Former Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who was elected in 1976 and left office following his 2012 primary defeat, died Sunday at the age of 87. Much has already been written about Lugar’s long tenure in national politics, including his work helping secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, and we wanted to focus on another important aspect of Lugar’s career from before he was in the Senate. Lugar served as mayor of Indianapolis from 1968 to 1976 and he successfully pushed through the merger of the city government with the rest of Marion County. This new system, known as Uni-Gov, helped keep the GOP in the mayor’s office for a generation, and other localities debating similar mergers are still analyzing and debating its impact.
In a great article, Indianapolis Star’s Christopher Rickett writes that before Uni-Gov, Marion County consisted of 60 different governments, including the county government, city and town governments, townships, school districts, and “special-purpose governments.” Lugar successfully convinced the state government to allow Indianapolis to essentially annex the rest of Marion County, which doubled the city’s population. While some communities retained their own government and emergency services initially were still separate from the city’s (local police and some fire departments would eventually be merged in 2005 and 2007), all voters in Marion County could now participate in races for mayor of Indianapolis and the new City-County Council.
Republicans knew that, by adding white suburbanites to the Indianapolis electorate, that they were dramatically improving their fortunes in local races. Marion County GOP chair Keith Bulen even explicitly said in 1969, “It’s my greatest coup of all time, moving out there and taking in 85,000 Republicans.” Democrats wouldn’t retake city hall until 1999, when Democrat Bart Peterson won his first term, but he lost to Republican Greg Ballard eight years later. It was finally in 2015, when Ballard retired and Democrat Joe Hogsett decisively won the open seat race, that Democrats would win control of the mayor’s office, all of the major citywide posts, and City-County Council for the first time since Uni-Gov.
Lugar pitched Uni-Gov as a way to help the regional economy, and it seems to have succeeded in helping attract or retain major companies to the area. However, critics argue that it hurt the city’s black population by diluting their voting power and giving politicians an incentive to ignore them in favor of white suburbanites. Indianapolis Democratic state Rep. John Bartlett recently said, “I think if Uni-Gov wouldn’t have happened, our neighborhoods wouldn’t be as neglected as they are,” adding, “We’re bringing hotels downtown, but we’re neglecting our city streets.”
The boundaries of the county’s many school districts were also not changed by the merger, and Lugar himself would explain the decision a few years ago by saying, “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.” Indeed, as Chalkbeat noted, African Americans were just 3% of the student body in the township schools, while they were a third of the students in Indianapolis’ public schools. The courts eventually ordered busing to try and integrate the school districts, a mandate that lasted from 1981 until it expired in 2016.
Today, Uni-Gov is still a hot topic outside of Indiana. Over in Missouri, there is an ongoing debate about whether St. Louis City and St. Louis County should merge, and days before Lugar died, St. Louis Public Radio published a piece looking at the effects of Uni-Gov. Both the supporters and opponents of the merger have invoked the impact of Uni-Gov in their arguments.
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