Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard has been in office for more than two decades, handily defeating all political challengers since his first campaign in 1995.
Fred Glynn hopes to change that.
A Hamilton County councilor who began his second term at the beginning of the year, Glynn said he believes with hard work and the right strategy he will oust Brainard in the May 7 Republican primary – and it won’t even be difficult.
“I think if we get people engaged this is going to be an easy election. I feel that way, I really do,” he said. “(Brainard) has a core group of supporters who are rabid, who like what he’s doing, but outside of that I think if people really engage and figure out what’s going on they’ll make the right choice.”
But Brainard, who has faced and defeated at last one challenger in every mayoral primary, said his accomplishments over the years speak for themselves when it comes to earning votes.
“We believe our fiscal record is one of the best in the nation, and we’ll be talking a lot about how our fiscal management is being able to build the city into one of the best places to live in America,” Brainard said.
A self-described fiscal conservative, Glynn said he had long been troubled by Carmel’s growing debt and decided to seriously consider a run for mayor when the city announced in October 2018 it had purchased the Monon Square shopping center – which appraised for $11 million – for $15 million to build a mixed-use development that will likely have much steeper rents for its tenants.
Brainard has suggested that some of the existing businesses could consider renting much smaller spaces in the new development to maintain their presence, an idea that doesn’t sit well with Glynn.
“It should be up to the market forces to determine that, not some government bureaucrat who has no stake in the game,” Glynn said. “If (it doesn’t work) out, nothing is going to hurt him. The only people getting hurt are the business owners and the people who invest in that.”
Laken Sisko, Brainard’s campaign manager, said that the success of the Arts & Design District, Midtown, City Center and elsewhere show that Carmel has been a good place to do business in recent years. She said the city issued 91 commercial tenant permits and approved 19 new commercial buildings in 2018, both signs of business growth.
“Mayor Brainard has an excellent track record of working with the private sector to redevelop areas of the city that were struggling and turning them into vibrant and sustainable areas with a mix of uses that help create a high quality of life that in turn attracts more private investment,” Sisko said. “Contrary to what some politicians with no experience running a city might think, the state of small businesses in Carmel is excellent and always growing.”
Glynn’s campaign also has pointed to Carmel’s debt load – reported at more than $1.3 billion by the Dept. of Local Government Finance – as a concern, which he said includes “giveaways to preferred developers.” But Brainard said the city’s debt is only part of the story, as it also generates more tax revenue than neighboring cities.
Brainard said his administration has been great for business growth, with more than 125 companies choosing Carmel for their corporate headquarters. And it’s the growing business presence that has helped keep taxes low for residents. Carmel has the 11th-lowest city tax rate and the fifth-lowest overall tax rate in the state, and it has the lowest combined utility rates compared to its neighbors.
“The debt that we’re talking about is all for long-term infrastructure and business development projects, and it shows in our tax rate,” Brainard said, adding that the city does not have operating deficits. “(Residents are) paying roughly 50 percent less in taxes today than they were 24 years ago when I took office.”
Looking at longevity
While Glynn believes Carmel residents are ready for a change after 24 years with one mayor, Brainard said his longevity and resulting expertise has been good for a growing city.
“If I need surgery at the hospital, I would want a surgeon who has experience, not a brand new one,” he said.
But Glynn, who will maintain his seat on the county council until Jan. 1, 2020, if he wins the election, isn’t intimidated.
“He presented some polling to us recently to try to get us to bow out of the race,” Glynn said. “Basically what I’m looking at is a guy with a whole lot of name identification, and it’s not because people know everything he’s doing. He’s winning off of name identification. He’s not winning off of adulation.”
Sisko said that a member of the campaign and Hamilton County GOP chair Laura Campbell met with a former member of Glynn’s campaign to share polling information that shows the “uphill challenge” of a campaign and arguing that Republicans should conserve resources for the 2020 elections. Campbell said that these types of meetings between incumbents and challengers before they file to run are “nothing unusual.”
Sisko also said that Brainard’s former campaign manager, Allan Sutherlin, spoke with Glynn as a courtesy when he learned of Glynn’s interest in the office.
“Sutherlin thought that Glynn was better suited for other offices – perhaps on the county level – and the local Republican party faithful would be better served saving their financial resources for the 2020 elections rather than spend money in an expensive primary campaign against a popular mayor.”
What does it take to beat an incumbent?
Toppling an incumbent is no easy task, especially one that’s spent nearly a quarter century in office.
“It’s a big mountain to climb, but it’s not impossible,” said Aaron Dusso, chair of the political science department at IUPUI.
Dusso said that incumbents have many built-in advantages, from name recognition to a more established donor base to an existing political infrastructure. However, one of the oldest campaign strategies in the books can help swing the momentum toward the newcomer, he said.
“Talking to people is the one thing that can actually get through to them,” Dusso said. “You might have a lot more time than money, and you can overcome that money problem by just knocking on doors.”
Often, longtime incumbents who lose an election fail because they became their own worst enemies, not because of the success of their opponent, Dusso said.
“It’s much more a situation about what the incumbent does wrong rather than what the challenger might do right,” he said. “If for some reason the long-serving mayor has had some type of problem, maybe a scandal, or the economy in the particular area is going down, or perhaps they’ve made some members of their own inner circle angry and they don’t have the support they used to have, that kind of thing is what would oftentimes provide an opportunity for a challenger.”
The last time an incumbent mayor lost a primary election was in 1995, when Jim Brainard defeated Ted Johnson by earning 55 percent of the vote.
MEET THE CANDIDATES
Name: Jim Brainard
Day job: Carmel mayor since 1996, previously worked as an attorney
Family: Four adult children
Political experience: None before becoming mayor
Name: Fred Glynn
Day job: Loan officer
Family: Wife, Beth, and daughter
Political experience: Hamilton County councilor since 2014