On a rain-soaked October morning at a park gymnasium in the city’s downtrodden Riverside neighborhood, no one among the working poor here seems to notice a tall, husky man shuffling along the slippery floor where two dozen folding tables are arranged end-to-end, forming makeshift aisles.
The tables hold promotional materials and swag—keychains, pencils, piggy banks, can Koozies. The occasion is the launch of an initiative to promote financial literacy, a joint effort between the city, United Way of Central Indiana, and a host of financial institutions.
The inconspicuous man makes his way to the front, stopping next to a microphone stand. He is flanked by the Indianapolis Colts mascot, Blue, who whips some excitement into the gathering crowd. They seem genuinely thrilled to see some guy sweating his tail off in a cartoon horse outfit. And then the unassuming man steps to the microphone.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” a disembodied voice intones, “please welcome Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard.”
Ballard receives polite applause and speaks for a short time—a few words about the wisdom of opening a savings account and his wife’s dedication to financial literacy. He makes another pass by the tables and their tchotchkes, and vanishes. The mayor of the nation’s 14th-largest city has been upstaged by a furry blue horse with googly eyes.
The disappearing act has become all too familiar to political observers of both parties—a fade into the scenery that has emboldened Democrats (already lining up, two years before the 2011 election) and frustrated Ballard’s fellow Republicans. “This is a constant struggle, especially within the administration,” says one GOP insider. “In politics, perception often becomes reality. And the real problem is, you can’t keep doing good if you’re not going to go out there and talk about it. It’s hard to get re-elected that way. I mean, when the tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to see it or hear it, it doesn’t make a noise, right?”
The charge isn’t that he is unfit for office. It’s that the office doesn’t fit him and, in public moments, seems to swallow him whole.
In a way, Ballard has never left the cocoon of obscurity. He was a complete unknown when, after enjoying four decades of high-wattage mayors, Indianapolis chose the former Marine over a two-term incumbent in the most stunning upset in city history. Thanks to a low-key style, Ballard has only grown more opaque. Whether he lacks the wherewithal or political savvy to offer a counter-narrative, Ballard has let himself be defined by indecision and occasionally even befuddlement. With the city about to step into the national spotlight—the imminent arrival of the Final Four, the convention center expansion, and the all-important build-up to the 2012 Super Bowl—Indy doesn’t have to worry about its top politician “going rogue.” Going rube? That’s a distinct possibility.
Over the first two years of his term, the stories of his absences from the center of activity and of his occasional gaffes have not helped to dispel the notion that, just at the moment Indy seems poised to take a step up, the city has a small-town mayor on its hands.