Pete Seat: The curse of the mayors
Thursday, June 26, 2014 10:45 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – On the presidential level, Americans have shown a preference for executive experience in their candidates. After U.S. Senator Warren G. Harding ascended to our highest office in 1921, only two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, were elected directly out of Congress and with no executive credentials. In contrast, within the same time period, five of the 11 individuals who were elected president on their own had most recently been governor of their state.
In Indiana, however, Hoosiers have shown a deeper appreciation for legislators and less for local executives, namely mayors, for statewide and federal office. Not a single elected governor in our state’s history previously served as a mayor (Joe Kernan served, but was never elected) and neither of the two major political parties has nominated a former or sitting mayor as a first-time candidate for statewide office since Democrat John Fernandez’s bid for secretary of state over a decade ago. At the federal level, a paltry 17 out of 349, or just under 5 percent, of U.S. House and Senate members from Indiana were once hiz- or her-honor.
That trend continued when Marion Mayor Wayne Seybold lost a three-way race to be the Republican Party’s nominee for state treasurer. Going into the 2014 Indiana Republican Party State Convention he was the odds on favorite, yet delegates dispatched him, and perennial candidate Don Bates Jr. in favor of Kelly Mitchell, a former Cass County commissioner and current employee of the treasurer’s office. A similar scenario played out when another incumbent mayor, Valparaiso’s Jon Costas, lost his campaign for the attorney general nomination at the 2008 Republican confab to then-deputy attorney general Greg Zoeller.
Back at the federal level, though, our state’s city leaders were slightly more successful until this century. A total of 11 candidates with mayor on their resume were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 19th Century, but that relative stretch of luck all but evaporated 16 years after the turn of the 20th Century when Thomas Taggart, a former Indianapolis mayor, was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy and went on to lose a chance at his own term. That same year, former Connersville Mayor Finly Gray lost his House re-election campaign.
From that point forward, just four mayors earned a Congressional members pin. Lafayette’s George Durgan (one term) and Bloomington’s Frank McCloskley (six terms) both made it to the House. Evansville’s Vance Hartke, and the man who would ultimately beat him, Indianapolis’ Dick Lugar, represented Indiana for a combined 54 years in the U.S. Senate.
Now, former Seymour mayor Bill Bailey, who is running against Congressman Todd Young in the 9th District, is vying to be the first former city executive elected to Congress in the 21st Century.
Other factors come into play during all campaigns, but this can’t be merely coincidence. There’s something about mayors, but what is it?
Is it because we have become more Indianapolis-centric, preventing out-state mayors from garnering attention, money and votes? Since Lugar made the jump from city hall to higher office, it’s become more likely for the opposite to happen. Both Gary’s Karen Freeman-Wilson and Indianapolis’ Bill Hudnut served in statewide and federal office, respectively, before returning home to run for mayor.
Is it because they have records that are hard to distance themselves from? Legislators don’t always have to own their votes the way executives have to own their decisions. But then, why do governors get elected president? How is that any different?
Is it because what they do as mayor can be portrayed as miniscule in comparison to the weighty challenges that would face them in the Statehouse or Congress? Parks and potholes may seem like small potatoes stacked against the national debt and Social Security.
Is it because many mayors ultimately decide not to run for higher office and thus the sample size isn’t that large? Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott and former Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, both Democrats, and others, are frequently short-listed for statewide or federal positions but have yet to run (McDermott offered himself up for the U.S. Senate ballot vacancy in 2010 but quickly dropped out).
On that note, we political types like to prescribe motives to every move a politician makes. Perhaps we’re wrong and being mayor is more of a destination than just a stepping stone for many of our local public servants.
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s up, but one thing is for sure, if they do intend to seek a promotion, mayors in Indiana are cursed.
Pete Seat is senior project manager at the Indianapolis-based Hathaway Strategies and author of the recently published book, “The War on Millennials.” He was previously a spokesman for President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats and the Indiana Republican Party.