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The Indianapolis Star Daniel Lee Column: Peterson Still Mixes With Pols, but Now on Eli Lilly's Behalf

The Indianapolis Star Daniel Lee Column: Peterson Still Mixes With Pols, but Now on Eli Lilly's Behalf [The Indianapolis Star]

From Indianapolis Star (IN) (January 31, 2010)

Jan. 31--Bart Peterson’s 12th-floor office at Eli Lilly and Co.’s headquarters is uncultured and, for a high-level executive, surprisingly small.

Its most striking feature is the full view it provides of Lucas Oil Stadium, a project he helped make a reality during his time as mayor of Indianapolis.

More telling is a framed cartoon by The Indianapolis Star’s Gary Varvel that sits just above Peterson’s computer -- a jab at the former mayor’s abrupt career change.

The drawing depicts a shirtless Peterson in a bathtub as if he’s in one of those TV ads for Lilly’s erectile dysfunction drug, Cialis.

"Hi, I’m former Mayor Bart Peterson. After I suffered electoral dysfunction I got a job working for Eli Lilly," Peterson says in the drawing.

The cartoon, signed by members of the Cialis brand team, was a gift welcoming Peterson when he joined the Indianapolis drug maker last June as senior vice president of corporate affairs and communication.

Peterson, 51, smiles when asked about the cartoon. Why not? It is funny, and accurate.

The "electoral dysfunction," of course, is a reference to Peterson’s crushing loss to underdog Republican Greg Ballard in the November 2007 mayoral election in a race shaped by voter anger over taxes.

On election night, Peterson told fellow Democrats: "Tomorrow, the sun will rise, and we’ll still be living in the greatest city in America." After that, the former two-term mayor started doing the professorial things ousted politicians seem to do: He was a resident fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; he taught graduate classes at Ball State.

And then one evening last spring, he got a call at home from Lilly Chief Executive Officer John Lechleiter.

Alex Azar, a former Bush administration official, had stepped aside as Lilly’s top spokesman for another job within the company.

"There was a point when a light bulb went off in my head, ‘I wonder if Bart would be interested?’ " Lechleiter said. He ran the idea by his wife, who said it couldn’t hurt to give Peterson a call.

Peterson was interested and soon was a Lilly employee.

Now he talks about Lilly in the same glowing way that as mayor he used to describe Indianapolis. Only now he talks about biologic drugs, not tourism and snow removal.

"If you were born and raised in Indianapolis, as I was, Lilly is part of your DNA," Peterson said. "Although I had really never thought about Lilly before, the idea immediately appealed to me."

Peterson was brought into upper management at Lilly during a time of great challenge and change.

Lilly has struggled to bring new drugs to market as blockbuster drugs, starting with Zyprexa in 2011, lose patent protection.

Still new on the job, Peterson was part of the steering committee that crafted Lilly’s sweeping restructuring announced in September that aims to speed up drug development, cut costs by $1 billion and eliminate 5,500 jobs by the end of 2011. Lechleiter said Peterson was a vocal participant in those meetings, urging bold action.

Now Peterson is honing how he tells Lilly’s story: "We are committing ourselves entirely to innovation."

He said Lilly remains focused on developing new drugs even as other pharmaceutical companies have diversified by selling consumer products or generic drugs.

Peterson, a high-profile Democrat, also joined Lilly just as the debate over health-care reform was heating up. A key issue for Lilly has been seeking patentlike protections for biologic drugs before they could be copied in generic form.

Les Funtleyder, health-care strategist with Miller Tabak & Co. in New York, said any eventual reform coming from Washington would be smaller than initially anticipated. But he also said he sees the government’s role in health care growing in the coming years.

"Having a Democrat in that position is not a bad idea," said Funtleyder, noting that Democrats hold the White House and Congress.

To learn the details of Lilly’s complex business, Peterson has traveled to the company’s European base outside London and to sites in France, Germany and Italy. As Lilly’s top lobbyist, he heads to Washington, D.C., roughly every two weeks to talk with his staff or with members of Congress.

Peterson has made other adjustments in corporate life. As mayor, he’d typically arrive at the office at 8:30 a.m. knowing that elected officials have plenty of evening meetings and schmooze-fests. Now, he’s often in by 7 a.m. (Early morning e-mails from Lechleiter often are waiting.)

Yet, politics is still his specialty. Peterson politely excused himself for a few minutes as I interviewed him for this column to take an unexpected call from Sen. Evan Bayh’s office.

And Peterson also weighs in on select political issues. He, along with every other living former Indianapolis mayor, last fall supported a "yes" vote in the voter referendum that needed to pass before debt could be issued to build a new $754 million Wishard Memorial Hospital.

In December, Peterson endorsed Melina Kennedy, his former deputy mayor and economic development director, in her 2011 mayoral bid.

"There’s a balance. I have a personal life, and as a private citizen I supported Melina Kennedy," Peterson said. "I do think about the fact that my job is 100 percent to work for Eli Lilly and Co. and to advance its goals. I am not nearly as active politically as I was before I came here."

Peterson said he’s not bitter about his 2007 loss to Ballard -- one of the biggest upsets in Indiana political history.

"You just have to accept that politics is a roller-coaster ride," he said.

Even now many people still greet Peterson by calling him "mayor." Peterson said he asks those he knows to please not call him that anymore. He described those who approach him as invariably nice. "It may just be that the ones who want to see me as road kill, don’t tell me that to my face," he said, smiling.

Peterson said he has not felt the pull to get back into elected politics since his "electoral dysfunction."

"I look back on it, and it’s all good. Sure, I wish I had won the election," Peterson said, adding: "I’m very happy with where I am now."

Watch for "Biz Buzz" on each Wednesday to see Lee interview top Central Indiana business and economic personalities.

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Posted: February 2010