This week, Hoosiers chose the leaders for their cities, their towns, their communities.
They cast their ballots for mayors and council members. In many cases, the people on those ballots are men and women they know well – folks they’d gone to school with or that they see at the grocery store or their children’s soccer games.
Municipal elections in Indiana stand alone. They aren’t held in the same year as federal or state elections.
This is a good thing. Not only does it allow voters to focus only on what is happening in their community, but it keeps the campaigns largely free of the rancor, vitriol and bitterness that now permeate national and state politics.
It’s not that the debates at the local level can’t be contentious. They can be and often are. Some of the hardest-fought political battles I’ve witnessed have come over zoning disputes or school funding questions. People fight hard when they feel their families or homes are threatened.
But it’s different when it’s local, because it is close to home.
Cities and towns don’t have time for government shutdowns or gridlock.
Unlike the federal government or the state government, cities and towns must work. The trash must be picked up. The streets must be policed. The stoplights must run.
That’s because, however angry people might get over a zoning or school question, they always must go back to being neighbors after the shouting is done. They still will bump into each other at the grocery store or walking the dog. They still must live together in the same community.
Four years ago, on another municipal election day, I talked with four of the men who had led Indiana’s largest city.
Richard Lugar, Bill Hudnut, Stephen Goldsmith and Bart Peterson appeared on a radio show I hosted. They came on to talk about the challenges people who were about to take charge of a city government faced and offer helpful tips to new mayors and other community leaders.
The memory of that conversation now is bittersweet, for a couple of reasons.
The first, of course, is that two of those men – Lugar and Hudnut – no longer are with us. Both great-hearted souls, they made their city and state better because they walked among us.
But the other reason the memory is bittersweet is that the poisonous atmosphere that is our national political scene has seeped to the state level. It’s as if the whole structure is set up to encourage us to hate and distrust each other.
To always prefer fights to solutions.
Lugar, Hudnut, Goldsmith and Peterson were different people who brought different skill sets to the job of being Indianapolis’s mayor. But what struck me as I listened to them on that November day four years ago was how similar their descriptions of the challenge of leading a city were.
Being mayor, they said, isn’t about taking stands or trying to make grand political points.
It is about trying to figure out ways for people with different backgrounds, different values, different needs and different interests to live together in relative peace. It was about trying to find imperfect solutions that served fallible people as well as possible. If problems couldn’t be eliminated, they needed to be alleviated.
Around the time, I wrote that, if we wanted to drain some of the venom and restore some measure of practicality to our political system, we might look more often to mayors for leadership.
Now, I’m not so sure the solution is that simple.
Part of the reason mayors develop problem-solving skills is that they must. And that’s because they are forced to govern close to the people they lead. City officials know their constituents and their constituents know them.
Part of what afflicts government at other levels is that we have allowed it to become too distant from the people government is supposed to serve.
The people who give government its authority.
Municipal elections generally aren’t filled with shouting. Because they focus on figuring out ways that we all can live together, they’re relatively quiet affairs.
We all could use a little quiet these days.