Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Marion County Political Landscape Looks Promising for Dems in 2011

The political landscape in Marion County is one of opportunity and one of challenge for Democrats as the party attempts to re-take the crown jewel of City/County Government, the Mayor’s Office, and the majority on the City-County Council.

Working for the Democrats is that Marion County is now, officially, a blue county. We knew this before, but the brutal 2010 midterm election season was a political bloodbath for Democrats all across Indiana. Not in Marion County where the Democratic Marion County ticket carried through easily. The closest county race was for Prosecutor, and Terry Curry prevailed over the well-funded and Mitch Daniels-backed Mark Massa by 8,587 votes in the uncertified results. John Layton had 119,303 votes in the race for Sheriff to lead the ticket. There were 20,969 more Democratic straight ticket votes than Republican straight ticket votes.

In the 7th District race, Congressman André Carson showed strong results with 58 percent of the vote, that margin came after he ran a race without running from a liberal agenda. He ran on his record, and he won easily despite an opponent that used some pretty deplorable rhetoric at times.

Those facts would tend to make you think that the wind is behind the Democrats, but there are complicating factors.

Mayor Greg Ballard, who has yet to announce his 2011 intentions, has built up a healthy campaign war chest, and, after spinning his wheels early in his term, has launched a series of initiatives that he can tout as a record. It's all in how that record is spun by both sides that will determine what happens.

The two major “feathers” Ballard will try to stick in his cap are the water utilities transfer deal that saw Citizens Energy take over the water and sewer utilities in Indianapolis. It was a very controversial plan that Ballard claims brought Indianapolis dollars for infrastructure improvements. The Rebuild Indy plan has begun with road, sidewalk, and other repairs citywide. The Ballard Administration has been good to get their Rebuild Indy signs up and posted around the city. I pass, off the top of my head, four of them on my daily drive to work. No work has begun in any of these areas that I pass yet, but the signs have been up for several weeks.

The other major deal that Ballard has been trying to push forward is the transfer of the city’s parking assets to ACS. The original draft met strong resistance, and Ballard’s folks have re-drafted the plan. That plan is also receiving mixed to negative reviews even from Ballard’s own party, and it appears to have a tough road ahead for approval. Ballard clearly is taking the privatization page out of the Republican playbook, and that can be a negative if he goes too far. He might have done so with this parking mess.

Negatives for Ballard include the public safety situation. There is some talk on the street that the Mayor has lost support among the rank-and-file IMPD officers and their commanders with the hiring of Dr. Frank Straub. Straub was brought in to make changes, and, for better or worse, he’s done that. In the process, he may have irreparably upset the balance of things for Ballard who may face opposition from his own police force. Untied loose ends in the Eric Wells case and the Brandon Johnson case hang in the balance.

Ballard also is touting a balanced budget that clearly is NOT balanced. The receipts are outpaced by the expenses. Libraries are cutting staff and closing certain days. Parks are receiving cuts. The Pacers, however, are receiving new incentives to stay in Indianapolis, and the CIB budget is taking precedence over keeping the things that make this community livable viable. These are problems for the Mayor.

The real question is where is Ballard's base? Ballard campaigned as an anti-establishment, tax reducing, spending reducer. He’s been anything but. Ask many of his grassroots supporters from 2007. They will tell you that they feel like they've been used. He promised one thing, but they've gotten another. A strong Libertarian candidate could certainly siphon off a lot of votes, in my opinion, from Ballard.

Unfortunately for Ballard, he also recorded ads talking about too many taxes and fees in 2007. Expect to see these boogers come back to bite him.

Those are Ballard's problems. Democrats also have yet to settle on a candidate for Mayor in 2011.

Melina Kennedy would seem to be the frontrunner right now. She’s been running for Mayor for over a year now and has done the most in terms of ground work regularly appearing on the Democratic club scene to woo potential slating voters while holding citywide forums to listen to issues. City-County Councillor José Evans has also been running a strong effort also organizing forums and holding weekly Facebook talks on education. Former Councillor Ron Gibson has been largely absent from the scene but is still running. These may or may not be the only three candidates for Democrats by the time all is said and done.

At the City-County Council level, a few district races have some interesting developments. Those are just beginning to shake out. The key to which party claims the majority lies with which party takes the four at-large seats. Republicans currently hold a 15-13-1 majority with two of the four at-large council seats on their side of the ledger.

Sitting in those four seats are Libertarian Ed Coleman, Republican Barbara Malone, Republican Angel Rivera, and Democrat Joanne Sanders.

It’s going to be difficult for Coleman to remain in his seat. The Marion County Libertarian Party has really done an excellent job in many ways, but Coleman was a Republican when he was elected and switched parties during his term. He will struggle against the major parties although his presence on the Council will certainly help his run.

Malone has done little since she joined the Council. She has largely stayed under the radar. Rivera only joined the Council fairly recently after Kent Smith resigned due to his military responsibilities.

Sanders has been a strong and solid voice for Democrats and the minority party. She has been working with a very difficult caucus that often has fractured. If you ask those in the know, they will usually tell you that Sanders takes her job as a Councillor very seriously and is very effective. She has been vocal and an on point counterbalance to Council President Ryan Vaughn.

Led by Sanders, a strong Democratic push for the three other at-large seats has begun. Annette Johnson, John Barth, and Zach Adamson have all been out and running high-profile campaigns. Adamson has even gotten some face time on local news over the parking issue. That kind of earned media is critical in a race where 12 percent of the vote gets you easily elected. Barth has impeccable credentials, and Johnson has proven she can win races in Pike Township. There are also other potential candidates lurking in the wings, but Adamson, Barth, and Johnson have done much in the way of early work and could be difficult to beat in a four month campaign leading up to slating. Slating would be a big key to winning a primary that typically draws very few voters.

All in all, it looks like a very good opportunity to reclaim the council for Democrats. Republicans swept into power on angst over property taxes as well as a little bit of failure to see the landscape clearly by the Democrats. The Dems, led by then-Mayor Bart Peterson, pushed through a 0.65 income tax increase during the election year. That as well as an effective campaign run by the Republicans doomed Dems in a year where property taxes skyrocketed and the only incumbents to blame were Peterson and the At-Large Councillors Gibson, Boyd, and Conley. The landscape has changed tremendously.

I’m looking forward to an interesting year of elections and writing about them. I hope you join me on the journey.


varangianguard said...

I agree with a recent Paul Ogden observation that a lively primary battle is golden for the (free) press it generates.

As the presumed front-runner, Ms. Kennedy should welcome a battle, and it should help her not only with familiarizing the voters with her name/face, but also to help define the issues that the eventual candidate wants to bring to the table against the incumbent.

Paul K. Ogden said...


The water utility deal is not a good thing to run on. Yu can't really put together a 30 second spot that leaves a viewer going "Yipee, I"m so happy the Mayor Ballard sold the water and utilities."

The ACS parking deal is hugely unpopular. A good political consultant - which Jennifer Hallowell clearly is not - would advise him to steer clear of that issue.

As far as infrastructure issue, I've never known a mayor who got re-elected because he went out and paved a bunch of roads before an election. That's the Ballard strategy though. Will it work? Almost certainly not. I give Ballard at best a 20% chance of winning re-election.

And Varan is exactly right...the D's could actually use a lively mayoral primary for the reason he say.

Anonymous said...

I thnk Kennedy already has the Democratic nomination sewn up... and she has learned fromt the mistakes of '06 and '07. She has worked with the grass roots very hard, she has been substantive on her pronouncements, and she has been working hard raising the funds necessary to be competitive.

Ballard supposed strength is his real weakness...public safety...it has been a disaster as pr failure after pr failure has left him exposed as a guy not really a leader and not ready for prime time...

But, The boys at Barnes will not go gently into that good night...it will be a bruiser of a campaign

Anonymous said...

Kennedy has learned from her perceived timidness in 2006 and now comes across vry confident and strong. She has the nomination close to being sewed up.

There are a couple of incumbents who have jumped on the Ballard bandwagon who will have a difficult time of being reslated and renominated. The PCs in their districts are quite upset with them.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Anon: 10:37.

You can bet B&T will pump plenty of money into Kennedy's campaign. They normally play both sides.