Fifty years ago, a Democratic candidate for mayor of Indianapolis hoped to win by stoking racial and class antagonism. Today, the history of racialized dog-whistle politics is repeating itself in the governor’s race in Virginia.
Focusing particular scorn on the late Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved, the Republican campaign for Virginia governor recently released a commercial full of code words and racial posturing, all under the guise of “parents’ rights.”
As Glenn Youngkin uses red herring issues to mobilize voters, it is worth remembering the lessons of Indianapolis’ 1971 mayoral race. Short-term political gains might be made by playing to hot-button issues centering on race and public schools. In the long term, not only might those reactionary issues fail to resonate, but the consequences for a community and a political constituency can be brutal.
In 1971, Indianapolis Democrats made an unorthodox choice: They would challenge the Republican incumbent from the right. Using a picket fence in his campaign literature, Democrat John Neff accused his opponent of forcing white suburban families to endure the frightening spectacle of interracial education.
Placed in charge of the Neff campaign was Ralph Murphine, an outsider affiliated with the nationally renowned Matt Reese & Associates. Murphine insisted that the election could be won by playing to the fears of populist reactionary voters. Taking a cue from 1968 third party presidential candidate George Wallace, the Democratic mayoral campaign attacked technocratic experts and the forces of consolidation. The galvanizing issue: busing, which played to the racial fears of metropolitan voters.
Neff’s campaign also found a Wallace surrogate, the exotically named Ja Neen Welch. Welch had gathered attention as a “Wallace girl” during the 1968 presidential election, touring with the candidate as part of an effort to appeal to a kind of chauvinism that relied on sex appeal.
In 1971 Welch showed up on the West side of Indianapolis campaigning for Neff. Her presence, combined with the White Picket fence imagery, and a message of “Neff for your neighborhoods” made it clear: the Neff campaign believed that it could use symbols and code words to appeal to the alienated white working-class voters who had found Wallace so attractive.
It may have done so, but at a considerable cost. Scores of influential African Americans, many of whom were previously Democrats, voted for Republican incumbent Richard Lugar. For instance, Dr. Frank Lloyd, one of the most visible and successful physicians in the city, held an October press conference endorsing Lugar. Denouncing Neff’s xenophobic racism, Lloyd counseled other liberals to join him in voting for Lugar. The Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s African American newspaper, similarly counseled its readers to vote for the young Republican.
On November 2, 1971, Indianapolis voters overwhelmingly rejected Neff and elected Lugar, awarding him nearly sixty percent of the vote. The local Republican Party had run an energized and efficient campaign, full of enthusiasm, big ideas, and quality candidates. The Democrats, on the other hand, had run on fear, innuendo, and reactionary localism.
Moreover, the effects of Democrats’ misguided – and ugly – campaign strategy reverberated for decades. The city of Indianapolis embarked on a sports strategy that helped to rebuild a downtown core, but it avoided confronting trenchant issues of race, economic opportunity, and the manifold problems in public education. As for Neff, his political career never recovered. He died in a plane crash in 1974, and his party did not capture the mayor’s office again until the end of the century.
To be sure, 2021 is not 1971. Nevertheless, as Youngkin and other Republican hopefuls attempt to motivate anxious suburban and exurban voters by pandering to their worst instincts, they not only pander, they provoke fear. The noisome politics of resentment can push people to the polls. They also can render opposition parties to the dustbin of irrelevance.
Edward O. Frantz is a professor of history at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. He is the author of The Door of Hope: Republican Presidents and the First Southern Strategy, 1877-1933.