"Management or leadership?

Mayor Peterson went to a Boys and Girls Club last Tuesday to give his annual State of the City speech. These speeches give the mayor a chance to revisit a few of the highlights of the previous year, while providing a pep talk about what’s to come. In this case, given that 2007 will culminate with local elections, it was also a chance for this mayor to, in effect, launch his campaign for a third term.

There is, of course, little doubt that Bart Peterson — or just plain Bart, as most people like calling him — will be in charge for another four years. Thanks to the virtual non-compete clause that our political parties seem to abide by, Bart is assured a win. That’s because he has the support of what pundits call “the Business Community.”

The Business Community has proven itself remarkably flexible when it comes to party affiliations. For years, people assumed this was a Republican town because Republicans kept getting themselves elected to things. Richard Lugar created Unigov, which didn’t just expand the city’s tax base, it created what, by any other name, looked like a formidable political machine. Then Lugar begat Hudnut (for four terms!) and Hudnut begat Goldsmith.

But being mayor seemed to bore Steve Goldsmith. His second term afflicted him like a bad spell of attention deficit disorder. Like Hudnut before him, he got the bright idea that being mayor meant going on to bigger things — state office. Whether, in fact, being governor of a state like Indiana is actually a bigger deal than being the mayor of its biggest city is a question these men might have pondered at greater length. In any event, they both discovered the same thing: Most people in other parts of the state couldn’t care less about the mayor of Indianapolis. And in a lot of Hoosier burgs, Indianapolis is a dirty word. Hudnut couldn’t get himself elected this state’s version of dog catcher — secretary of state — while Goldsmith suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Pride of Corydon, Frank O’Bannon, failing even to carry Marion County.

The Business Community took a shine to Bart Peterson. He had a background in real estate development and worked for Evan Bayh, who stood for nothing if not the status quo, i.e., making sure that the state’s first priority was making sure the wealthiest Hoosiers were as unaffected as possible by Indiana’s rapidly disintegrating economy. It didn’t matter that Evan and Bart called themselves Democrats. Or, when it came down to it, that Lugar, Hudnut and Goldsmith called themselves Republicans.

As far as the Business Community is concerned, all that matters is that the city’s chief executive knows how to play ball. As long as there’s a candidate who fits this definition, the Business Community is happy — and the political parties, while making with a requisite amount of stage-managed haw-hawing, will politely stay out of each other’s way.

So Bart — who took a gander at the prospect of running for governor himself and, like an ancient explorer, concluded there be dragons beyond Indy’s beltway — is a shoe-in for another round. The only guy the Republicans have been able to come up with thus far couldn’t keep himself from spewing anti-Semitic remarks as soon as he came within spitting distance of The Star’s Matthew Tully. You could practically hear the groans coming from Republican headquarters. Time to find another chump.

In his speech last week, Bart led with the Colts’ Super Bowl win, calling it “the latest in a string of successes in the arts, jobs and the economy, downtown development and other aspects of life in Indianapolis.” Indeed, when the day comes for Bart Peterson to decide he’s through being mayor, he will leave behind a downtown district that’s larger and more lively than the one he found. For the most part, he has been smart, if risk-averse, in managing the resources afforded him by the Business Community — and this has suited the Business Community just fine.

But, as Bart himself acknowledged last week, the city is also plagued by crime, an unacceptable high school dropout rate and degradation in many neighborhoods. These problems may register as embarrassments to the Business Community, but for the people who have to face them every day, they are a teeth-grinding reminder that the distances between individuals and groups in this city are growing wider all the time. This is not a management problem, but a cry for leadership.

Bart Peterson, to the Business Community’s delight, has proven himself a talented manager. But the time has come for him to use what capital he’s amassed to mobilize this city’s business resources to invest in our public spaces, services and people. Whether Bart has it in him remains to be seen.



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