INDIANAPOLIS -- What will Greg Ballard remember from his time as mayor of Indiana's biggest city? The people he met who are doing good things.
Ballard still has a memory of a woman living on the Near Westside he came across. If a neighborhood kid showed her a good report card, they’d get rewarded with a few bucks.
"She did that for years and years and years. Nobody knew it; I knew it. I finally found out about it," Ballard said in a recent interview with WFYI. "But that’s the sort of thing that’s remarkable in the city."
In just a few weeks, Ballard will join the ranks notable past mayors of the state’s largest city. Two terms were enough and he announced last year he wasn’t going to run for re-election. He says he needs a break to mentally recharge.
"I could not have been the mayor for another four years at the pace that I was doing it. I knew I couldn’t do that and I just thought that was cheating the citizen if I had got elected and just couldn’t keep it up," he said.
So how will residents remember Ballard? That's the big question, said Ted Frantz, director of the University of Indianapolis’s mayoral institute. "I think most people, when they look back and want to have an image of what his leadership meant, will likely look to RFRA in March when he really seemed to find a voice."
Ballard is a moderate Republican. His opposition to the state party this spring over the religious freedom law earned him national news coverage. For Ballard’s affirmation that Indy should be welcoming, he was anointed the grand marshal of the Indy Pride parade. He’s preached that his party needs to be more inclusive in order to win in urban areas.
Ballard ascended to the 25th floor of the City-County Building just as the economy sank. He had to shepherd a city budget during a massive housing collapse. He continued a focus on downtown development. A reward was Indy hosting the Super Bowl in 2012, a pinnacle on Indy’s long hike to being known as a sports town.
He also got to cut the ribbon on the Cultural Trail. The bike and recreation path looping downtown led to soaring property values in the neighborhoods ringing the central business district.
"When we look back in 10 years, we’ll recognize how important the creation of something that might seem particularly small might be," Frantz said.
Republicans have become a minority in Marion County over the past two decades and Democrats now control most of city government. Liberal dominance raises the question of whether a Republican will win a county-wide seat again, or if Ballard will be the last GOP mayor of this city.
That assumption may be premature, said Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne and now an Indiana University government professor.
"At the local level people make decisions on who they think is going to do the best job," Helmke said. "And that’s going to be a Republican sometimes and that’s going to be a Democrat sometimes."
Ballard was well-liked and would of had a good chance at winning a third term, Helmke said.
"If you've been in the office and you've done a good job, it's the best job in the world," he said.
Ballard’s popular enough for his name to be suggested as a candidate for governor, a more moderate choice to Gov. Mike Pence's re-election effort. But such a challenge is unlikely. Remember, Ballard said he needs a break from politics. And there’s little time to mount a primary campaign, which is in early May with a filing deadline sooner than that.
He declines to completely rule out running, though. "I have no intention of doing that, but things happen sometimes, right?" He said. "Things happen and you never really know what’s going to happen."
"I think it's too early to say Greg's done with politics," Helmke said.
During his last years as mayor, Ballard brought an all-electric car-sharing service to Indy and signed a contract to begin converting city vehicles to electric power. He’s currently writing a book on clean transportation.
Ballard said that’s led to recruitment by universities, and water and energy firms. "[I] Just don't know what it's going to be yet and who's going to actually pay the bills and that sort of thing," he said. "I'm not in a big hurry to find out, but there are people talking to me."
A focus on energy security has been a slow realization since his time as U.S. Marine in the first Gulf War a quarter century ago, according to Ballard.
"I did not have an ‘a ha’ moment in the Gulf War in ‘90, ‘91 when I was over there," Ballard said. "It wasn’t like that because the transportation wasn’t at a certain point where we could change."
Non-fossil fuel transportation options are the only way to end wars in natural resource-rich countries, Ballard content. "I hope people embrace them instead of running away from them," he said.
His successor is embracing the Ballard legacy. Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, will become mayor on Jan. 1. He’s promised to not "roll back" the Ballard years.