The Hunt for Blue November

A few days ago, a politically savvy friend of mine asked if I’d seen the 1990 movie, “The Hunt for Red October.” I hadn’t. “You should rent it,” he said. “It explains the whole CIB situation perfectly.”


Intrigued, I rented the movie. In it, a Soviet submarine captain, played by Sean Connery, plans to defect to the United States with the Soviets’ newest, cutting-edge sub. The plot is discovered, and he is pursued by a significant portion of the Soviet submarine fleet, among whom is a Russian captain who is absolutely determined to blow him out of the water. So determined, in fact, that he risks arming a torpedo sooner than he should have, and ends up destroying his own ship.


It was hard to miss the analogy.


In  2005, Bart Peterson was Mayor of Indianapolis, and the then-conventional wisdom was that he would be easily re-elected. He had just concluded negotiations with the Colts, and was lobbying the General Assembly for the financial assistance needed to build the new stadium. He got his stadium, but—as Matt Tully recounted in a series of contemporaneous articles—not the way he’d wanted. Indiana’s newly elected governor, Mitch Daniels, forced Peterson to make a major concession: Peterson would get his stadium only if Daniels got total control (including the patronage that comes with big construction projects). The Mayor would get to choose only two of the members of the Capital Improvement Board; the rest would be chosen by Daniels and statehouse Republicans.


The Republicans insisted that the shift was necessary because Daniels knew how to run a big project, and the city didn’t. As Tully reported “Bosma said the mayor initially sought $72 million a year for the project. Luke Kenley said the gap made clear to many lawmakers that the state was better equipped to oversee the project. Daniels questioned the ‘financial acumen’ of Peterson’s financial advisors.”


At the time, Peterson’s “naïve” financial advisors protested that the state’s fiscal plan “could leave the city without the money to run or maintain the new venue.” Under the city’s plan, it would “set aside money from the taxes to operate the stadium. Fred Glass, president of the city’s Capital Improvement Board, said the state’s plan does not include money to run the stadium and will ‘bankrupt’ the Board.” [Star, April 27, 2005]


It is possible, of course, that the Daniels Administration simply miscalculated. But none of the players in this particular drama are dumb, so it is equally likely that a new Republican Governor decided to kneecap a popular Democratic mayor who was cruising to re-election and would then be his most likely opponent in 2008.  


Peterson would be faced with a massive deficit, and an array of unattractive options for fixing it.  His problems would confirm GOP accusations of fiscal fecklessness. It was a brilliant plan—except that Peterson lost in 2007, and a Republican won.


The missile was armed and deadly. The problem was, it hit the party that launched it.