Bush Stadium, and the potential transformation of the former GM plant.
Kennedy, meanwhile, fills her days by holding get acquainted meetings with potential constituents and firing off a countless string of emails and press releases critical of Ballard's handling of various incidents, ranging from muggings along the Monon Trail and recent downtown shootings to his deal with an out-of-state contractor to upgrade the city's parking meters.
So far this race looks to be a close one.
Ballard, you'll recall, came out of nowhere to beat the heavily favored Bart Peterson in the last election. A former Marine with no political experience to speak of, Ballard ran as a kind of everyman who was disgruntled by the city's inability to thwart violent criminals. More than this, his campaign was buoyed by what amounted to a tax revolt by citizens smarting from property tax increases, who saw Peterson's call for a public safety tax as piling on.
Many observers feared that Ballard's upset would result in a kind of civic paralysis. They worried that the political neophyte would be little more than a puppet for the county's Republican organization.
Given these dire predictions, Ballard has, on balance, been a pleasant surprise. The mayor comes across as a truly decent guy who has done a good job of attending to many of the city's nuts-and-bolts issues, like street repair and snow removal — items that somehow managed to slip under his predecessor's lofty radar. Ballard has also been an enthusiastic backer of such relatively low-cost, green initiatives as bike trails. Last but not least, Ballard deserves kudos for having gotten the city through a dreadful national economic downturn.
But while Indianapolis hasn't capsized under Ballard's stewardship, questions have dogged him about whether he has the vision required to get this city to the next level. Ballard is not a great communicator and often fails to project the kind of ambition necessary to win the confidence necessary to undertake big-picture projects.
This is where Kennedy comes in. Kennedy, who served as an assistant mayor for economic development under Bart Peterson, is an appealing candidate. She's articulate, experienced in business and politics, and a woman. If and when she has occasion to debate Ballard, the odds are that she'll probably have to take care not to make him look too foolish. Kennedy presents a thoughtful, sophisticated veneer that has proven to be catnip to the city's Democrat-leaning intelligentsia.
But she's also been gummy when it comes to the specifics of what she actually wants to do. To her credit, Kennedy has said she wants to get illegal guns off the streets — a seeming no-brainer that passes for political bravery in these gun crazy times — but on education, the environment, public transit and cultural affairs, she's toothlessly platitudinous.
If all of this suggests that the mayor's race could come down to a referendum on style, well, that could be because the winner of the next mayoral election will have limited room to maneuver.
Whoever the next mayor is will have to deal with Indiana's virulently anti-urban state legislature. The same sick crew that tried to skewer Planned Parenthood, wants to stuff gays back in the closet, and says that carrying firearms into city halls is a great idea, has a lot of say-so regarding what a mayor can and cannot accomplish. They determine how a city raises money and can even say whether or not we're permitted to hold a regional referendum to gauge support for public transit. Neither Ballard nor Kennedy will have much leverage in this arena. Whatever either candidate does will be accomplished in spite of the so-called "peoples' house."
There is also no doubt but that Ballard's upset of Peterson has instilled a residual fear of taxes in anyone seeking office in these parts. When it's considered political suicide to so much as attempt an adult discussion about how we're to pay for urban needs, it's no wonder that candidates resort to glittering generalities about enhancing our quality of life. But big dreams are just that — dreams — if no one can talk about how to pay for them.
Finally, Indianapolis still needs to come to grips with its identity. Is this really a big city, a suburb with a downtown designed for special events and conventions, or could we be some emerging hybrid that has yet to be named? The answers to these questions should inform policy decisions on everything from architectural design to neighborhood development. But they will also require a level of seriousness about zoning and regulations that have heretofore been all too mushy.
So get ready. Another campaign season is about to get in gear. Here come the candidates.