A Decision That Isn’t

Well, the United States Supreme Court just emulated Solomon.

Remember the biblical story in which two women claimed to be the mother of a baby, and demanded that Solomon decide between them? He proposed to cut the baby in two, knowing that the real mother would withdraw her claim in order to protect the baby. The lesson from that parable? Solomon was a smart guy.

So is Justice Kennedy.

The case before the Supreme Court was poised to add lots of fuel to America’s already raging culture war. In 2012, a Colorado baker had refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing his religious beliefs. (This wasn’t a refusal to sell a cake that already existed; the baker had evidently been asked to create one especially for the couple. He argued that doing so would amount to compelling his speech in favor of same-sex marriage, which he opposed.) At the time, Colorado did not recognize same-sex marriages, but the state had a civil rights law that included protections for LGBTQ citizens, and the state’s Civil Rights Commission ruled that the baker had violated that law, and intermediate courts upheld the Commission.

The Supreme Court reversed, ruling 7-2 for the baker. Sort of.

Although it is hard to fault the logic of the dissent by Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor, who argued that baking a cake is not the expression of an opinion, the majority decision in the Masterpiece Cake case was a masterpiece. (Okay, terrible pun.) As USA Today reported,

the long-awaited decision did not resolve whether other opponents of same-sex marriage, including bakers, florists, photographers and videographers, can refuse commercial wedding services to gay couples. In fact, the court on Monday scheduled a similar case involving a Washington State florist for consideration at their private conference Thursday.

The decision reiterated the rule that business owners generally cannot deny equal access to goods and services under a neutral public accommodations law. The result in Masterpiece turned instead on the Court’s finding that the baker had been treated prejudicially by Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission– that the Commission had demonstrated a hostility to religion in its treatment of the case.

Kennedy reasoned that Phillips, in refusing to create a same-sex wedding cake, had good reason to believe he was within his rights. State law at the time allowed merchants some latitude to decline specific messages, such as those demeaning gay people and gay marriages.

The government cannot impose regulations hostile to citizens’ religious beliefs, the ruling said. But it was limited to Colorado’s treatment of Phillips; had the process been fair, Kagan and Breyer likely would have been on the other side, and Kennedy would have had a tougher decision to make.

“A vendor can choose the products he sells, but not the customers he serves — no matter the reason,” Kagan wrote, joined by Breyer. “Phillips sells wedding cakes. As to that product, he unlawfully discriminates: He sells it to opposite-sex but not to same-sex couples.”

The plaintiff won. He gets a new hearing. However, the ruling is unlikely to affect other claims of discrimination by same-sex couples.

The Court’s decision deprives the Religious Right of a grievance that would have been useful for fundraising and political organizing, it does no damage to gay civil rights generally, and it is too narrowly tailored to be used as a precedent by others claiming a religious right to discriminate. If you are going to “lose” a case, this is clearly the way you’d want to lose it.

Well done, Supremes.


The Devil You Know….

A couple of political truisms–which I have always accepted as “givens”–went up in smoke last night. The first was that at-large candidates win or lose based upon the performance of their party’s mayoral candidate. The second was that in close races, victory is largely a matter of getting your vote out.

In Indianapolis yesterday, the Democrats got their votes out. They took back the Council, including the at-large seats. But enough of those Democrats scratched Melina Kennedy to allow Ballard a second term.

There will undoubtedly be lots of second-guessing and post-election analysis. Here’s my two-cents-worth:  the sorts of things about the Ballard Administration that appall so many of us who watch government closely are not the sorts of things that are apparent to the average voter (and the media largely ignored those issues during his term). No one was enthusiastic about him–he never got out of the low 40s in internal polls–but the average voter was aware of no strong reason to oppose him. Meanwhile, Melina Kennedy never gave people a strong reason to vote for her–her ads did not adequately introduce her to the voters before they began attacking Ballard, and the attack ads were, as Paul Ogden has noted, insufficiently specific; they failed to explain what was wrong with the cozy deals they alluded to–they simply attacked.

Given two candidates seen as interchangeable, voters opted for the one with whom they were familiar.

The good news is that a Democratic Council should be able to block the sorts of cozy deals and poor policy choices that have characterized Ballard’s tenure. The danger is that the Council will simply act out of partisanship, rather than principle. In either case, the next four years are likely to be contentious.

A mediocre (at best) mayor and a hostile council aren’t exactly a recipe for progress.


The Poll Next Tuesday

Yesterday, WISH TV and Franklin College released the first independent poll of the mayoral election. It had something for everyone–Ballard is polling significantly less than 50%, typically a danger sign for an incumbent. On the other hand, he was ahead of Kennedy. The number of undecideds was huge this late in the race, and the early voters favored Kennedy by a wide margin, suggesting more enthusiasm for the Democrat.

Of course, when a poll has a 4.9% margin of error, any results should be viewed with some skepticism.

Actually, political polling has fallen on hard times. Last year, Brian Vargus–the Political Science Professor who has long been regarded as the local expert on political surveys–came to talk to my class. His message was that most political polling is worthless–that accurate, reliable surveys are prohibitively expensive, and campaigns and media outlets simply don’t do them anymore. That’s why you see such large margins of error.

A good poll will be representative of those actually likely to vote. That means including minority communities that are historically under-polled (Julia Carson routinely polled 15-20 points lower than her vote on election day). It means including younger voters who use cell phones exclusively (and accounting for the fact that they’re less likely to vote). In other words, a good poll requires both accurate sampling and the use of methodologically predictive algorithms.

According to this morning’s news, Vargus raised several questions about the WISH poll, based upon some internal inconsistencies. But even assuming it is reasonably accurate, what it tells us is what politicians have always known: what matters is the poll taken on election day, and that poll depends on who does the best job getting out their vote.

A recent study of 155 elections involving incumbents showed that voters who were undecided two weeks prior to the election broke 80%/20% for the challenger. Evidently, if the incumbent didn’t have them by then, he wasn’t going to get them. That’s good news for Kennedy–if her campaign gets those folks to the polls.

At the end of the day, turnout is the key.


It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Most of us remember James Carville’s admonition—the one that became the singular focus of the successful Clinton campaign—“it’s the economy, stupid!”

That laser-like focus on economic well-being was generally seen as a smart campaign tactic, which it was. But it was also smart policy.

Which brings us to the current campaign for Mayor of Indianapolis.

Partisans have argued about the candidates’ respective visions—or lack thereof—and there have been the usual competing claims about public safety, neighborhood revitalization, tax increases and the consequences of selling off city assets. But addressing those issues—in fact, addressing virtually every single issue that voters care about—depends upon the economic health of the city.

And that means good jobs.

It was Henry Ford who first recognized the importance of paying factory workers decent wages—not out of the goodness of his heart, or because he had some sort of humanitarian impulse (he wasn’t noted for either), but because he wanted them to be able to buy his cars. His logic—his recognition that success in business requires people with the means to buy your goods—seems to have escaped many of today’s officeholders.

The same logic applies to cities. You can’t create bike lanes, improve schools, hire police or pick up garbage without money. In Indiana, thanks to state-imposed tax caps that are starving units of local government, cities desperately need workers able to pay the taxes and fees we do impose. We also need to minimize the burden large numbers of jobless citizens place on municipal finances.

Which candidate is most likely to create the jobs we need?  Indianapolis voters have a choice between a former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and an incumbent with a jobs record we can examine.

So how has Ballard done?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 62,000 fewer people were working in Indianapolis this year than were working here in 2007. As the IBJ reported in late August, “while Indianapolis was hardly alone in losing jobs during the recession….no other major Midwestern city has seen such a sharp decline.”  Among Midwestern cities, Indianapolis lagged Pittsburgh, Nashville, Columbus, Milwaukee, Louisville, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Chicago.

Those still working also lost ground; wages for private workers have declined 8.6 percent during the past four years.

This is stunningly bad performance.

To be fair, one reason for our pathetic showing is Governor Daniels, who believes that government should slash public employment to balance budgets—despite the loss of tax revenue and the added stress on social service budgets that accompany such measures. Most economists believe such actions trigger a self-reinforcing downward spiral.  If Ballard recognized the consequences of Daniels’ policy for Indianapolis, he certainly didn’t protest.

Indianapolis needs leaders who understand the connections between government actions and private-sector reactions–leaders who understand that employers don’t relocate their businesses just by comparing tax rates. (Don’t believe that? Look again at the list of cities outpacing us.) Businesses don’t move to places with bad public schools, troubling crime rates and other elements signaling a poor quality of life; they move to—or stay in—cities offering amenities like well-tended parks, efficient government agencies and convenient public transportation.

Given Indiana’s tax caps and other fiscal constraints, the only way the next mayor will be able to do anything other than continue selling off public assets (and our children’s futures) is to create jobs and grow the tax base.

We aren’t stupid, and it really is the economy. Indianapolis—which used to lead—is lagging well behind our peer cities. Kennedy’s right—we can do better.


Parking Meter Delusions

According to media reports, in last night’s debate between Melina Kennedy (no relation!) and Greg Ballard, the Mayor strongly defended his record. He cited crime reduction (a claim that can be considered true if you count only certain crimes, and ignore those annoying statistics about aggravated assaults and the like) and the privatization of parking meters.

Excuse me? Let’s deconstruct that. We are supposed to re-elect Ballard in gratitude for his decision to give away control of our parking infrastructure and some 60% of the fees we would otherwise earn for the next fifty years?

The ability to control meters may seem inconsequential, but it isn’t. Decisions about parking are a significant element in all sorts of development decisions; the ability to “bag” meters without penalty during downtown construction is a cost-control measure important to developers and others. It has been estimated that the city’s deal–which requires compensating ACS when more than a certain number of meters are bagged–added over a million dollars to the construction costs of the Cultural Trail.

When many of us protested the decision to contract away the lion’s share of parking revenues that would otherwise flow to the city, we were told that we needed the “expertise” of ACS–that the city couldn’t finance and manage its meters without the help of a sophisticated mega-corporation. (Evidently, the disastrous experiences of cities like Chicago that had entered into similar deals was considered irrelevant by Mayor Leadership.)

The bottom line, according to the Ballard Administration, was that it was necessary to trade a lot of city control and money for competent, experienced management.I thought that was a bad deal, but I assumed we would at least get the competent management. Evidently, I was naive.

Yesterday, in my Media and Policy class, a student raised the issue of how poorly local media had covered the administration’s privatization of the water company and parking meters. That led another student to complain that she had received a ticket despite having paid the fee–and was helpless to prove her payment since the meters don’t dispense receipts.

Her complaint opened a floodgate. Out of the 23 students in class, no fewer than 8 of them reported similar problems. Several had attempted to complain–complaints that, as one put it, were “blown off.” One student who had paid with a credit card was told the only way she could get a refund was to bring in her Visa bill. Another reported that her credit card was charged twice; when she tried to get the improper extra charge removed, the response was “how do we know you didn’t park twice?”

So, Mayor Ballard, let me understand this: I am supposed to vote to re-elect you, not despite the fact that you gave control of our parking and millions of our dollars to a company that is doing a crappy job, but because you did so?

Whatever it is you’re smoking, I’d like some.