In one of the biggest political upsets in the state’s history, popular two-term Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D) lost to Republican candidate Greg Ballard, a political unknown, in the November 6 mayoral election.
After garnering 62 percent of the vote in his first re-election campaign four years ago, Peterson lost 51-47 in his bid for a third term, as voters sent a powerful message about the political dangers of tax hikes.
Voters also reversed control of the City-County Council from Democrats to Republicans, giving the GOP a solid 17-12 edge.
Peterson had been widely liked until this year, when property taxes in the city rose by an average of 34 percent, hitting some homeowners with increases as high as 200-300 percent, and the Democrat-controlled county board voted to adopt a local option income tax.
Peterson tried to blame the state for the tax increases and even attempted to claim credit for the swift action of Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) in cutting property tax rates by 35 percent soon after the increases were announced. But city residents clearly held the mayor responsible as “voters’ frustration built over the summer,” as the Indianapolis Star noted in a November 7 editorial.
Peterson’s first two terms coincided with continued growth in the city’s downtown area and new arena and stadium deals to keep the city’s major-league sports teams, the NFL Colts and NBA Pacers, in town. Crime, however, had risen noticeably, and residents considered the city less safe than in prior years. City services such as street and sidewalk repairs also deteriorated.
Ballard was able to obtain the Republican nomination only because no prominent member of his party wanted to run against the popular Peterson and his large campaign war chest. The state party avoided openly backing Ballard and gave him very little money.
Deborah M. Hohlt, federal representative for the State of Indiana, noted Ballard previously had “no political experience. He is a retired military officer, a Republican who ran under the party banner but who received almost no support from the party.” Republican Party operatives, believing Peterson was unbeatable, decided to let Ballard sink or swim on his own, she said.
The crime problems presented a difficult issue for Peterson because of his controversial decision to consolidate the city police and county sheriff’s departments starting January 1, 2007. The move was sold to taxpayers as a boon to efficiency, but both crime and taxes went up, and voters expressed intense anger toward the mayor in comments both before and after the election.
“There is too much local government and not enough accountability,” said Hohlt. “The vote in Indiana is a great example of what happens in this situation. People have had enough. The mayor of Indianapolis was ousted after spending millions on his campaign by a guy who spent only $300,000.”
S.T. Karnick ([email protected]) is director of research for The Heartland Institute and senior editor of Budget and Tax News.