Mayor Bill: The Legacy of William H. Hudnut III

William “Bill” Hudnut served as mayor of Indianapolis from 1976 to 1991, the city’s only mayor to serve for more than two terms. Trained as Protestant minister at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Hudnut assumed the duties of senior pastor at the historic Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis in 1964. Hudnut began his transition into politics in 1972. He campaigned, and won, a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican with Mitch Daniels as his campaign manager. After failing to win his bid for re-election, Hudnut ran for mayor of Indianapolis. He won the first of four campaigns in 1975.

Hudnut, known affectionately as “Mayor Bill,” oversaw three major urban renewal projects during his twelve years: the redevelopment of downtown Indianapolis’s commercial district around the construction of Circle Center Mall; convincing the Colts to leave Baltimore in 1984 and play in the 60,000 sq.ft. and $77.5 million Hoosier Dome downtown; and the elevation of Indianapolis to national prominence as story of successful urban renewal and community partnerships. Indianapolis needed pride in downtown as much as the revenue these developments could bring. Efforts to revitalize Indianapolis began during Hudnut’s first administration and culminated in the opening of Circle City Mall in 1995. In addition to acquiring the Colts, the city also hosted the 1982 National Sports Festival and the 1987 Pan Am Games, both of which helped justify the construction of new sports complexes in and around downtown.

Hudnut’s achievements owed a good deal to his religious view of America. Mentored by Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most significant theologians and public intellectuals in United States history, Hudnut grappled with the irony that the U.S. was the world’s wealthiest country and yet the Ronald Reagan administration had starved cities of desperately needed funding. Americans professed a deep and abiding commitment to religion—particularly Christianity—but showed little charity toward those they disagreed with and who were merely less fortunate. The culture of a city mattered as much as its material existence, Hudnut believed. Letterhead for the mayor’s office included the motto--A Competitive City and Compassionate City--suggesting an approach that might be, at times, at odds with the right-wing of the Republican party. He found common ground with radical feminists and conservative city-county counselor Beulah Coughenour to restrict the availability of pornography. In 1984, Hudnut approved a city ordinance effectively banning the distribution of pornography under his jurisdiction. While the law ultimately was overturned under judicial review, Hudnut clearly saw a link between the revitalization of downtown Indianapolis and moralism. Just a few years later, he also issued a public statement welcoming gay and lesbian visitors to a celebration on the Circle in June 1990. This proclamation reflected Hudnut’s attempt to couple a compassionate view of people with his intention to attract and keep commercial interests who were often more culturally conservative. Of course, debates over how to balance cultural values in Indianapolis have persisted ever since.