POLITICS

Obama finds a kindred spirit on climate change in a Republican who sees Paris in Indiana

In Carmel, Ind., where Jim Brainard was the mayor for almost 20 years, the Indianapolis suburb has undergone a transformation to fit his vision. Incohesive city features -- a strip of retail businesses here and rows of office buildings there -- were connected by a new downtown. The population more than doubled to about 80,000 people.

Sidewalks, plazas and fountains border new buildings with businesses on the bottom and condos on top. There's a new city hall, theaters and galleries. Period lighting illuminates outside cafes. Sculptures of people populate the streets; they're reading, biking and bustling. There are bike paths and about 85 roundabouts -- the most in the nation, said Brainard, who is fond of calculating their gasoline savings.

"That's what people want," Brainard said in an interview last week. "It's all about building a walkable, pedestrian-friendly city and doing things that improve the quality of life that also are good for the environment. That's a big piece of it."

Along the way, Brainard has promoted a related vision with the U.S. Conference of Mayors as the co-chairman of its Climate Protection Task Force, which he said helped to convince most U.S. cities to accept goals toward lowering their greenhouse gases.

Then Washington, D.C., beckoned. A year ago, Brainard was selected as one of four Republicans on President Obama's State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. The panel of 26 people held its last of four meetings with the White House last week and will now winnow a slate of 500 recommendations into a proposal that will be submitted to Obama in November.

"Indiana's climate impacts include more severe summer heat, more dangerous storms and floods, and new threats to agriculture production," Mike Boots, acting director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in a written statement. "Mayor Brainard has led the way in Carmel by putting forth an executive order for the city to purchase hybrid and bio-fuel vehicles and installing roundabouts, which conserve electricity and gasoline while reducing air pollution."

Some in the GOP are suspicious

In Brainard, the White House found a Republican with similar views. He believes that human activity like burning coal and driving cars is contributing to climate change. Forthcoming rules by U.S. EPA to limit carbon emissions at coal plants is "long overdue," Brainard said, noting that Indiana has about 2,800 coal miners.

"We can find other jobs for those people," Brainard said. "The bigger problem is all the medical people who would be unemployed if we didn't have coal powered [electricity], because we'd be so much healthier."

At home, that kind of talk raises suspicions about his political fidelity. Brainard has been called a "liberal" who, in addition to supporting environmental regulations, also spends freely to outfit Carmel with a seemingly endless list of construction projects.

In 2012, the City Council stepped in to help refinance $185 million in debt incurred by the Carmel Redevelopment Commission, a body controlled by Brainard appointees who use future tax revenue from improved areas of the city to finance current projects. This process of using tax incremental financing, or TIF, is generally regarded as a good way to encourage private development in hard-knock towns.

But some are uncomfortable with the rapid pace of development in Carmel. The 2012 refinancing won't cost city taxpayers anything unless the redevelopment commission fails to pay its debt, but it showed for the first time that the consensus behind improvement might be fraying after so many years of growth, said Rick Sharp, a Republican city councilor.

Sharp, who's considering whether to run against Brainard in next year's GOP primary, said that the mayor has tried to "avoid the legislative process," much like Obama and his administrative climate initiatives. He says a recent analysis shows that the redevelopment commission could fall short of $43 million in paying its debt in 20 years from now.

"So that sounds more like a Democrat, doesn't it?" Sharp said, referring to Brainard's policies.

As for the mayor's views on climate change, Sharp says Brainard is "out of step with the state he lives in."

Conspiracies or planning?

Others express deeper wariness about the longtime incumbent, who they say makes a practice of pitching positive stories to news outlets with public relations specialists in Washington, D.C. (ClimateWire was invited by Rob DeRocker to interview Brainard in Washington at the offices of Simon & Co., a legislative affairs firm that has been paid $186,000 by the city of Carmel over the last five years.)

"Did the mayor and his crew fly you in here and wine and dine you?" John Accetturo, a former city councilor who ran unsuccessfully against Brainard in the 2011 Republican primary, asked a reporter.

"I really don't have a comment," he added before hanging up. "But I will tell you this. We have some people looking into how these articles are written."

Brainard sees his development efforts as a smart investment that will draw more people and businesses into Carmel, adding to its revenue while reducing emissions. He recalls an Illinois city he declined to name where he gave a speech on city planning two years ago as an example of what officials should avoid.

Its downtown featured empty storefronts, and new subdivisions were 7 miles away. It's the kind of city planning that leads to more roads and more cars, and makes "a mess of the environment," said Brainard.

The new subdivision resulted in more than $5 million in annual costs to build and operate a new fire station, install water pipes and maintain streets, he calculated. Meanwhile, the tax revenue from the subdivision amounts to about $2 million a year, he said, creating a deficit that took money away from rebuilding the original city center.

In Carmel, the roundabout symbolizes the kind of project that can save money and emissions. Brainard says motorists conserve fuel by maintaining their momentum, rather than the stop and go of traffic lights. The city has also saved electricity costs by reducing the number of lights.

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"I see my role as speaking out about why Republicans should be engaged in this," Brainard said, referring to climate change. "I've been trying in this role to make enough public statements that other Republicans aren't afraid to speak out."

Twitter: @evanlehmann | Email: elehmann@eenews.net

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