News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 30, 2011

EDITORIAL: Two good options for Terre Haute mayor

Does Bennett deserve second term or does Nation get chance for his ideas?

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Steady stewardship of any public entity in Indiana proved crucial in the past four years.

A perfect storm of difficulties for city governments struck in 2007. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels began his push for property tax caps that year, and their eventual implementation substantially diminished funds for municipalities such as Terre Haute. Of course, the fiercest economic downturn since the Great Recession hit in December 2007. Six months later, Terre Haute suffered through its worst flood in decades. The impact of all three lingered for years.

Duke Bennett’s first term as mayor began in January 2008. Less than three years later, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce declared Terre Haute the state’s Community of the Year. To be sure, a healthy measure of that honor reflects the bold work of Bennett’s predecessor, Kevin Burke, loyal businesses, the local colleges, risk-taking industry leaders, and many others. But that distinction also was a testament to Bennett’s careful management through tight financial times, allowing the city to meet its daily demands and follow through on projects long in the making.

That performance hasn’t been “flashy,” as Bennett puts it. Yet, his steady attention to tedious, day-to-day details was valuable during rocky times.

As a result, he deserves a second term and the opportunity to more aggressively lead Terre Haute during what could be a more vibrant era.

In past mayoral elections, when the incumbent had done a good job, we consistently endorsed the re-election of those mayors. That record included the 2007 race in which Bennett became the first Republican in 40 years to win. Burke, a progressive leader but not a seasoned politician, did not deserve to lose, especially in such divisive fashion. But it happened, Bennett took office and has represented Terre Haute well. Now, it is Bennett who has earned another four years.

Voters have the ultimate decision, though, on Nov. 8. The good news is, they can’t go wrong.

The challenger, Fred Nation, would be an excellent mayor. Nation exhibits genuine passion for the community and the energy to pursue consequential, transformative projects. Democrats could not have chosen a better candidate, and with Nation’s unifying nature, the party has its best foot forward. Our endorsement of Bennett in no way diminishes what Nation has done or could do as mayor. In other situations, we could resoundingly endorse Nation.

It does not seem fair, though, to deny Bennett a second term. He has worked hard, acted ethically and been accessible. Using a collaborative approach, he’s kept the city moving forward through uncertainties.

That said, it would be wise of Bennett to make peace with the progressive initiatives that occurred during the Burke administration. Bennett did not inherit a budgetary mess. Despite some mistakes in style, the previous mayor made moves desperately needed to revive the heart of the town. Such broad measures became impossible in Bennett’s tenure because the recession and state cutbacks dried up revenue.

The term “visionary” has become central in the current campaign. Nation promises to operate with visionary style and insists that Bennett is primarily a proficient manager. Both candidates discussed those labels in separate meetings with the Tribune-Star Editorial Board.

Bennett stuck by his preference to function as a team-builder, rather than as the point man for economic development (the role Nation favors). As evidence of his strategy’s success, Bennett pointed to the forward momentum of several projects. Those include railroad improvement plans, a master trails plan for the city and county, and an airport strategic plan, and all are primed to show results, Bennett said. He also expressed support for the exceptional Riverscape project, even though he and the Wabash River Development and Beautification Inc. organization — of which Nation is a member — have been at odds over Bennett’s decision to locate a combined sewer overflow pond on the old International Paper site beside the Wabash.

Big-picture ideas such as Riverscape merit a mayor’s commitment and faith that they can and will happen. Terre Haute should never again be content to merely tread water or to preserve the status quo. We’ve tasted progress in the past decade, and we should always be cooking up more. To his credit, Bennett said he is ready to follow through with significant proposals in a second term.

“Planning is one thing, doing is another,” he told our Editorial Board. “Now we’ve got plans. We’re wrapping them up. Now it’s time to begin to implement those.” We’re eager to see Bennett and his team deliver.