Indianapolis City-County Council continues to go left


Republicans search for the right strategy to regain majority

To the general public, they are virtual unknowns, and they toil away doing vital public business, with little staff help and very little pay. They are the 29 members of the Marion County City-County Council.

“Unfortunately, you don’t see these people every day,” says Marion County Democratic Party Chairman Mike O’Connor. “It’s hard work and it isn’t glamorous.”

But while the councilors are unknown, the City-County Council candidates in next week’s primary election are even more unheralded. In fact, many county residents are unaware the primary will establish Democratic and Republican Party candidates for the fall council races.

“I didn’t know that,” says beauty shop owner Shirley Robinson, who lives on the Northside near Castleton. Though Robinson admits that she is not a “political person,” she does try to keep up with state and federal issues. Local officials just aren’t having the impact on her consciousness that they should, she says.

“I never get anything in the mail for any of them. I never hear from them and I never see them,” Robinson says. She is not unusual in Marion County, where nine out of 10 people don’t know who represents them on City Council, according to IUPUI political science professor Bill Blomquist.

“These folks [councilors] are so under the radar,” Blomquist says. “They are relatively unknown because there are so many of them. But it matters a lot who these people are.”

Blomquist believes there are a host of important issues that the city will wrestle with in the coming years, such as Indy Works, a massive sewer problem, jail overcrowding, finding more money to hire more police officers and the city‘s bond rating. “The list is long,” says Blomquist, adding that the City-County Council will be in the thick of it.

Trending toward the Democrats

Observers both inside and outside of government agree that because of the challenges the city is facing, this year’s municipal elections are of vital importance.

“First of all, I think that all elections are important,“ says O’Connor, the Democrat. “But absolutely, this year’s elections are. The next council is going to be asked to deal with a host of important issues ... that affect us all.”

After decades of domination, the GOP was edged out as the majority party following the 2003 City Council elections. With a 15-14 majority, Democrats elected the council president for the first time in years, ousting longtime council leader Phil Borst, a Southside Republican. Democrats also named the committee chairs and were able to address and pass legislation, such as the smoking ban, human rights ordinance and municipal government consolidation, that wouldn’t have gotten a hearing under the Republicans.

“[With the majority] they had a better opportunity to pass ordinances and block things they didn’t like,” Blomquist says of the Democrats.

This shift was part of something larger going on in the county, dating back to the late 1990s, claims county Democratic Party Executive Director Terry Burns. “The Republicans saw ... that the county is becoming more Democratic.”

With the election of Bart Peterson in 1999, the city had its first Democratic mayor since John Barton in the mid-1960s. Peterson was re-elected in 2003, a year in which Democrats swept many township offices throughout the county where Republicans previously had held sway. Peterson does have a Democratic primary opponent next week, and six little-known Republicans are vying for the nomination on the GOP side. Nearly everyone expects that Peterson is headed for re-election this fall to a third term as mayor.

Given his observation of municipal governments around the country, Blomquist says, “There is a lot to be said for skill and talent, and the mayor has a lot of skill and talent.”

While there are still some notable Republican power brokers in county government, such as Carl Brizzi, the county prosecutor, “what the Marion County Republicans have acknowledged ... is that the county is trending away from them,” Blomquist says. “And it’s been the case for over a decade.”

He thinks the county GOP is politically the weakest it’s been in four decades. “This is not the GOP of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”

And one of the places where that is most noticeable is in the primary races for City-County Council.

A tough recruiting year

Democrats have primary candidates for 21 districts, and many of those races are being contested. Additionally, all 15 Democratic City-County Council incumbents are seeking re-election.

Republicans, however, are not fielding primary candidates for five council districts, including the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th.

Marion County GOP Executive Director Kyle Walker says the party will field candidates for all those offices in the fall, even if there isn’t a candidate in the primary.

“We feel rejuvenated, with a good batch of candidates,” Walker says.

“We are in the process of explaining to people the benefits of running in those districts,” even heavily Democratic districts like the 8th, where current council President Monroe Gray resides, says Marion County Republican Party Executive Committee Chairman Tom John.

There isn’t a huge benefit to getting people to run in the primary if they really aren’t committed to the campaign, he adds.

“It’s better to take the time to do something right than to rush in and do it wrong,” John says. And the party exudes confidence on its Web site: “I am very excited about the future of our party,” John writes. He notes that more than 150 people are in office on the township, county, state and federal levels because of Republican voters in Marion County.

“In the 2007 municipal election, we have an outstanding group of candidates who give us a real opportunity to grow these numbers even further.”

The effects of Unigov

The stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 1970, signaled more than just a new decade in Indianapolis. It also signaled the beginning of the consolidated city-county government known as Unigov. Unigov, which was approved by the state Legislature, was the brainchild of local Republicans, led by then-Mayor Richard Lugar, to address the issue of urban decay and the duplication of many local government services. But it also greatly enhanced the political power of Marion County Republicans over local Democrats.

Under Unigov, Indianapolis went overnight from a city ranked 26th in size in the United States, with approximately 480,000 residents, to a city ranked 11th in the nation with a population of roughly three-quarters of a million.

Faced with what he considered hostile Democratic mayors in the other major U.S. cities, President Richard Nixon traveled to Indianapolis after Unigov and proclaimed Lugar his favorite mayor. The City Council and County Council were merged under Unigov as the City-County Council, the legislative branch of local government.

The CCC has the power to adopt the city budget, levy taxes and make appointments. It also confirms the mayor’s appointments. The CCC has 29 members, including four at-large seats elected citywide and 25 seats representing districts. While there are some districts that traditionally elect one political party over the other, the CCC has always held both Republicans and Democrats.

From the time of the first City-County Council election under Unigov in 1971, the party that elected the mayor also elected the candidates for the four at-large council seats, thus giving that party the majority on the council. And from its first legislative sessions in 1972 until 2004, the council was controlled by Republicans. “At that time, the [Republican] party had no trouble electing anyone it wanted,” Blomquist says. Only in the last four years has there been a Democratic mayor and a Republican-controlled City-County Council.

Losing incumbents

One of the first Republicans elected to the council in 1971 was William G. Schneider, a right-wing conservative who represented a Northside district until 1999, when his son, Scott Schneider, was elected to the seat. Like his father, Scott Schneider is one of the most conservative voices on the council. “I will represent the taxpayers, not the tax-spenders. I will be a watchdog for the taxpayers,” Schneider says on the council‘s Web site. “I will vote ‘no’ on tax increases, as essential city services can be paid for within the existing budget. As a conservative, I believe government has a role, but it should be limited.”

The 4th District, which runs from Keystone on the west to as far as Graham Road on the east, and from 38th Street to 96th Street, has been in the Schneider family for three and a half decades. But that is about to change. Scott Schneider is not running for reelection in the primary. The endorsed candidate is Christine Scales.

In all, six incumbent Republicans on the City-County Council are not seeking re-election, including Borst, the former council president who represents the 23rd District.

“Losing Phil is a huge thing,” admitted John, the GOP chair. “But I’m happy that good people are stepping up.”

But since electoral politics favor incumbents, the decision by so many incumbent Republicans not to seek re-election has some Democrats circling like sharks. A changing of the guard, however, has not displeased all Republicans.

“The Republicans are too right-wing,“ says Tim Cavendish, a Republican who lives in Schneider’s district. “It’s a good thing. I think we need new blood, some new folks. We need a mix of folks, conservative and moderate.”

While Walker and other GOP stalwarts disagree, many political observers sense that Republican incumbents, after controlling the council and its agenda for decades, have decided to take their marbles and go home since it’s no longer their game. “Schneider saw the handwriting on the wall,” says Burns, executive director of the local Democratic Party. “It was only a matter of time.”

Blomquist agrees, at least in part. “It’s not a lot of fun when you are not in a majority anymore.”

Though the Democrat O’Connor is reluctant to predict, he expects Democrats will likely hold onto the council’s four at-large seats and pick up as many as two seats currently held by Republicans, perhaps bringing the council’s makeup in January to 17-12 in favor of Democrats.

With a strong Democratic incumbent candidate for mayor at the top of the ticket, and the likelihood of losing seats, it is easy to understand why some Republican incumbents thought long and hard about serving another term on City Council.

But Walker argues that’s not the scenario that’s being played out.

“Borst is a party leader and he didn’t come to the decision [to retire] in a vacuum,” Walker says of Borst, who has served on the council since 1980 and who was council president during Peterson’s first administration.

In losing a high number of incumbents, the Republicans also will lose decades worth of institutional knowledge and experience in the workings of the legislative branch of local government.

O’Connor says the GOP lost its way in the late 1990s. “The Republican Party is clearly in transition. A lot of these folks are used to being in a majority. But as they look into their crystal ball, they see it is going to be a challenge to win a majority anytime soon.

“Because they were the party of the majority, they made a few tactical and strategic errors,“ O’Connor says.

Alienated base

Those errors included opposing consolidation — the very idea that benefited Republicans in the 1970s — and the smoking ban. The GOP also supported protecting patronage on the township level, O’Connor says.

Better, more efficient government has always played to the city’s conservative business base, which traditionally has voted Republican. But “their base is alienated,” O’Connor argues. “That’s why they can’t get someone with a name to run against [Peterson].”

Walker and John say the party is not in trouble and there is no re-positioning underway to move the party closer to the middle. “No, it’s not concerning,” John says of the party’s position on the political spectrum as well as its efforts to field qualified candidates.

“Most of them had legitimate reasons for not running. If for any reason you have torn priorities — family responsibilities or work, what have you — then I understand. We have a crop of hungry candidates, [so] I’m not concerned.” Furthermore, John says the Republican Party will wage an issues-related campaign in the fall that will appeal to its traditional conservative base.

He says that in the 8th District, “We will point out all the serious deficiencies of the council president.”

As for Borst’s possible replacement in the 23rd District, John praises candidate Jeff Cardwell as a successful businessman and community leader. Walker is on the same page.

“Jeff is truly a magnificent candidate,” Walker says. “He has years of community service and he is a super, nice guy.”

“Sometimes people overreact. But Republicans can win in Marion County,” John insists. “We have to talk about the issues people care about. Crime, education, taxes, economic development. That’s what we will campaign on.”


Get out and vote!

Primary election day is Tuesday, May 8, 2007.

Primary Election day is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May. Indiana primaries are “closed” primaries — meaning that voters can only vote for the candidates their party is offering as a choice in the general election this November.

When you sign in at your polling place, the clerks will ask you which political party ballot you prefer — Republican or Democrat. You vote for only the candidates on this ballot. In the primary, you will nominate the candidates of your party who will be on the ballot in the general election. If you are 17 years of age at the time of the primary election, and will be 18 before the general election, you may cast a vote in the primary election.

Nonpartisan elections may be held at the same time and place as the primary election. You must be 18 to vote in these nonpartisan elections. Selected at these elections are school board members. You need not declare a party preference if you are voting only in these elections.

Voting requirements:

• You must be registered before you can vote. To see if you are registered to vote, go to

• Unless you cast an absentee ballot, you must vote at your precinct polling place. To find your polling place, go to

• In Indiana, polls are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. In addition to the resources listed above, polling place locations are printed in the newspaper. You may also call the Marion County Election Board, local political party headquarters or the Indianapolis League of Women Voters to find your polling place location.

Contact information:

Marion County Election Board City-County Building, Suite W-122, 200 E. Washington St., Indianapolis, IN 46204. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 317-327-5100 (office), 317-327-4815 (fax).