Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Populists Battle For Control of Indianapolis Politics

While the battle rages on over the Capital Improvement Board bailout, few people appreciate the coming culmination of an era that this battle represents. For over three decades, Indianapolis city leaders have actively promoted public-private partnerships as way of improving the city. Both Republican and Democratic leaders in the city actively pursued the deals.

Now, three decades later, it is apparent that many of these public-private partnerships involved little more than taking taxpayer money and turning it over to corporate interests who in return showered politicians with generous campaign contributions. Recently, Corey Schouten of the Indianapolis Business Journal exposed how much the city has given to the Simons family, a major political contributor, usually to Democratic candidates. Even that excellent expose did not even scratch the surface regarding the enormous giveaways by city leaders over the past 30 plus years. Tax abatements, subsidies, money not collected on deals that were struck by the city - these are all tools by which city leaders have transferred taxpayer money to private coffers.

Has the city benefited from some of these deals? Undoubtedly. But the question with any investment is whether the return was worth the dollars invested. In this case, much of the focus is on the "how" public-private partnerships have been carried out. Too often these deals have been cut behind closed doors and represent not an attempt to advance the welfare of the city, but to enrich private individuals and the cost of the taxpayers.

Several months ago, Indianapolis columnist Matt Tully looked out at the Republican critics of Marion County Republican Chairman Tom John and Mayor Greg Ballard, and concluded those critics represented the conservative wing of the party fighting back against moderates. Recently though Tully's views regarding the clash seems to have evolved in a more accurate portrayal of what is going on. The battle over the CIB and what the underlying issues represent, does not involve conservative v. liberal, Republican v. Democrat or any of the traditional combatants we have seen square off in political skirmishes. The battle over the CIB represents the classic Political Science 101 face-off between competing political philosophies we in the academia refer to as "elitism" and "populism." After three decades of elitists controlling both parties so much so that it mattered little whether Democrats or Republicans won the Mayor's office or controlled the City-County Council, populists are fighting back. The CIB bailout is merely the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.

The year 2007 represented the first emergence of populism on the Indianapolis political scene with Republican Greg Ballard vowing on election night that his success in the Mayor's race represented the end of the era of "country club politics" in Indianapolis. In the days that followed, populists, who worked tirelessly for Ballard, learned the big lesson between winning an election and winning a transition. Ballard immediately signed on to the very elitist agenda he campaigned against leaving his populist friends on the field of battle wondering what happened to their hard-earned victory.

But, alas, the battle of 2007 was only the beginning. The forces of populism have grown stronger since. The CIB bailout represents the perfect opportunity to coalesce the forces of populism against elitists who insist on pushing through tax increases to benefit their corporate benefactors. The push back from the people against the wishes of the city's elitist insiders has been unprecedented, sending them scurrying for answers that do not involve them biting the very corporate hand that has fed their political success.

While who wins this particular battle remains to be seen, the change in Indianapolis politics is inevitable. The elitist, country club politics of the past three decades, which has dominated both the Republican and Democratic parties in Marion County, has worn out the city's welcome mat. Change is a coming down the road. The control of the elite corporate interests over the parties' machinery will not be loosened without a fight. But make no mistake about it, the fight is on and Indianapolis politics will never be the same.


jabberdoodle said...

Well said sir. Well said.

Paul K. Ogden said...


Unfortunately for you, I think the populist-type reform is going to come to the Republicans first. Here is why. Instead of pushing for internal reform, the out-party, the Democrats, can simply fall back on blaming the Republicans. That puts off the Democrats having to reform themselves.

Republicans being in the minority will have no choice but to beocme more populist of face certain election defeat year after year.

Downtown Indy said...

Maybe the internet will bring to politics what it has brought to publishing. Anyone can get 'in the game' with minimal cash outlay.

This could be a very good thing, by opening the process up to other than only the wealthly and well-connected.

There is hope. We are beginning to see the MSP (MainStream Politicians) challenged and exposed like we've seen happen to the MSM.

jabberdoodle said...

Ummm. Even were I to accept your one-at-time rules, the Ds are in the minority for the next two + years.

But, that's alright. I'm fine with simultaneous reform.

Paul K. Ogden said...

No, Jabber, no one at a time rules. But here we are in the midst of a populist revolution and the D's still aren't inclined to jump on the bandwagon. I'm not overly optimistic. Trust me, I want both parties to cease these elitist politics.