At a quick glance, Jeff Cardwell looks like a pretty typical Republican Christian conservative. Between well-displayed American flags, he keeps a bust of Ronald Reagan in his office at his hardware store on the near-south side of Indianapolis. He has a copy of George W. Bush's Decision Points on the table. He thinks the Bible has the answers to the world's problems. But scratch the surface, and there's another side to Cardwell that challenges any stereotype about red state conservatives.
Cardwell helps poor people build their own homes, in Indianapolis and overseas. He works on disaster relief and economic development in places like El Salvador and Guatemala. His People Helping People radio show provides a platform for highlighting good deeds around the city and state.
He also happens to be a first-term member of the City-County Council for Indianapolis. He's popular enough that the Democrats didn't have a primary candidate and haven't figured out who to appoint to run against him. He won his 2007 race with 73 percent of the vote and could do even better this year.
Cardwell offers a role model for Christians who aspire to a biblical influence in government, in a context where many voters and leaders don't recognize the Bible's authority or value in public affairs. He's learned the role of servant leadership as a good first-foot forward in a Babylonian context. Jeremiah told Israel to seek the welfare of the city of their exile (Jeremiah 29:7), and Cardwell follows that counsel.
Former Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Mike O'Connor sees Cardwell as more of a citizen-legislator than a Republican or conservative: "My experience with Jeff is that he is about getting things done. The council districts have become the last bastion of constituent service. Constituents don't see that as Republican or Democrat."
Heartland Film Festival president Jeff Sparks brings big Hollywood names to Indianapolis each year for his event. He has a friendly running debate with Cardwell over city government funding for the arts. As a passionate advocate for the arts, Sparks wants it, and Cardwell says no, based on conservative principles. Government has its limits, according to Cardwell, and shouldn't be taking tax money for ventures that ought to be paid for by voluntary contributions.
Sparks still praises Cardwell: "He's a bleeding-heart conservative-he cares deeply about social issues and people. He's very idealistic. He believes at a very deep level that he can make a difference. It's the root of who he is."
Cardwell attributes any success to his parents, his faith in Christ, and a midlife shift to a focus on what is significant instead of financial success.
His father was a welder who was always available to help at church, and his mother was a nurse at the old Central State Hospital in Indianapolis. She would hold rummage sales and collect clothes for her mentally ill patients.
Cardwell has done well in business with his Do-It-Best Home Center as well as other ventures. "I'm a volunteer junkie," he said. "I love it. The significance reward is much greater in helping people than the financial reward in business. That's what I love about the council. People call with serious issues-drainage or law enforcement. You have a direct instant impact on people's lives."
Cardwell's servant leadership style comes from the Bible and his Christian faith. But it also works very well in the current political circumstances. Some constituents might object to his biblical emphasis or his traditional values, but he has seen how a servant spirit can overcome a multitude of sins perceived through the eyes of others.
He's more interested in the stoplight than the spotlight," noted state Rep. Phil Hinkle in explaining Cardwell's political success. "There is no neon sign around him saying, 'Look at me.'"
At age 51, Cardwell looks like an obvious candidate for higher office at some point-mayor of Indianapolis, the Indiana General Assembly, or even Congress.
Shepherd Community Center president Jay Height sees him in the mold of another veteran civic leader, Jim Morris, who now works for the Indiana Pacers NBA franchise and has been a deputy mayor, a Lilly Endowment executive, and top-level Bush administration appointee to fight world hunger.
"Their kind continues to serve whether elected or not," Height noted. "They are driven by a deeper purpose to serve. They find common ground with folks of all political bents or no bent at all."