If there was any doubt that 2016 was a miserable year, word that Bill Hudnut has died confirmed it.
Bill Hudnut, for those of you who are too young to remember, or who live elsewhere, was the Republican Mayor of Indianapolis for four terms–sixteen years–from 1976 to 1992. His fingerprints are on this city in more places and ways than most current residents appreciate.
I served as Corporation Counsel–the city’s chief lawyer– in the Hudnut Administration from 1977-1980. (My appointment raised eyebrows; at that time, no woman had previously held the position. Bill valued diversity.) That was also where I met my husband–then the City’s Director of Metropolitan Development. With Bill’s death, the two of us have lost a good friend with whom we shared a vision of what urban life should and could be.
The loss is more difficult because his death reminds us that we’ve lost more than Bill Hudnut. We’ve lost both the Republican party he represented and the approach to religion and politics he exemplified.
Before he entered politics, Hudnut had been a Presbyterian minister. The lessons he drew from his faith focused on service and compassion; he expressed that faith in ways dramatically different from the fundamentalist arrogance of the present-day culture warriors who are constantly trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else.
A story: Shortly after I joined the Administration, the ACLU and the Jewish Community Relations Council sent a letter to the City, objecting to the seasonal placement of a nativity scene on the publicly owned Monument at the center of Monument Circle. No other symbols of seasonal or religious celebration accompanied it, so it was a pretty clear endorsement of Christianity.
The Mayor asked me for my legal opinion, and I explained that religious endorsements by government violate the Establishment Clause. He ordered the Nativity moved. (Its new “home” was–and still is– across the street from the Monument, on the entirely appropriate lawn of Christ Church Cathedral.) Hudnut could have scored lots of political points by resisting– “protecting Christianity”– and he took considerable heat, especially because he was a member of the clergy, for doing the right thing.
Hudnut’s religious beliefs motivated him to work for the well-being of his fellow-citizens and to respect political and religious differences. His was a Christianity of inclusion, not demonization.
During my time in City Hall, I watched the Mayor work closely with both Republicans and Democrats who represented Indianapolis in the General Assembly. I saw him communicate regularly with Concerned Clergy and other groups representing the African-American community, with neighborhood organizations and with organized labor. He appointed a police liaison to the LGBTQ community at a time when that community was subject to considerable marginalization. Relations with these and other constituencies wasn’t all sweetness and light by any means, but the outreach was genuine and the inevitable disagreements usually civil.
It was exciting working in City Hall in those days, because we were participants in a great adventure. We were working with Mayor Bill to build a world-class city, and his enthusiasm for that venture was contagious.
We don’t see much evidence of that sort of excitement today, largely because we have lost faith in the ability of government to improve citizens’ lives. For the past forty years, we’ve been told that government is always the problem, never the solution, that taxes are theft rather than the dues we owe if we want a functioning society, and that public service is an oxymoron.
Hudnut—and Dick Lugar, who preceded him as Mayor—represented a Republican Party that no longer exists. I miss that party, and I miss the optimism, integrity and humanity of people like Lugar and Hudnut and many others—men and women who saw public service as a calling and an opportunity to serve the public interest rather than as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement.
Bill Hudnut’s death reminds me that the loss of those people and that party has impoverished our civic landscape.