Mayoral life: Leaders stay close to home, get things done

By John Krull

INDIANAPOLIS – The other day, while I was driving my son to baseball practice, I saw the mayor of Indianapolis walk out to check his mailbox.

It was a pleasant day, so Joe Hogsett was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. Maybe he’d been mowing the lawn before he grabbed the mail, or possibly doing some other yard work or just lounging around the house.

That’s pretty much the way most middle-class, middle-aged husbands and fathers dress when they’re puttering around the home.

The mayor’s house was nice, a tidy structure on a quiet street with a lot of trees on the city’s north side, but nothing spectacular. It looks like a lot of other homes all around Indianapolis and Indiana – attractive, well-maintained and solid, the kind of place where a family lives.

That’s the point.

The mayor lives among us.

Over the past few years, as our federal and state governments have grown more and more and more dysfunctional, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking with the last six mayors of Indianapolis – Richard Lugar, the late William Hudnut, Stephen Goldsmith, Bart Peterson, Greg Ballard and Hogsett. Lugar, Hudnut, Goldsmith and Ballard served as Republicans. Peterson and Hogsett are Democrats.

To a man – and it’s important to remember that, so far, no woman has served yet as the chief executive of the state’s largest city – they all say similar things.

Mayors don’t have time for nonsensical partisan or ideological battles if they want to be successful in office. Mayors must get things done. The streets must be cleaned. The police must be on the streets. The streetlights and the traffic lights must work.

If these things don’t happen – and if mayors don’t solve problems when they pop up – then cities don’t work.

And people suffer.

Then they get angry.

Lugar, Hudnut, Goldsmith, Peterson, Ballard and Hogsett all have told me that it’s the nature of the work that encourages mayors to eschew non-productive political wrangling. And, again, to a man, they resort to the cliché – that there is no Democratic or Republican way to sweep the streets.

That’s true, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Unlike the members of the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives or those in the Indiana General Assembly, they don’t disappear from the places and people that put them into office for months or years at a time.

They live where they serve, among the people who put them in power.

That means that, if the city can’t deal with a heavy snowfall and the streets are slick and dangerous, even if they’re being driven rather than driving, they have slow going getting to work and then coming back home, too. If the trash isn’t picked up, they see it and smell it, too.

I’ve long thought that many of the problems that bedevil Congress and our state legislature would disappear if we sent mayors to serve there. Most mayors don’t look for fights because they don’t have time for them. They seek solutions, because that’s what they need. They’re used to give and take.

The problem here in Indiana is that we rarely send mayors from good-sized cities on to any other major elective office.

Of the six Indianapolis mayors I’ve mentioned – and each had or is having an effective run in office – only one, Richard Lugar, went on to serve in any other elective office. Over his 36-year career in the U.S. Senate, Lugar used the negotiating and problem-solving skills he honed as mayor to eliminate stockpiles of nuclear weapons and make the world a safer place.

But those very same skills and that determination to solve problems rather than add to them also made him vulnerable to a successful primary challenge from a nonsense-spewing ideologue who preferred creating catastrophes to avoiding them.

Which brings me back to seeing Joe Hogsett pick up his mail in a T-shirt and shorts.

When I mentioned that we’d just driven past the mayor going to his mailbox, my son was surprised that the mayor didn’t live in a mansion someplace far from the city.

I chuckled and told him that, really, it’s better for everyone if the mayor lives here with the rest of us.

Much better.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.