Friday, April 08, 2011
The Politics Behind Indianapolis' At-Large Council Seats
The most authoritative historical document concerning the adoption of UniGov in 1969 is a college thesis written by none other than our current governor, Mitch Daniels.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.