Friday, April 08, 2011

The Politics Behind Indianapolis' At-Large Council Seats

Marion County Democrats are going apoplectic over an amendment Rep. Phil Hinkle (R-Indianapolis) is offering to a local government reform bill, SB 526 that, among other things, would eliminate the four at-large council seats on the 29-member Indianapolis City-County Council. In 1969 during the debate over the UniGov legislation, the strongest opposition to electing at-large councilors came from Marion County Democrats. Politics was the motivation behind the at-large councilors then and politics is the motivation behind the elimination of the at-large councilors today.

The most authoritative historical document concerning the adoption of UniGov in 1969 is a college thesis written by none other than our current governor, Mitch Daniels. Daniels authored "The Politics of Metropolitinization: City-County Consolidation in Indianapolis, Indiana" as a senior at Princeton University in 1971. Yes, unlike Barack Obama, there is actually a paper trail for our distinguished governor from his college days, both the good and the bad. In his words, "The intent of this thesis is to dissect and examine this drive for metropolitan government, nicknamed 'UniGov' by the Indianapolis press, so that the basis of its surprising victory may become evident."

In his 132-page thesis, Daniels provides us as close of a ringside seat to the events culminating in the enactment of UniGov 42 years ago as the heart of any political junky could desire. From the 1968 backroom meetings with then-Mayor Richard Lugar and a handful of insiders where the ideas were first formulated, the so-called "Sylvan Drive" meetings as Daniels dubbed them for the home of insurance executive John Burkhart where the secret meetings were held, to the legislation's ultimate passage in 1969 by an overwhelmingly Republican-controlled legislature and approval by Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, Daniels provides an impeccable play-by-play analysis of legislation that totally changed the face of Indianapolis politics. Despite his young age, Daniels had unrivaled access to all of the key players who provided him the candid view any veteran journalist could have hoped to attain in covering any major event.

Daniels' thesis provides us political insight into the rationale behind the at-large council seats. "An issue which stirred great debate during the entire compromise period revolved around the at-large City-County Council seats suggested by the UniGov authors," Daniels wrote. The original plan called for a 30-seat council comprised of 25 single-member district seats and five at-large seats. Daniels noted by "current electoral trends would have given an advantage to the GOP, with their edge in organization and registration." Beurt SerVaas, who would become the first and longest serving President of the City-County Council, authored the plan for at-large councilors. "My original feeling was that perhaps the county should be divided into 10 districts with one councilman elected from each district and five at large . . . The ones at large would probably give the council to the same party that elected the Mayor," SerVaas explained during the task force meetings which presented the first drafts of the legislation. Sen. George Rubin, another task force member, suggested a 30-member council. Eventually, the task force adopted a 20-5 scheme. The number of at-large councilors was later reduced by one to create a 29-member council.

"Attacks against the at-large provision came almost exclusively from the Democratic leadership," Daniels observed. Marion Co. Democratic Chairman James Beatty labeled the plan "another means of locking up local government for the Republican Party." "The defenders counter-attacked along two lines," Daniels wrote. "The basic argument presented for public consumption held that 'This way at least some of the council representatives would be free of local special interest prejudices.'" "A second rationale, used sparingly and with receptive audiences asserted that it was desirable that a mayor have a few of his own people on the council." Daniels concluded, "The UniGov proponents weathered much criticism of their at-large plan, apparently believing it to be important enough to contest." Daniels' research revealed that no other person fought harder for the at-large council seats than SerVaas. Although Republicans wavered and hinted the final plan would drop the at-large seats during a critical stage of the legislative process, SerVaas ultimated prevailed.

Daniels said Republicans estimated they could count on winning 13 to 14 of the 25 single-member districts and win all four of the at-large seats, along with electing a Republican mayor, giving them a safe majority. Opponents of the at-large council seats filed lawsuits seeking to overturn it but were unsuccessful. Although Daniels' thesis does not cover this topic, Marion County at the time elected its state representatives and senators at large from a multi-member district, a scheme which was eventually replaced with single-member districts like the rest of the state, significantly reducing the number of safe Republican legislative seats. When Uni-Gov was enacted, Republicans held an overwhelming 70-30 majority in the House.

SerVaas' plan worked as planned for nearly 3 decades as Republicans held what seemed to be a permanent lock on the mayor's office and the City-County Council until Bart Peterson's election as mayor in 1999. The flight of Republican-leaning voters from Marion County to the neighboring suburban counties has gradually diminished the party's strength to the point it is now at a slight disadvantage. The 2007 election marked the first time that the winning party's candidate for mayor failed to win all four at-large council seats when Republicans captured three of the four seats with the election of Greg Ballard. The blame for the failure to win all four seats can be squarely laid at the feet of the party's former chairman, Tom John, who assumed Ballard would lose the election. He focused the party's resources on just electing one of the party's four at-large councilor candidates, Kent Smith, and withheld support from the other three GOP candidates. Angel Rivera was appointed to replace Smith after he resigned from the council before the end of his term. One of the other at-large Republicans elected in 2007, Ed Coleman, bolted to the Libertarian Party. Barbara Malone is the other at-large GOP member. Joanne Sanders is the lone Democrat elected at large in 2007.


BayernFan said...

When you say that state reps were elected at large, you may have meant that districts were 3 man districts. Each district elected 3reps. I remember my district had Mannweiler, Bill Soards, and someone named Nelson. It was NW in Pike Township. Ogden remembers them.

Bradley said...

Pretty interesting stuff -- I have to wonder how Daniels got so close to the key players back then -- I know his father was in the pharmaceutical industry, but still, it's pretty impressive to know even the backroom dealings not being a member of the press and just an undergrad college student. I guess he was lucky his drug dealing at Princeton didn't affect his thesis completion.

One small thing I was wanting to double-check, Gary -- Otis Bowen wasn't governor when UniGov was created I don't believe, but was Speaker of the House. I believe Ed Whitcomb was governor (I remember the dates he was in office because I've got to meet and spend time with Governor Ed a couple times, and he's an intensely fascinating and very kind person).

Advance Indiana said...

That's for the correction. It was Whitcomb. Bowen was Speaker.

Advance Indiana said...

And I should have said multi-member districts. Thanks for the correction.

Indy man said...

Correction for what it is worth:

In the sixties, State Representatives and Senators ran countywide. Unless there was massive ticket splitting, your party won either all or nothing. That is how they ended up with a 70 to 30 spread in the Legislature. Marion County was allocated 16 Representatives and 8 Senators.

Primary ballots were enormous. Primary voters tended to vote for the names at the beginning of the ballot. If your name did not start with an A, B, C, or D, you had almost no chance of winning. That is how a young State Senator Dan Burton came to be.

The 3 man districts did not evolve until the seventies.

Before Unigov, Indianapolis had nine city councilors who were assigned districts but were elected at large. Only six councilors were allowed to be members of the same party. Therefore there was almost always a 6 to 3 Democrat - Republican city council split.
I haven’t researched the law lately, but I believe that Indiana second class cities still work this way.


Peterson may have had a D beside his name, but he had the blessing of the Republicans to assure his win.

Indy is one party rule.

The two party system is an illusion designed to keep you trapped in the false left vs. right paradigm keeping the sheeple divided.

And you know what they say about dividing the people.

Advance Indiana said...

I prefer to call them Republicrats, Melyssa. That's what I'm thinking right now of the people who announced this so-called great budget deal last night that does absolutely nothing to address the overspending problem we have in Washington.


You can call them that too, Gary. You are right. That's like saying I'm going to cut my spending by $20 this year when I earn $100k and spend $150k each year.

As far as I can tell, we have few people truly standing up for the people.

Ron Paul and Rand Paul are two that stand up for us against this madness. Both of them are outside that fake paradigm of left vs. right.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Indy Man is correct on the pre-Baker v. Carr (one man, one vote) history of Indiana politics....Marion County elected its reps county-wide. I don't remember it...didn't even live in Indy and I was just a kid. But I have heard stories.

Marv said...

Maybe Mitch was at the meetings to supply those in attendance with whatever they were smoking at those meetings . . . he certainly looked like he was dressing the part back then.

Unigov only succeeded in accelerating white flight from Marion County into the collar counties since the unintended consequence of Unigov was desegregation of the county school districts by Judge Dillion.

As always Unigov shows how both parties love big government. Take smaller government entities and strip them of all powers or disband them and consolidate them at higher levels. Of course this is always done in the name of efficiencies of scale but lets face it . . . it is all about power and getting more of it either at the local, state or national level.