Half Past the Month

December 15, 2019

WHY WOULD ANYONE spend an estimated $100,000 to win a district council election, especially when the incumbent was heavily outvoted at the council table?

Yes, that’s a district council race in a midsized Indiana city, and that $100,000 is said to be a state record.

Clearly, it was important to keep the incumbent from using his office to ask questions and raise issues. Someone’s special interest was so untenable it could not bear even the isolated attention of a single elected official. And just as obviously, that special interest represented a large amount of money — enough to attract bad company, it will be argued here.

Prima facie, folks, this is corruption, perhaps not personal corruption but surely institutional corruption. This particular city council was being used to capture what economists call “rents,” money made by manipulating the political environment rather than by creating new wealth. It is the fancy second cousin to skimming from the cash register, fixing contracts, arranging kickbacks, etc.

Will there be other examples around the state? You can bet on it. The role of council has been distorted in a way that makes it inevitable. The regional economic-development policies continued by Gov. Eric Holcomb have turned city councilmen into investment bankers, picking winners and losers and arranging all manner of loan and bond guarantee as well as preferential tax treatment.

And they aren’t good at it, particularly in regard to assessing the degree of risk to future taxpayers or the actual “investment” of those playing the system. It’s why the Indiana Policy Review Foundation has launched its “Footholds” project. (Check it out here; we need your help.)

Granted, it is possible that some of that $100,000 came from economic innocents, both big and small donors, who were pulled in with an appeal to city pride — “We’ve got to save the downtown, the old mill, the iconic factory, the river walk . . .”

The return in these cases, the payoff, is a sense of civic contribution, however shallow the understanding of the financial arrangements being made by the insiders.

Whatever, the typical councilman, the kind who likes to hear himself called “councilman,” won’t be casting any votes that come with $100,000 campaign challenges.

This, please know, is how political machines are built and maintained. And inattentive public officials, by commission or omission, are the stooges, the menaces to a city’s future. Vote them out of office if you want honest local government and representative elections.

— tcl


Leave a Reply