INDIANAPOLIS — When the battle over Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act raged the hottest, the five living mayors of Indianapolis wrote a letter bemoaning the proposed law.
Democrat Bart Peterson and Republicans Richard Lugar, William Hudnut, Stephen Goldsmith and Greg Ballard signed the letter. They said RFRA was doing damage to both the city and the state.
Hudnut and Goldsmith were the primary drivers behind the letter. I talked with both men about it while interviewing them for a television program that will air Thursday on WFYI about Hudnut’s life and legacy.
Hudnut said he wrote and signed the letter because it pained him to see what the Republican Party had become. He said the GOP had become so “extreme” and “right-wing” that it was chasing away potential supporters and undermining the public welfare.
Goldsmith’s take came in the form of a tribute to Hudnut. He said the themes of that letter — of tolerance and of being inclusive — were the “thread” that runs through Hudnut’s entire career.
“It was through those themes that he (Hudnut) built a great city,” Goldsmith said.
Hudnut did that.
He was one of the last of the big-tent Republicans, a leader with a commitment to keeping people at the table to talk things through and solve a problem. He believed everyone should have an opportunity, everyone should get a piece of the pie and everyone belonged within the circle of community.
During the 16 years Hudnut was mayor of Indianapolis from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, Indianapolis stopped being “Indy-a-no-place” to becoming the amateur sports capital of the world and a magnet for conventions and other major events. The downtown, which was a place people fled as soon as the workday was over, sprang back to life. The Colts came to town, and the Pacers stayed.
Along the way, the city created jobs by the truckload. The investment in improving the city’s core — and, yes, Hudnut did raise taxes — made Indianapolis more attractive to both business and labor. People came to Indianapolis and Indiana not because it was the cheapest place to live and do business but because it was the best place to do so.
The voters rewarded Hudnut’s efforts. His closest election as mayor was his first one. After the city’s residents got to know him, they sent him back to office three times with support that ranged from 65 percent to 70 percent of the vote.
Goldsmith is right. The city’s success and Bill Hudnut’s triumphs were made possible by his approach, his all-embracing message that said anyone who wants to work hard is welcome here.
I’ve thought a lot about Goldsmith’s comment and Hudnut’s successes in the context of political events at the state and national levels.
Indiana communities as rural as Goshen and as metropolitan as Carmel find themselves torn by debates over proposed human rights ordinances. The “extremists” Hudnut deplores are upset that local laws in those communities might say that it’s wrong to discriminate against gay and lesbian Hoosiers, regardless of how law-abiding and hard-working they are.
At the same time, Gov. Mike Pence and legislative leaders — who are, like Hudnut, members of the Republican Party — desperately want to avoid having Indiana adopt a similar measure when the General Assembly comes back into session in January.
And at the national level, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump, has made the centerpiece of his campaign a plan to build a “big wall” on America’s southwestern border.
That’s right. He doesn’t want to bring people in — again, regardless of how law-abiding and hard-working they might be — but instead will fight tooth and nail to keep them out.
Hudnut’s approach of inviting everyone into the circle of community won him large majorities at a time when Republicans didn’t win races for mayor in big cities, created jobs by the thousands and transformed Indianapolis from a flyover city to a destination.
And that raises a question about the motivations of those Republicans who now reject the tolerance and sense of inclusiveness that Hudnut championed:
What is it about success and prosperity that they don’t like?
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.