There is a surefire way to tell that the demographics of Indianapolis are changing, and you don"t even have to pore over census data to figure it out. In these last days before the Nov. 5 election, Marion County"s historically safe Republican township offices are suddenly the subject of spirited political struggles. Now that many white Republicans have moved to the suburbs and more African Americans and Latinos than ever populate the city, local Democrats believe they have a chance to earn unprecedented victories in races for offices in Pike, Warren and Lawrence townships.
A taxpayer-funded billboard located on 86th Street west of Castleton Square touts both the Washington Township Fire Department and Trustee Gwen Horth
There is even a genuine partisan dust-up occurring in northside Washington Township, long a GOP stronghold. Democrat Ray Baker, who is already a member of the Washington Township Advisory Board, says incumbent Republican Trustee Gwen Horth has misspent over $50,000 in township funds by devoting the money to a promotional campaign that prominently features Horth"s name and picture. The advertisements, part of a "Washington Township Fire Department Image Campaign," have been placed throughout the township on billboards, ads preceding movies at Clearwater Crossing theatres and brochures mailed to township residents. "You can make an argument that these funds can be legitimately spent on public safety awareness," Baker says. "But certainly you can do that without making it look like a political campaign." Horth says the expenditures were for necessary public outreach to clear up confusion about the distinction between the Washington Township Fire Department and the Indianapolis Fire Department, and to let residents know about fire department services. She defends including herself in the promotions. "I am the C.E.O. of the township," Horth says. "I want people to know where the buck stops and who they should get in contact with." Julia Vaughn of Common Cause of Indiana says the Washington Township advertising is just one example of office-holders engaging in taxpayer-supported self-promotion. "It points to another advantage of incumbency," Vaughn says. "This is a very powerful tool that can be used to get a face and an identity before the voters using public funds instead of campaign money." To Vaughn, situations like these always come back to campaign finance issues. The designer of the Washington Township promotions, Ellen Krause of Design Solutions, received over $25,000 in fees from the township in 2001, then this year donated $2500 to Horth"s campaign. "This points to why we need public financing of campaigns," Vaughn says. "Incumbents will always do this and it gives them an advantage." Poor relief
A less publicized aspect of Horth"s trustee duties is to provide township residents with poor relief in the form of emergency food, shelter and medical assistance. Baker says Horth is too stingy with that relief, alleging that 58 cents of every township poor relief dollar is spent on administrative costs. Baker also cites recent reports showing twice as many Washington Township applicants were denied assistance than received help. "We appear to be in the business of denying poor relief, not giving it," he says. On this point, Baker has support among many local social service advocates who have long criticized Horth"s poor relief practices. Omari Vaden of the Homeless Legal Project of Indiana Legal Services says Horth"s office erects barriers made of paperwork and restrictive income guidelines that force the township"s poor to go to Center Township for emergency assistance. "Poor relief is just about non-existent in Washington Township, especially for the homeless," Vaden says. Horth replies that her office provides applicants with case management and referrals, services that tend to increase overhead costs but save direct relief expenditures. "A lot of our work is networking with other agencies that our clients may not even be aware of," she says. "If there is a program that will pay for a $600 heating bill, it is the responsibility of the trustee to refer that out before we cut a check that comes from property taxes." Horth says she accepts Baker"s criticism as part of the political process, but says her opponent is dwelling only on the negative. "I hear a lot about what he"s against, but what is it that he is for?" she asks, pointing to her own support of protections for firefighter pensions. As befits any evenly matched political fight - the kind not seen in Washington Township in decades - the challenger has a rejoinder. Baker says he is supportive of firefighters, too. Which is why he pledges, if elected, to keep his face off of billboards. "Firefighters are the heroes, not the trustee," he says.