Monday, January 18, 2010

History and Future of the Marion County GOP; A Primer on Marion County GOP Politics

This past weekend, I had a conversation with a couple long-time Republican activists here in Marion County They were upset with the local GOP and couldn't understand why the Republicans in power in Marion County seemed so oblivious to the very issues that motivate the rank and file Republicans to be politically active.

I have been active in the Marion County GOP since 1986, a year before getting my law degree and entering the practice of law. About that time, I also began teaching political science at the college level, first at IUPUI and now at the University of Indianapolis. I feel those experiences have given me some level of insight into what is going on. The answers can be found by dusting off some of those old poli sci textbooks and reviewing the history of the Marion County GOP.

In 1967, candidate Richard Lugar won an upset victory for Mayor in the traditionally Democratic city of Indianapolis. At that time the boundaries of the city were the old city limits, excluding the then heavily-Republican leaning Marion County suburbs. In 1970, the Indiana General Assembly passed Unigov, essentially folding those suburbs into the city.

Unigov triggered three decades of Republican domination of Indianapolis politics. The local Marion County GOP organization became a classical political party machine. Here is a definition of a political party machine used in my course:
A tightly disciplined party organizations held together and motivated by a desire for tangible benefits rather than by principle or ideology. Machines bestow benefits, e.g. patronage, government handouts, government contracts, in exchange for votes and political support.
Historically, almost every big city political machine has been run by Democrats. Indianapolis, with the city's politics dominated by a large Republican majority, was an exception.

The 30 plus year Republican domination of Indianapolis government began to end in 1999 with the election of Bart Peterson as Mayor, breaking a 32 year control of that office by Republicans. In 2003, the takeover of Indianapolis city government was nearly complete with Democrats winning control of the Indianapolis City-Council. Democrats soon went on to win every county-wide office, except for Prosecutor.

The transition of the Marion County Republican Party from a political party machine dominating city/county politics to being a minority party happened in a few short years. As the GOP began its first tentative steps to adjusting to the new reality, a solid Democratic majority in the county, lightening struck. Mayor Peterson shot himself in the foot with an ill-timed local income tax increase coming on the heels of a property tax revolt. Indianapolis voters threw out the Democrats and put Republicans back in control of the Mayor's Office and the Council.

Even though Mayor Greg Ballard ran as new kind of Republican and indeed called for the end to "country club politics" in Indianapolis on Election Night - a shot at the faction of Republicans who had long dominated local Republican politics - the problem was that the Old Guard, Establishment Republicans, were still running the Marion County GOP. While on the outside for most of the 2007 Election, Establishment Republicans quickly worked to seize control of the Ballard administration from the Reform Republicans, quite literally shutting them out of the transition process. Aided by the inexperience of Ballard, a newcomer to politics, they quickly succeeded, putting the current administration on the same course as those Republican administrations that dominated the City during the first 30 years of Unigov. The new Republicans, the Reform Republicans who had worked with Ballard from the beginning of his campaign, were shut out and still are shut out.

Most of the media see the disagreements between Reform Republicans and Establishment Republicans as a dispute between conservatives and moderates in the party. Such a characterization misstates the fundamental nature of the dispute between the two camps. After all, while most Reform Republicans are conservative, there are quite a few who are more liberal in their political outlook. For Reform Republicans though, political philosophy and the issues are the motivating force for their political activity. For Establishment Republicans though, political philosophy and issues are merely the avenue to political power, not a list of what needs to be accomplished once power is achieved. This is why Establishment Republicans don't bat an eye at Ballard reneging on campaign promise after campaign promise- to Establishment Republicans who run the Ballard administration, those promises were just the way to achieve power, not guiding principles for the new administration.

To further clarify the differences between Establishment Republicans and Reform Republicans one needs to turn back to the classic political science terms "elitism" and "populism." Establishment Republicans believe in "elitism," defined as:
The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
Establishment Republicans, i.e. elitists, see nothing with taking public tax dollars and handing it to professional sports teams, big corporations, politically powerful developers, etc. The positive spin is that the corporate welfare is a "good investment," and the recipients of the public largess have over the years made Indianapolis a wonderful place to live The negative spin by detractors of the philosophy is that not all the investment of those public tax dollars has been wise and that those Establishment Republicans are using their positions to make their friends in the private sector wealthier at public expense.

Reform Republicans, on the other hand closely believe in a philosophy called "populism," defined as:
A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.
Reform Republicans place a premium on protecting taxpayers and working men and women. They decry government handouts, including the corporate welfare that the Establishment Republicans claim is an "investment." They argue forcefully for changes in ethics and conflicts of interest laws so elites cannot use their positions in government to enrich themselves and their friends.

While the Establishment Republicans and their elitist philosophy can succeed in a heavily Republican County (check out Hamilton County's GOP as an example), it is a prescription for failure in a county where Republicans are in a minority. The populism of Reform Republicans, with its emphasis on issues as the motivating force for political activity, has a chance to reach enough independents and moderate Democrats to stitch together a winning coalition. That is what Reagan did in 1980 when he used a consistent philosophy and issues to convince independents and Democrats to vote Republican.

Given the electoral math of Marion County, it is inevitable that the days are numbered for the Establishment Republicans whose approach to governing simply can't attract enough Democrat and independent voters to win. The election of Ballard in 2007 and the takeover of his administration by elitists who have long dominated the GOP, merely provided a last gasp for those Establishment Republicans. Although the Reform Republicans lost control of a hard-earned victory on Election Night 2007, it is inevitable that they will come to dominate Republican politics in Marion County.


Cato said...

"Reform Republicans," an aspirational term of convenience you've coined, have learned from Mitch, Ballard and Bush that being a Republican is slitting your own throat.

There's is no longer anything alluring or compelling about being any type of Republican.

All stripes of Republican appear to be theocratic, martial, jingoistic, fascistic, anti-Liberty and anti-intellectual.

It's the party of tasering, bombing, and handing your tax dollars to the Colts.

It's the party of Bill Kristol, not Ron Paul. Even a "good Republican" can't be trusted, as this Republican will, at one time, have been a neocon, and he will certainly be subject to ongoing neocon pressures from other Republicans.

The Republicans are simply too dangerous to be entrusted with public power.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Well said, Paul. They do not want people of principle, honor and integrity involved in the party.

M Theory said...

Excellent analysis.

And Gary is right, the Republicans don't want people of principle in the party and do all they can to attack and other wise drive away principled people.

"It's the party of tasering, bombing, and handing your tax dollars to the Colts."

That's a great line, Cato. Only both parties are guilty of it.

Paul K. Ogden said...


Well they're not going to have a choice. It's inevitable that they're going to lose in 2011. We need to make sure they never come to dominate the local Republican Party again.

Citizen Kane said...

Well said, however, the present choices are between two machines. They both generally, with some bobbing and weaving along the way, want the same thing - power and domination. And, of course, they lie about there true intentions.

Guest said...

Dear Cato:

M Theory said...


You forgot to mention the "combine" which is the R and D insiders working together.

The combine was at work for Peterson to win the election. Do you recall all the Republican endorsements for him?

I didn't follow politics back then, but I remember on thing about the Peterson election. I found it strange that the R's were lined up behind Peterson.

Carlos F. Lam said...

Paul, I hope you're correct that the "reform" wing (which is pretty libertarian in its views) will make gains. We shall see.