Goldsmith (left0 and Blackwell (Getty Images)

Carrying the right banner

Vocation | Two former mayors found that leading a big-city government is not an easy calling

Issue: "Biblical callings," Dec. 4, 2010

Politicians are notorious for obsessing about the next election, but two former Midwest mayors-Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis and Ken Blackwell of Cincinnati-have gone deeper.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg earlier this year named Goldsmith his deputy mayor: Goldsmith will be 64 on Dec. 12 but is not ready to retire from his life calling of pushing for smarter municipal government. Goldsmith needs to streamline rules and revise regulations to gain $500 million in potential savings that he's already identified-and it's harder to push through such changes in New York than it was in Indianapolis, where he was mayor from 1992 to 2000.

Goldsmith has long fought to bring principles of competition and efficiency from the private sector to municipal government. During the 1980s, as a prosecutor in Indianapolis, he computerized court records before the computer revolution made that obvious. Some in Indianapolis wanted him to use truancy laws against homeschools during the 1980s, but he refused to meddle in the details of parents teaching their own children.

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Goldsmith's Jewish background, with its emphasis on traditional values and free market economics, stood him on common ground with an emerging conservative Christian movement. During the 1990s he won two terms for mayor, gaining a national reputation for downsizing government and adding competitive elements in city services. He tried to take that record to the state level in 1996, but Indiana voters were skeptical of a big-city guy, and he lost by a small margin to then Lt. Gov. Frank O'Bannon, a Democrat.

Goldsmith helped George W. Bush develop his faith-based initiative in 1999 and 2000, but Bush aides elbowed him out of a top spot in Washington. Now, in New York City, Goldsmith is in charge of key departments such as police, fire, and sanitation. He's also responsible for pushing efficiency reform in all departments of the city government, which has 350,000 employees. That number includes teachers because the mayor now runs the city's schools.

In a late-night interview after his typical 15-hour workday, Goldsmith said the problems of New York City are similar to those of Indianapolis, "but the scale is daunting." The Tammany Hall political machine, which operated under a system of favors and jobs for political loyalists, governed New York in the late 19th century, and civil service reform early in the 20th century helped but also hurt. "The Progressive movement created a system that is really encrusted," Goldsmith noted, with professional bureaucrats running the city by rulebooks that soon became antiquated.

More of a social conservative than Bloomberg, Goldsmith stays out of controversial policy issues, such as the mayor's support for the proposed "Ground Zero" mosque: "I'm like a city manager. I'm not into politics so much." He misses the day-to-day contact with many different people and groups that he had in Indianapolis: "My instincts were better refined in Indianapolis than they are here. I knew the context better there." But he's learning: On Sept. 11, he made sure the police could handle the 11 conflicting protests and counter-protests over the proposed mosque.

Ken Blackwell, 62, former mayor of Cincinnati and secretary of state and treasurer of Ohio, was the son of a meatpacker who wanted him to be a boxer. Blackwell recalls, "We grew up in a public housing community. My dad was a boxing fanatic and enrolled me in the boxing program at the Finley Street Neighborhood House. I won my first four or five bouts with relative ease. My fifth bout I got hit so hard in the nose that I had to go home and tell my dad that I was going to find something more scholarly to pursue."

Blackwell's mom, an eighth-grade dropout, loved that change in intentions: "She later went back and got her GED, and she was a voracious reader. She would read from the Bible or have us read from the Bible. My mom's emphasis on reading and particularly on reading Scripture balanced out my dad's appreciation for physical toughness: competitiveness tempered by spirituality."

Blackwell's uncle also helped him appreciate the Bible and the way it strengthens us when life doesn't go as we expect: "Dehart Hubbard was the first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal: 1924, long jump. That year Eric Liddell decided not to run because the finals fell on the Sabbath. When my uncle came back, he said that God had provided him a great life experience because he saw somebody choose fidelity to faith over fame."

Blackwell needed that preparation for his first full day as mayor in 1979, when 11 young people were trampled to death trying to get into a Who concert after a lot of drinking and pot-smoking. When the doors opened the band was ending its rehearsal, but people thought that the concert was starting so they rushed toward the few doors that were open: Eleven people suffocated. Bizarrely, the concert went on as the bodies were taken away.


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