The tenure of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is helping to answer an oft-posed question: What would happen if an "ordinary Joe" was in charge of a major American city?

Lots of politicians, of course, portray themselves as ordinary Joes. Ballard, though, comes close to meeting the test. He was elected mayor in 2007 in what has been called the greatest upset in Indiana political history. A former Marine officer who had taken up management consulting, he became the Republican candidate by default when a series of more experienced and noteworthy candidates refused to run. Virtually everyone regarded Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson as invincible.

But Peterson had increased income taxes, and property taxes were on the rise, too. Late-breaking anti-tax fervor propelled Ballard to victory, without voters really knowing what they were getting. "It truly was a 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' kind of moment," says Matthew Tully, the Indianapolis Star's political columnist. "He was the perfect candidate for the time because he was a clean slate with voters."

Turning the city over to Mr. Smith has come with pluses and minuses. Ballard's supporters view him as a steady manager who has focused on making sure Indianapolis is well run. Robert Vane, Ballard's deputy chief of staff, notes proudly that the city has repaired public swimming pools that were leaking millions of gallons of water each summer. Crime is down. Despite the recession, Ballard has balanced the budget without raising taxes.

On the other hand, Ballard's political inexperience has been painfully clear at times. Tully described a major speech the mayor delivered in January as exhibiting "all the flair of a nervous sixth-grader reading a book report in front of the class." More seriously, when the board that manages the city's sports stadiums and convention center ran into financial trouble, Ballard wavered on a plan to address the problem. Ultimately, the state legislature stepped in to help, but rejected most of the ideas the mayor put forward. Critics say Ballard doesn't just lack polish but also vision.

The latter complaint is one Ballard seems intent on addressing. Borrowing a page from Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels' outsourcing book, he wants to let private operators take over the city's water and sewer systems, then use the upfront payment to pump millions of dollars into repairing roads and bridges and building new sidewalks. It's a big, bold idea of a sort that few expected Ballard to come up with. On the other hand, even fewer thought he would make it to City Hall in the first place.