Carmel mayor’s race could be really interesting
This week, Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard officially filed his paperwork to run for a sixth term leading the city. His expected opponent, City Council President Rick Sharp, is weighing a run and has filed his campaign finance paperwork. Sharp is raising money and campaigning but still hasn’t announced whether he’ll run as mayor or an at-large city council candidate. Either way, he’s running citywide so the strategy is similar. He expects to announce by the end of January.
On Monday, Jan. 26 at 9 a.m., Sharp will make his announcement from the front lawn of Carmel City Hall.
In a column he published this week, Matthew Tully of The Indianapolis Star said he’d prefer to see Sharp on the council as a part of checks and balance, rather than ousting Brainard. Here’s what he wrote:
“If he runs for mayor, Sharp said he will focus on three messages: More transparency and collaboration with the council, reduced spending, and what he calls a better economic development strategy. It’s easy to see how the issue of spending could play well in a low-turnout Republican primary, but taking on Brainard on economic development would be a hard sell, as the city has welcomed one company after another into its tax base in recent years.
“Sharp is a smart and likable guy, a Florida native, the father of three adult daughters, and a leader who clearly cares about his city. He makes a lot of sense when he talks about smart budgeting and the need to create a more collaborative city government. As a fan of Carmel I hope he stays involved in its government. But it seems clear to me that it’s in the role of a checks-and-balances member of the council that he offers the most value.
“Yes, Brainard has made a few mistakes and sometimes needs to be reminded that he is running a city and not a private company. But his vision and his ambition have done wonders for Carmel and for the state. He’s a big-thinking leader who has ideas left to implement as he seeks to more fully create the connected city he envisions. Who knows, perhaps he and Sharp can find a way to mend a fractured relationship and work together over the next four years.”
Unlike Tully, I won’t take a side about who I would want to win. But I will tell you some of my observations so far.
First off, let’s admit the advantages that Brainard has. He’s a five-term incumbent, which means he has the name recognition, campaign experience, fundraising and institutional support.
One person told me that he thought that some people support Brainard because they received some sort of benefit from the government. He claims the Carmel Redevelopment Commission had broad authority to spend money to help businesses, such as redoing their sidewalks or helping promote them with events. Of course, you can easily say that’s unfair because this is just a form of economic development and it’s good for the city.
You could also say that Rick Sharp has just as much to do with supporting the development within Carmel. In fact, that’s part of Sharp’s strategy. He doesn’t want to distance himself with all of the progress under Brainard. Sharp voted for The Palladium. He likes The Carmel City Center. He actually praises Brainard in many ways, but he has many philosophical disagreements. He feels like the Brainard Administration hasn’t been transparent and that there has been an unwillingness to share information or tell the whole story. Sharp also said he’s reluctant to support any new bonds that are backed up with a special benefits tax guarantee because he thinks that puts the taxpayer at risk.
Sharp has been careful with his criticism though. One attendee at a Sharp event told me he thought it was strange that Sharp said something about how, “if you like everything going on in Carmel, then vote for me.” It makes sense to me though. Sharp wants to let you know his role in Carmel’s growth, but he also feels that his strategy will help protect everything that Carmel currently has: great amenities combined with low tax rates. Sharp feels that progress might have been made under Brainard but now it’s time for a manager — not a dreamer — to take Carmel into the future instead of betting on risky developments.
Sharp said he doesn’t want to be negative and on the attack. For one, it makes you look weak. Strong viable candidates don’t need to stoop to throwing mud. My analogy is you want to be the one giving the State of the Union Speech, not the one giving the rebuttal. Sharp understands this. Still, running as a challenger will mean that he needs to tell people why the need to make a change. If he can, Sharp wants to tell you what “he’ll do better” as opposed to just attacking.
Brainard’s strategy, from what I can gather, is something along the lines of: “If you like what you see, then vote for me.” People do love living in Carmel — at least those who vote — so it’s a sound strategy. Since he’s an incumbent, Brainard doesn’t need to spend time talking about Sharp’s record. Months ago, I asked Brainard whether he thought this election would be one of the toughest that he faced and, without naming any possible opponents, he said he didn’t think so necessarily. He remembers candidates who started much earlier in the campaigns and had lots of time to try to tear Brainard down. But the mayor has seen easy double-digit wins.
Important questions: How many terms will Brainard serve? Why does he want to keep running? Well, he tells me he doesn’t feel like his work is done. The City Center isn’t complete. The Midtown plan is just getting underway. He wants to see it all finished. Although, with someone like Brainard, you have to wonder if another project won’t appear after these two. When can you really feel finished? Some have speculated that Brainard would want to make sure that the next mayor after him is someone he trusts to carry on with his vision for Carmel.
Since being a Democrat in Carmel is like being a penguin in the Sahara (just joking…), the Republican primary is essentially the mayor’s race every year. Last year, Brainard won with 7,456 votes, compared to 2,590 for John Accetturo and 1,979 for Marnin J. Spigelman. That’s 62 percent for Brainard with two opponents. (Interesting side note: Keep an eye on if a third candidate runs, which could split the vote and possibly draw from the same voters as Brainard or Sharp).
In 2007, Brainard won with 6,219 votes, compared to 4,245 for challenger John R. Koven in the GOP primary. That’s 59 percent for Brainard.
In 2003, Brainard won with 5,067 votes, compared to 1,034 for current City Councilor Luci Snyder and 1,707 for Wayne Wilson. That’s 65 percent for Brainard.
What I’m getting at is that it’s a tough task to take down Brainard and others have tried. Sharp knows it won’t be easy. He told me that the easier route would be to run in his current district or to run at-large. Sharp has had election success in the past. But he tells me whatever decision he’ll make he’ll make it because it’s the right choice and what he feels would be right for Carmel, even if it ends up being an uphill battle.
And, of course, Brainard has the spending advantage.
According to campaign finance reports filed this week, Sharp reported raising $94,064 in 2014, including cash on hand. Sharp spent $24,214 and has $69,850 left in the bank. Brainard, who officially filed for re-election on Monday, raised $227,277 in 2014.
You have to remember that Brainard himself was seen as an underdog when he ran against incumbent Ted Johnson in his first mayoral race. Brainard won and so you can’t every say that someone is completely safe, but it appears that there’s a lot of work ahead for both Brainard and whoever does run against him. I won’t be taking a side, but I’ll definitely be watching with great interest.