People talk about a lot of things in the parts of downtown Indianapolis I roam daily, from sports to sociology to the relative attractiveness of the city's female TV weathercasters. But I haven't heard any discussion about the upcoming election for mayor.
In my lifetime, we've had mayors who were almost universally popular, such as Richard Lugar and William Hudnut, and we've had Steve Goldsmith and Bart Peterson, mayors who were despised widely, but by different constituencies. With such strong sentiments toward mayors of the past, Indy offers a surprising lack of passion regarding the current mayor.
The mayors who were beloved earned their accolades by tackling bold and ambitious projects for the city's development and redevelopment. Lugar and Hudnut dared to dream big and, despite occasional failings, such as Union Station's renovation, they almost always came through and made the city the wonderful place it is today.
If residents of early 1970s Indianapolis were transported to 2011, they'd be amazed at how clean, friendly and relatively crime-free the city is. The rundown storefronts, grimy buildings and porn theaters of that era have been replaced by hotels, mom-and-pop stores and office buildings where thousands, including myself, hold jobs and make living wages.
Lugar and Hudnut – men of bold vision – deserve much of the credit for this renaissance, while Goldsmith and Peterson are seen as place-holder leaders who cared more about rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies than they did good government.
The lack of routine criticism for Mayor Greg Ballard augurs well for his re-election. To the extent that people think about him, they picture a nice man who's trying his best and isn't obviously a hack or an opportunist. His most attractive trait to voters four years ago was that he wasn't Bart Peterson. The citizens of Indianapolis have responded well to Ballard's first term; whatever qualms about his inexperience have been satisfied through the mayor's hard work and good humor.
You don't expect Ballard to do anything rash. Any given morning, I expect to turn on the news and hear that Mitch has sold all the state parks to Exxon for $50 and a case of beer or that he's trying to outlaw homosexuality except between consenting Republican lawmakers. Ballard seems to act with more deliberation and caution, sometimes to his detriment. He might have acted more quickly in any number of circumstances but eventually did the right things after thinking about it for a couple of months.
While this caution is a welcome relief from the Goldsmith and Peterson years, when people always expected something unpleasant to happen at any point in time, the mayor's biggest political weakness is his perceived lack of ambition and vision for the city.
Lugar and Hudnut saw an aging, crumbling city and worked to reconstruct it almost from scratch. If Ballard wants to join their exalted company, he needs to take a big dream and make it reality like they did.
The primary charm of this mayor – his casualness – could be spun by a skilled opponent into a lack of urgency and dedication to addressing the city's core needs. That's the biggest danger the mayor faces as he nears the election.
There's no shortage of causes waiting to be championed by a strong leader. The city desperately needs a reboot and upgrade of its public transportation, which despite good intentions continues to be among the worst in cities our size. Poor public transportation prevents workers from being able to commute to the places where the jobs are. It hinders growth for the entire city.
While the mayor's direct role in education is limited by statute, he could become more of an advocate for excellence for IPS, which has foundered under poor leadership. He could take a political liability – namely, the fact that the police and fire departments are pissed off at him – and turn it into an asset. He could say, "The police and fire departments are pissed off at me! That's because I'm trying to clean house and get rid of corruption!" The public would cheer him as a reformer.
Nobody gave Ballard a chance to win four years ago. Even the Republican establishment wrote him off. That gave him a great advantage upon taking office. He owed nobody, except his lovely wife and beautiful family, a single thing. But he should know, more than most people, that it would be a mistake to assume he's going to win this time. The city can and has turned fast on leaders if they come off as uncaring or unconcerned.
That's why he should pick a big ambition and, like his revered predecessors, convert it into reality. Doing so will assure him a job as mayor for life and a place in the hall of fame of Indianapolis politicians. Failure to do so will leave him on the scrap heap of history, like former mayors Goldsmith and Peterson, forsaken, forgotten and missed by no one.
He seems like a smart enough man to avoid their mistakes but he needs to take action now to avoid their fate. We're patient people in Indianapolis, but we also expect results. Ballard needs to produce some quickly.