FORT WAYNE – In a year when introducing yourself as an incumbent mayor in many Hoosier cities was akin to being known as the carrier of a transferable, incurable disease, Mayor Tom Henry romped to a fourth consecutive victory with over 60% against a relatively strong candidate (e.g. smart, organized, very well-funded).  It is the sixth straight Democrat triumph in the Fort Wayne’s mayoral race. In other words, there has not been a Republican mayor in the 21st Century.  

The only two Republicans to have won in the last 50 years (since Harold Zeis in 1967) – one-term Robert Armstrong in 1975 and Paul Helmke in 1987 – were greatly aided by legal problems of the incumbent Democrats. Helmke won three times, and only left office in 1999 to seek and win the Republican nomination for the United States Senate.  

Yet some Republicans continue to peddle the falsehood that Fort Wayne is a Republican city. It is not. The annexations, most initiated by Mayor Helmke as sort of a mini-Unigov, added largely Republican territory, just as Unigov made Indianapolis more Republican than it otherwise would be, which is a different point. The general demographic readjustments that occur in every major city even occur, though more slowly, in smaller-sized urban areas; former non-city residents move out further beyond the new city limits.

Years ago, during a redistricting, my good friend Congressman John Shadegg of Arizona was in an intense battle with some of his Arizona Republican colleagues over new district lines. John’s district was anchored in Scottsdale and the northern areas. The battle was not over real people, but over sand. Phoenix continues to sprawl. Every Republican knew that the highest percentage Republican areas, within the next few years, were areas that were currently just sand.  

In other words, viewing from the sky, a similar pattern is occurring everywhere in America and it is impacting the control of Congress.  For years, the Democrat popular vote was under-represented in the House of Representatives because the Democrats would win their seats something like 90% to 10% and the core Republican areas were 70-30% in their favor. The key was the suburban and cities under 100,000, which Republicans more often than not carried by 55-45% or 58-42%. As Republicans move further out, and pack in, the adjacent areas to the city absorb more Democrats. Or, if the city annexes, the annexed areas become less Republican faster which counters the Republican political advantage of annexation. In other words, such “big picture” shifts also impact city elections.

I can see this steady change in my neighborhood. We live in Aboite Township, once a Republican bastion. Our annexed portion is no longer a bastion, but a leaky hold. The margins slip just a little each election. The area outside the city, once farmland, is now the GOP stronghold. There are similar signs in the older portions of Hamilton County.

Another common reason given that Fort Wayne is Republican, and that it is internal divisions that cost the party elections, was that the City Council was controlled by Republicans, with an unusually large 7-2 majority going into this election. However, the same congressional district structure changes are true inside many cities, the packing in of similar voters.

There are six districts and three at-large. The Republicans held, and continue to hold, the north three districts (1-3). These areas include most of the annexed areas and each is  drawn to cut toward the center city like pie slices (each have areas inside Coliseum Boulevard), but not too much. They could be drawn differently but the map is not egregiously drawn. It is just moderately helpful to Republicans. Democrats are packed into Districts 5 and 6, covering the heart of the original city and the minority-dominated southeastern section. District 4 is southwest and includes the annexed areas of Aboite. This was once the strongest Republican area but is increasingly becoming a battleground area.

Here is another way to make this point: Tim Smith would have defeated Mayor Henry in the portion of Allen County not inside the city limits. He was very popular there. Since all of Allen County gets mostly the same media, the GOP events, donors, and activists include city and non-city residents which confuses observers and fellow Republicans about how well the GOP candidate is doing. It is hard to sort who is who.  

The barometer of what is happening overall, beyond the mayor, are city-wide contests which are the at-large council seats plus the city clerk. This is an interesting but very important side note. All the city-wide candidates endorsed by the liberal Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette won. They endorsed Mayor Henry, two of the three at-large Democrats for Council, and two Republicans. Lana Keesling is the city clerk. She does her non-ideological job well, and to their credit (in my opinion), the Journal endorsed her. They also endorsed incumbent Republican Tom Freistroffer, the least partisan Republican. He is basically conservative but more supportive of Mayor Henry.  

Katie Zuber, the Democrat candidate for clerk, won 48.3% of the vote, losing by only 1,700 votes out of 52,000. Steve Corona, the third Democrat, also narrowly lost, by a little over 2,000 votes. It is not clear why the Journal opposed him in the primary and the general elections. While newspapers are not what they once were in influence, they still are influential to readers, especially when openly partisan information dominates. Given how close the election was, had the Journal endorsed both of those Democrats, it seems likely they would have swept all city-wide races, though not by a landslide like Mayor Henry accomplished.

The Democrat victory was also not a matter of Election Day turnout.  For example, among the at-large city council candidates, those who voted on Election Day voted for the two incumbent Republicans by significant margins and the third, a newcomer, was nipped by long-time Democrat councilman Glenn Hines. The Republicans, however, were mashed by the organized Democrat (more likely Tom Henry) political machine among early voters by thousands.    

At the core of the Republican problem is that in Indiana we don’t have party registration, so identifying Republicans and Democrats by primary voting patterns is risky. Many Democrats vote in Republican primaries because in this region there is not much of a functioning Democrat Party beyond the city elections. Congressman Jim Banks defeated the Democrat challenger, who raised around $800,000, by the same large margin as he had defeated Tommy Schrader, who had zero dollars and was a sad, rather pathetic figure in the city. That is unlikely to change in the near future. The Republicans still get a decent vote inside the city, with some candidates carrying it depending upon their opponents, and then clobber the Democrats in the rest of the region.

One incomplete poll during my last primary in 2010 showed that between 25% and 35% of my closest Republican opponent’s supporters answered that they had voted for President Obama (almost all in Fort Wayne). The best way to defeat a Republican sheriff, commissioner or congressman is to vote in the Republican primary. This has been true for decades. The core Democrat vote is larger than the core Republican vote. Turnout is not the solution. Winning the large numbers of people in Fort Wayne who are willing to switch determines the margins.

How did Tom Henry turn a Democrat-leaning city into a romp? I plan to next discuss some of the core issues Fort Wayne, Indiana and the nation are struggling with in both parties: Negative ads, social issue divides, business versus free market conservatives on economic issues, and the increasing ideological demands of a growing number of factions inside each party that insist they are “the base.”  

Tom Henry brilliantly managed to negotiate his party’s landmines while exploiting the Republican fractures. 

Souder is the former Republican congressman in the 4th CD.