"An antipolitical climax

You’ve got to wonder what the suits running the Republican Party told Greg Ballard when they finally figured out he was their best choice to run for mayor against Bart Peterson. Given their unwillingness to give Ballard any real financial support, it was probably something along the lines of, “This’ll hurt you more than it hurts us.”

Of course, at the time they gave Ballard the nod, the Republican bosses didn’t know what a big issue crime was going to be, let alone taxes. They figured Peterson was a gimme. Peterson had the support of the business community, and that’s about as far as politics goes in this town. Job one, for Republicans and Democrats alike, is to give the Chamber of Commerce a version of Indianapolis that makes the chamber’s members feel good about themselves.

And so what might have been a momentous mayoral campaign feels more like an antipolitical climax. This is not to say that the race won’t turn out to be closer than many predicted last May. Ballard is bound to benefit from the uncommonly high POF — Pissed-Off Factor — afflicting many voters. These people aren’t happy with how things are going and voting for Ballard will be their way of protesting.

I wish that, having been hung out to dry by his party, Ballard had emerged as a candidate beholden to nobody, a true independent with a magazine loaded full of ideas about how to make Indianapolis better.

This hasn’t happened.

All we really know about Greg Ballard is that he wants to cut city spending, with the exception of the public safety budget, by 10 percent. He’s for community policing and he wants to get tough on city officials for ethical lapses. The commotion over taxes and crime has allowed Ballard to avoid having to talk about other issues likely to require the mayor’s attention in the next four years. What, for example, does he think about public transportation, the sad condition of our air and water or our dilapidated infrastructure?

These are the kinds of issues that make living in Indianapolis — and every other city, for that matter — more expensive. It’s not just taxes that are going up. The cost of providing city services and infrastructure is always increasing — as is our metro area’s population.

If incomes in Indianapolis were keeping pace with these changes, the situation might not feel so bad. But incomes here tend to be lower than in many other parts of the country. Indy’s affordable cost of living used to be a compensation for what has actually been an underlying lack of real economic vitality.

The dirty secret at the heart of this mayoral campaign has been that, for all the cheerleading about our nifty downtown, Indianapolis remains a loser when it comes to attracting Fortune 500 corporate headquarters and major new business development. The empty space where Market Square Arena used to sit is testament to the city’s inability to attract investment interest.

This is where the Chamber of Commerce comes in. It is a longstanding article of faith in our business community that Indianapolis is in an endless competition with other cities for everything from college graduates to sporting events. Bart Peterson has been particularly attuned to this competition. And so, during his watch, we have seen the undertaking of such costly building projects as a sports stadium, central public library and sewer system. You might quarrel with any one or all of these projects, but all have played a part in keeping Indy in the race with other cities. This is one reason why Peterson gets the chamber’s blessing.

It is also why so many of us feel whip-sawed now. Our incomes have failed to keep up with the chamber’s ideas about what Indianapolis needs to compete with other cities. We are told this competition will pay us dividends some day. Never mind that the chamber is allergic to taxes on business.

Differentiating between essential city services (sewers, say) and competition enhancers (a stadium) isn’t easy. Often these are one and the same. But as long as incomes in Indianapolis lag behind the rest of the country, how we compete with other cities needs to be put in perspective. This begins with coming to grips with what kind of city Indianapolis actually is — forging an identity based less on what other cities are doing than on what we see as our genuine assets and values.

I wish Greg Ballard had talked more about this during his campaign. The same goes for Bart Peterson. Then we might have had a truly political basis for deciding whom to vote for. But until we see a two-party system (with apologies to Libertarians) worthy of the name, the POF is all we’ve got. 


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