Let There Be Spin…

I see that both of our Mayoral candidates are planning to go up with television commercials within the next day or so. We will be inundated with political ads soon enough–not just from Melina Kennedy and Greg Ballard, but also from candidates for the legislature and council.

These ads do provide us with information, although not necessarily the information the candidates intend to provide. You can tell a lot about a candidate by analyzing the messages they are willing to air: how fair are their criticisms of their opponent(s)? How accurate and honest are their presentations of their own accomplishments? Do they have a vision for the City, and if so, how compelling is that vision?

Several years ago, Morton Marcus and I wrote a “he said/she said” series of columns for the IBJ called Letters to the Next Mayor. The candidates back then were Sue Ann Gilroy and a political unknown named Bart Peterson. I dug my first column for that series out of my files, and was bemused to note how much of what I wrote remains relevant.  Here is that column.

“This year, voters in Indianapolis will elect either Sue Ann Gilroy or Bart Peterson to lead our City into the new millenium.

Being Mayor in any year is a demanding job. A good chief executive must fill multiple job descriptions: manager, cheerleader, communicator, visionary. A Mayor, more than any other elected official, gives the community its identity, its sense of itself.

During the upcoming campaign, there will be discussion and debate about a number of  issues. But there is a danger in focussing too intently on the specific administrative tasks at hand, because the next Mayor must be much more than a manager/technocrat. The next Mayor must help us create an inclusive, civil and progressive community with a shared vision of its problems and possibilities.

Over the next months, Morton and I will highlight specific problems our next Mayor will inherit: a troubled police department, beleagured schools, racial tensions, environmental issues, runaway debt levels, and many others. People of good will hold dramatically different positions on these issues. If they are to be resolved, we will need political leadership of the highest order. The ability to provide that leadership must rank as the single most important issue of the campaign.

Indianapolis is part of the phenomenon some call, aptly, the “niching” of America.  Commercial enterprises deal in market segmentation; political institutions respond to special interests; even the daily newspaper prints different editions for different neighborhoods. We have lost sight of a central reality: we are all in this together. What happens in any part of our city affects the rest of us in a multitude of ways, tangible and intangible. When we retreat to our respective neighborhoods, churches, professional associations or social groups, we lose civic synergy. We lose pride of joint enterprise, the sense of belonging to a larger whole. There is a huge difference between a city and an accidental agglomeration of adjacent neighborhoods.

If we are to regain that communal identity and restore that sense of civic pride, the next Mayor must encourage the broadest possible participation in the civic enterprise; it is no longer possible—if it ever was—to administer a municipality from the top down.  Cities that work today are cities whose citizens truly own them, and ownership comes from meaningful involvement in the institutions that shape city life.  The next Mayor must encourage the participation, and value the contributions, of all our citizens.

Politics at its best is the art of building consensus, and that means recognizing the importance of process. How we get there is ultimately more important than where we go, because results achieved without consensus, without civility, without genuine citizen ownership, do not last.  Building consensus ultimately rests on trust. Trust is reciprocal; it is a byproduct of dialogue and collaboration To earn it, the next Mayor must preside over an open and forthcoming administration, recognizing that every question is not a criticism and every criticism is not an attack..

Indianapolis faces challenges, but we also have substantial assets.  We are a fundamentally sound city, with thoughtful and involved civic leadership, a robust nonprofit sector, impressive public institutions, and the fortunate habit—fostered by Unigov—of thinking of ourselves as an urban whole.  Whether we use those assets to rebuild our sense of community or allow our divisions to overwhelm us will depend in large measure on the leadership skills of the next Mayor.”

At the time that was written, Indianapolis was still a city on the move, and the major argument was over the direction of that movement. Today, I would characterize Indianapolis as a city in stasis, struggling to provide even basic services and floundering when it comes to the big issues. We have yet to make substantial improvements in most of the problems I identified 12 years ago (I would argue that we have actually lost ground on several during the past four years).  There has been a palpable absence of vision. Mayor Ballard is a very nice man, but he came into office with absolutely no background in city management, economic development, policing, education or other municipal policies. The question to ask as you look at his campaign ads is: what has he learned? Has he developed the knowledge and skills that would justify giving him another term? Or is he still over his head?

The questions we should ask when we look at Melina Kennedy’s ads are similar. Do they display a coherent vision for the city? A genuine grasp of the issues we face?

Deciding which candidate is most likely to provide the leadership we so desperately need requires that we look beyond the “spin cycle.”


  1. Ads from legislators………so soon?

    2011 is municipal only………………..I think.

  2. Hi Sheila,
    Perhaps you remember me from your Fort Wayne days. I was the ED for the Fort Wayne Women’s Bureau then. Now I an another feisty aging feminist. Happened on your blog and waned to say HI.

Comments are closed.