THE SAVVY CONSERVATIVES in my city had taken a step back from local politics. That was understandable. It didn’t make sense handing money to office-holders, watching them ignore campaign promises and then not hear from them until the next campaign.
On top of that, incumbents and party favorites were thought to be sure things. You either punched their ticket, however ugly the voting record, or you sat out the dance. You needed to know the players.
That may be changing, at least at the city primary level. There are three factors now in play:
- Local media has fragmented to the point that advertising and marketing dollars cannot be spent effectively. Media endorsements can even be counterproductive. And a campaign funding gap is not necessarily fatal.
- Voters are getting wise to the “we have to hang together” message when it is code for nothing’s going to change. Ditto when they are asked to ignore errant or self-serving voting records “because the alternative would be worse.”
- Political parties have become detached and elitist. As a result, platforms and talking points are unconvincing. A straightforward campaign focused on actual problems and realistic solutions catches the public’s interest all by itself.
In short, the door to civil engagement is wide open. You can finance a competitive primary campaign at one-third that of the most well-heeled opponent. Connections? You no longer need to schmooze a local publisher or even a party chairman. You just jump in at the opportune time.
Call it populism or whatever, but it is a new way of thinking about politics in Indiana.
Detailed below are two model campaigns of this type, ones in a midsized southern Indiana city and one in a larger city in the northeast part of the state. Note that neither candidate had experience in public affairs, both having merely walked off the street to apply common sense and private-sector experience to their community’s problems.
The owner of a family landscaping business, Cummins won election and re-election for a 2nd District seat as the only Republican on the Terre Haute Common Council. He did so by asking the same questions of public spending as he does of his business spending. When the answers didn’t jibe with the facts, he would find himself the only vote in opposition. He cast hundreds of solitary votes.
Yet, and here is an important point, Cummins didn’t dilute his arguments by trying to engineer council votes or net public support. He merely allowed the facts, built into carefully researched questioning, to speak for themselves.
For example, Cummins had a response for the unions asking for increases in pay or benefits. It was the same as he gave to his own employees, business partners and vendors: “I would love to give you more money (or a longer vacation or increased benefits or whatever) but what can you do for the city that you are not doing under the current arrangement?” He would follow up by asking the turnover rate for a given city job and how many qualified persons applied for any opening.
During his second campaign, members of the fire and police unions planted protest signs around his house and business. And during budget hearings they would bring their wives and children carrying hand-painted signs implying that Cummins was a threat to their families.
Cummins, who was self-financed ($5,000), won re-election by a 3:1 margin in one of the most Democrat areas of the state against an opponent who had held high office in both the Bayh and O’Bannon administrations. State legislators and prominent local lawyers worked the polls against him.
A former trader in mortgaged-backed securities, Arp was reelected last year to his second term from Fort Wayne’s 4th District. During his first term, Arp used his bank experience to expose how various of the city’s supposed redevelopment projects paid the “investors” up front and were little more than real estate schemes. He suggested repealing the local business property tax and withdrawing funding from the city’s highly politicized economic-development apparatus.
Although he was denounced by Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. (an amalgam Chamber of Commerce), Apr’s logic stuck: It would encourage more investment if all businesses were allowed to keep their money rather than be forced to give it to a quasi-public agency to distribute to the politically selected. He put together a map showing the large amount of downtown property that had been taken off the tax rolls for one favored project or another.
Arp’s positions were so mischaracterized by the local newspaper that he would eventually decline interviews after council meetings. And during his reelection campaign, he decided as a tactical matter it would be a waste of time to sit for a fourth candidate interview with the editorial board of the local newspaper.
This resulted in a telling public exchange with the publisher. Apparently in a pique over Arp’s victory, she wrote a column the night of the election in which it was wrongly claimed that the councilman had refused to meet with her. The next day, a correction acknowledged that she had forgotten a one-hour meeting only months before.
What the public knew of the reasoning behind Arp’s positions was sadly limited to what his opponents might say about him. Most press and radio mentions were dismissive. A New York Times reporter came to town to profile Arp for a hit piece based on the presumption that his support for a day honoring the city’s namesake demonstrated racism.
And because media coverage was so narrow and incomplete, Arp had to distribute the council’s voting record himself for public analysis, an act that particularly riled the Republican members. And his data correlating campaign “pay to play” contributions with City Hall contracts . . . well, it was as irrefutable as it was disturbing to the mayor and the city’s power brokers.
Arp’s campaign had to overcome a poor performance at the top of the city ticket where the Republican candidate for mayor lost all but one precinct in Arp’s district. All told, Arp won 25 of his 33 precincts (11 of 16 polling places) for a broad victory in a close race.
The win was impressive, perhaps because 10 years after the Cummins elections the three factors listed earlier had taken a stronger hold. Greater Fort Wayne poured nearly $25,000 into the campaign of his primary opponent, later joining the Democratic contender in the general to help raise over $70,000. The owner of a national retail company with special interests throughout the city and county, contributed $5,000 against Arp in the primary and another $7,500 in the general. A large investor in a multi-million-dollar downtown development put up $12,500 against Arp in the primary and another $1,000 in the general.
It is estimated that over $100,000 (a 3:1 advantage) was spent by Arp challengers, believed to be a record for Indiana municipal district races.
Both of these men credit their wins to voters who when given a choice sided with individual liberty and private property rather than the crafted messages of council majorities, party chairmen and crony capitalists. Again, both men defined themselves not by posture but by sharp and sincere questioning — on the record, at the council table. There were no backroom deals.
More than all of that, they followed what we call the Schansberg Rules* — never vote for anything unconstitutional, unethical or impractical. That meant not voting for arrangements that favored certain citizens over the rest, that used government to force what should be an individual choice and that supported a plan, however popular or high-minded, that simply would not work.
Please know that neither of these two men would tell you that they were political skilled, well-spoken or particularly charming in a public way. They did not relish standing before roomfuls of people. They weren’t good at asking for money.
Rather, they approached the representation of their friends and neighbors as a duty rather than a profession. Again, they were effective independent of politics or the will of a council majority. They were unremarkable other than their willingness to get selflessly involved in the civic affairs of their community.
Please know that there are men and women like this in every Indiana city. Their time has come. They should not be waiting for permission or even an invitation. They should be putting their campaign together for the next city or district primary election. — tcl
* For a full description, see the June 7 “Outstater.”