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Ask Me Anything: Emily Styron, Mayor Of Zionsville

In November 2019, the Democrat won the mayor’s race in a reliably Republican town. We chatted with her about the evolution of the suburbs, her plans for Zionsville, and what she has already learned.

You’re a Democrat. Why did you decide to run for office in Zionsville, which historically has been conservative?
I believe we get better government when we have contested elections. It raises the bar for whoever ultimately wins because it raises the community’s awareness of what that particular politician does. I’m a Democrat, so I ran as a Democrat. A number of people I spoke to beforehand strongly encouraged me to run as an Independent because we are such a strong Republican community. But for me, it really wasn’t about winning the election. The whole point of doing this was about running. It was about the conversation that happens between announcing and voting. I didn’t think I had a chance, but I decided that wasn’t the calculation we should be making anymore. We should be asking ourselves, What do we lose when no one runs against a sitting incumbent?  
  
Why do you think you won? 
I think there were a few reasons. One, there was some dissatisfaction with the previous mayor, mostly around economic development. Just a lack of transparency and willingness to listen to the public. There were some big economic development projects that failed. We lost the Little League headquarters that was supposed to come here, and the big Wolf Run golf project was voted down by the town council after several stages. But the big one that happened right as the election was gearing up was Sycamore Flats, a mixed-use development that was planned for the village. That project skipped a lot of steps that the town is supposed to follow when it comes to engaging neighbors, and it became a lightning rod. I think the administration was tone-deaf to how angry people were about it. Conversely, I tried to talk to everyone I could. I went door-to-door in at least 80 percent of the neighborhoods in Zionsville. And finally, I have a shit-ton of management experience, and you can quote me on that.  
  
Such as? 
I was the chief financial officer of the Department of Public Safety in the office of Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, managing a $170 million budget for the police and fire departments. I was the deputy director of Indy Parks at one point, and I managed the city and county’s IT structure through Y2K. I had my own consulting firm for 10 years, and before I decided to run for mayor, I was the chief procurement officer and vice president of finance at Ivy Tech. I’m intensely curious, and I’m always trying to figure out how something can be fixed.  
  
After the election, you told a reporter that Democrats and Republicans have to start seeing each other as humans again—that even if we have different ideologies, we have a lot of the same values. What are those shared values? 
I think we both want to be conservative from a fiscal perspective. Democrats don’t like paying a lot of money in taxes if they feel like it’s going to be wasted, just like Republicans. We want our families to feel safe, and ensure that our public-safety personnel have what they need to do their jobs. And I think a lot of our community wants to look at ways we can be more inclusive. Who might feel like they’re on the outside of the majority here, and how do we bring them in? We can do that without it being viewed as a political statement, but more of a community development effort.  

“The most consistent request I got was for a community center. We watch our dollars go to Carmel’s Monon Center.”

You spoke a lot about the importance of green spaces in your campaign. What’s your plan for parks in Zionsville? 
A big reason I ran is that I don’t believe we have supported the parks and recreation department adequately. We have very little recreational programming. The school system does so much with regard to recreational opportunities for our youth. There is no shortage of things to do for kids in Zionsville. But for middle-aged women like myself, there aren’t as many opportunities. I heard that from a lot of women during the campaign. The most consistent request I got was for a community center. We watch our dollars leave Zionsville and go to Carmel’s Monon Center. The default answer to a community center in Zionsville has always been no, but I think we need to put more research and thought into that answer. What can our community sustain? 

How would you fund it? A capital campaign? 
Yes, we would look at capital campaigns. The town also has bonding authority, specifically for parks. But I also really like the idea of public/private partnerships. It doesn’t have to be a one-way approach that’s all government.
   
What lessons can other potential candidates learn from how you ran your campaign? 
You have to run for the right reasons, and know why you’re going through the process. It shouldn’t be about trying to make a political statement. To be a successful politician, you need a solid-gold reason to put yourself out there in the first place. Ideally, that reason aligns with the rest of your community. 
 
Does your election in a historically conservative community tell us anything about how the suburbs of Indianapolis are changing? 
I do think it means we’re evolving as a community, but I’m not sure we know yet what we’re evolving toward. It might just mean that having more choices and dialogue makes us pay closer attention to who’s running. J.D. Ford is now my state senator. It was inspiring to watch him knock on doors and listen to people. He’s a great example of someone who did the work to build a base. I would have told you two years ago that there’s no way I would run for office. I mean, no way. I cuss too much. But I was really moved by the way J.D. did the impossible. [Ford, a gay Democrat, defeated social conservative Mike Delph in a district that seemed solidly Republican.] And it’s not because everyone around here woke up with a different ideology. It just took someone thinking, Well, let’s talk to a lot of people and see if my ideas sound like something they would like to see come to fruition.

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