NA Confidential will turn 15 in a few months. When the blog was born in 2004, all I knew for sure was that you were entitled to my opinion. It’s been a long and suitably strange journey since then, and the beatings will continue until morale improves.
Back in 1999 the city’s voters broke with precedent and elected Regina Overton to be mayor. She was a she, she was Republican, and the city was suffering from overexposure to Doug England, who embarked on the standard ritualistic disappearance into the wilderness so as to plot his inevitable comeback.
Four years later in 2003 came the reaction in the form of a landslide that brought eight of nine council seats to the Democrats as well as placing James Garner in the mayor’s office.
You’d think such a decisive majority would have afforded Garner a clear mandate, but council immediately split into factions, with lone Republican Mark Seabrook often in the position of offering wry and sensible commentary as Democrats fought Democrats to a standstill in the peanut gallery.
Four years of trench warfare ensued, and only in retrospect can it be seen that Garner became mayor at a time of social and political transition. It strikes me now as a generational turning point, one that wasn’t very kind to his prospects.
The traditional Floyd County Democratic Party, primarily a right-leaning, ward-heeling machine symbolized by longtime county power-broker Ted Heavrin, was fading and its county strongholds eroding amid an influx of residents for whom conservative values were best suited by actual Republicans, not Republicans masquerading as Democrats.
In place of the Heavrinites a new generation of Clintonian liberals (or neo-liberals) was moving up, as perhaps best represented by then-chairman Randy Stumler, and a short time later Adam Dickey. The latter has put Disney into the Democrats while leaving Dixie right where it was, hence the DemoDisneyDixiecrats we see today.
As Garner became mayor, these and many other social and political factors were queuing at a crossroads, and meanwhile New Albany as a city stood still, as though in shock. Downtown was dead and all the action was in the ‘burbs, although given our city’s proximity to Louisville, we probably were at rock bottom, property so profoundly undervalued as an asset that the only way to go was up.
Exactly what “up” meant was unclear, and I was critical of Garner in the beginning. Much of this criticism was borne of ignorance about the way governance works, and I’ve tried to learn from it. My attitude in 2004 was “don’t just stand there, do something,” and it seemed Garner wasn’t. But after a little while it became apparent that Garner really was doing as much as he could with the tools he had at his disposal, all the while swatting away swarms of old party fogies and regressive council Luddites.
Two of Garner’s achievements are very important.
First, Garner expended a good portion of his limited political capital against entrenched opposition and ensured the completion of the YMCA project he’d inherited from Overton.
Second, Garner embraced the Indiana alcohol licensing tool known as the Riverfront Development Area and got the measure through council (2006) via a rare unanimous vote.
Inexpensive three-way alcohol permits helped jump-start a restaurant and bar renaissance in New Albany, while the YMCA brought people downtown. Together, these measures were a catalyst for private investments in businesses and buildings, which in turn finally instigated a civic conversation about possibilities.
Garner also was an early proponent of two-way streets and measures we now refer to as “walkability,” and as he notes in the endorsement video, he worked behind the scenes with David White for economic development and quality of life efforts later blithely claimed by others.
Garner lost in the Democratic primary in 2007, England having returned from Outer Utica and rallied the Old Guard for a last hurrah. England Mach III proved to be largely ineffectual, and hizzoner’s enduringly bizarre, doomed effort at handpicking a successor (lifelong Republican Irv Stumler) helped bring us to the
era error of Jeff Gahan.
James Garner is a former mayor, I’m still a blogger, and it’s good to know we have a shared point of view: Don’t just stand there, #FightForWhite2019 in the May 7 primary.
And by doing so: #FireGahan2019