Born in Ohio in 1932, William H. Hudnut, III, was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1957. After a stint on the Indianapolis Board of Public Safety, he was elected to Congress as a Republican from the state’s 11th District in 1972. He served one term in Congress, then, in the move that would gain him his greatest public recognition, ran for Mayor of Indianapolis in 1976. Hudnut served four terms in City Hall, finally involuntarily leaving in 1991. He currently lives in the Washington, D.C., area, where he is a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) as well as former Mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase, Maryland. The IMH conversed with Hudnut about his own career, Indianapolis, and the past and future of American cities. The interview took place via e-mail, and extended at intervals through the second half of 2005. The final text has been edited for length and continuity.
Indiana Magazine of History: You weren’t a professional “city” person when you first arrived in Indianapolis to begin your work at the Second Presbyterian Church. What were your impressions of Indianapolis in those early years on the job?
William H. Hudnut: When I moved to Indianapolis in 1963 to assume the pastorate of Second Presbyterian Church, I was struck by the conservatism of the place—no federal money, support of anti-communist crusades, certain church members pushing me in the direction of a personal interpretation of religion as opposed to drawing out the relevance of religious principles to the public realm, commitment to a prevailing orthodoxy and antipathy toward anything heterodox, a strong John Birch Society presence, that sort of thing. I was even called a communist at a cocktail party because I was wearing a red sport coat! The Sunday before the 1964 election, someone plastered all the cars in our church parking lot with Goldwater leaflets. My new city did not strike me as quite as open and welcoming of diversity (of race and of opinion) as cities I had previously lived in (Rochester, Buffalo, and Annapolis). I well remember being greeted by someone who said, “We are a town that will welcome you, and then stand back for ten years to see how you do.” All this made me slightly uncomfortable.
IMH: Leaving aside the obvious physical landmarks, how is the city today different from the place that you first experienced in 1963, or even from the place you looked out the window at on your first day as mayor in 1976? How much of this change is typical of urban America, and how much of it reflects the unique flavor and history of Indianapolis?
WH: Cities are organisms. They change all the time. They don’t stand still. Dick Lugar and his colleagues put Unigov and GIPC (The Greater Indianapolis Progress Commission) in place (actually, it was Mayor Barton who founded GIPC, but Dick greatly expanded the participation), and my administration tried to build on those foundations. Looking out my 25th-floor window on my first day in office, as it were, it seemed as though our central city was hollowing out, the victim of urban disinvestment. It also seemed as though we needed to be more inclusive, and perhaps more willing to think outside the box and less reluctant to take risks. We established a substantial list of priorities: neighborhood redevelopment, downtown revitalization, improvement of police-community relations, a strong financial standing, and a strategy for economic development that emphasized sports as a point of leverage. In order to accomplish these goals, our policies were to encourage downtown reinvestment without discouraging suburban investment, to maintain a Triple-A bond rating, to create an internal audit department and have external auditors look at our books and report to the public in timely fashion, to make our city as safe as possible, to promote a public/private partnership, to establish Labor and Neighborhood advisory councils, to increase the percentages of women and minorities in the police and fire departments, to upgrade the role of minorities in the city decision-making process, to save the Pacers and attract an NFL franchise. And a few other things too!