The Vision Thing

Matt Tully and Erika Smith are the most perceptive-and provocative-commentators at the Indianapolis Star, and I agree with them more often than not. So when I opened Tully’s column this morning, I was inclined to agree with his basic thesis: Indianapolis needs a leader with a bold vision for what the city could become.


What, exactly, is “vision”? I agree that it isn’t the issuance of ten-point plans, or plaintive explanations of good intentions. On the other hand, I think Tully is conflating vision with charisma. Vision, it seems to me, is the ability to articulate a coherent plan to move the city to a clearly identified place–i.e., we might say our vision is to create a city in which residents feel safe, can find employment, inhabit a vibrant arts community, and enjoy public amenities. Vision is evidenced by connecting those “ten-point plans” to each other in service of an overall goal, by showing an understanding of the importance of public transportation, for example, to both quality of life and economic development. As readers of this blog already know, I do not see that vision–or the management skills to achieve a vision–as attributes of our current mayor. (What is Ballard’s vision for Indianapolis after we’ve sold off all our infrastructure, I wonder.)

Bill Hudnut was widely seen as visionary, and I agree with that assessment, but he was also charismatic. Six feet four, with a commanding presence, a gift for public speaking, he could look visionary promoting the “Clean City” initiative. Neither Ballard nor Kennedy is charismatic, but that isn’t the same thing as a lack of vision.

And when we do go to the polls to vote for one of them, we need to take into account not only their stated goals, not only whether we think those goals are reasonable ones, but the likeliness that they have what it takes to achieve them.


A Clear Choice

Yesterday, the Indianapolis Star did profiles of the candidates for Mayor, and focused on their respective “visions.” It was easy to agree with Melina Kennedy’s priorities–education, economic development and public safety–but in fairness, despite successful performance as Deputy Mayor charged with economic development in the Peterson Administration, she hasn’t been responsible for public safety or education. That’s an inescapable element of elections–voters have to decide which candidate is most likely to fulfill such pledges. Ballard promised to reduce crime when he ran four years ago, and despite his insistence that being a Marine was preparation for combating crime and managing the complexities of a 21st Century urban metropolis, has been unable to do so.

Let me be honest: there is no way I would vote for Mayor Ballard in November. His manifest lack of background for the job, and his subsequent dependence upon the political insiders who have actually run the city,  determined my vote before I ever knew who would run against him. And I am very impressed with Kennedy–who, I will remind everyone, is NO RELATION. But if I had any inclination to rethink my evaluation of this Mayor, his response to the Star yesterday would have killed it.

Here is the Mayor’s defense of his performance. “After three years in office, Ballard, 56, has faced frequent criticism from Democrats and others that he has lacked a coherent vision. He says they aren’t paying enough attention. He points to efforts to regain control of the city Police Department, privatize parking meters, rein in city and county spending and commit public money to private development projects. And his sale of the city’s water and sewer utilities kick-started his RebuildIndy infrastructure project with $425 million in proceeds.”

Let’s deconstruct that response. He has “made an effort” to regain control of the Police Department. That effort has been visibly, embarrassingly unsuccessful. The FOP endorsed his opponent, backing a Democrat for the first time in 50 years. More importantly, crime–despite some creative statistical spin by the Administration–is up. Worse still, the increase is most notable in the “violent” category. Most significant for the Mayor’s political prospects, people in Indianapolis feel less safe than they did four years ago.

Ballard also cited efforts to reign in spending. He had no choice; the ill-conceived property tax caps made it imperative. Those tax caps are choking cities throughout Indiana, forcing cuts to important services. Incredibly, in the very next sentence following that boast about his efforts to reduce spending, he lists as an “accomplishment” that he committed public money to private development projects. (Not to mention, sports teams and venues.)

Can we spell tone-deaf?

But what REALLY pissed me off was the Mayor’s evidently pride in his decision to privatize water and sewer services and parking meters. I’ve written a lot about these wrongheaded transactions, especially the 50-year giveaway of parking revenue the city desperately needs, and some of the ethical concerns surrounding it. But I’ll just quote a good friend of mine–a very successful businessman, civic leader and long-time Republican: You don’t sell capital assets to fund operations. Businesses that do so are soon bankrupt.

If Ballard’s list of “accomplishments” is indicative of his “vision,” we’d better be sure to elect Melina Kennedy.