FORT WAYNE – Democrats have controlled Fort Wayne City Hall for five elections following Mayor Paul Helmke’s exit in 1999, with incumbent Mayor Tom Henry seeking an unprecedented fourth term. But Henry faces a new breed of Republican in businessman Tim Smith, who won the nomination by defeating long-time Councilman John Crawford in the GOP primary last May. Smith used social issues such as abortion to separate himself from establishment Republicanism, relying on the conservative Indiana Policy Review network while bringing along a new breed of voter. His campaign appears to be feeding on a large network of smaller donors.

Henry is relying on his own brand, an extensive family network embedded in many Summit City institutions, and a thriving downtown. Both Henry and Smith are using modern data and digital campaign techniques, though Henry has been up on broadcast and cable TV for much of August.

Thus, Smith is a very different challenger than past Henry foes who have included Matt Kelty, Paula Hughes and Mitch Harper. His biggest challenge may lie in whether his social media campaign can make up for the decline of established media (i.e., newspapers, local network TV affiliates and WOWO) which are all in decline, particularly with the death of conservative radio host Charlie Butcher a year ago. Butcher was a galvanizing force for Fort Wayne conservatives, and has not been replaced with anyone approaching his stature.

Another hurdle for Smith comes from Washington, where President Trump dominates all things political, particularly in GOP circles. One Fort Wayne observer told HPI that even a conversation about Fort Wayne politics struggles to keep off the Trump topic just minutes in. Smith does have a common component in Indianapolis-based Prosper Group, which is handling his digital campaign, as it did for Donald Trump in 2016.

Henry acknowledges he is facing a different kind of challenge. “This is going to be a lot more difficult in many ways,” Henry told HPI at the IDEA convention in French Lick in late August. “I’m running for a fourth term. I don’t think it’s ever been done in Fort Wayne. It’s going to be an interesting challenge. My opponent is well-funded and very aggressive, although he has never held a public office.”

Henry believes his role in the renaissance of downtown Fort Wayne that includes the new Promenade Park and plans to extensively develop the three rivers network will carry him to victory in November.

“His biggest challenge is right now Fort Wayne is hitting on all cylinders,” Henry said of Smith. “Our unemployment is down, our crime is down. We’re taking care of the infrastructure and there’s significant investment. Homes are selling in 48 hours. The city is doing very well and it’s going to be hard for him to get his head around an issue to defeat me. So, he’s going to be looking for things that may not be an issue now, but he’s going to try to make it an issue.”

Smith believes he has some openings. Violent crime is a nightly news staple. There is also a dysfunctional trash pickup contract (backed by the Republican council majority) that has forced the city to use its own employees on some routes that were routinely missed.

Smith, who managed Mayor Paul Helmke’s 1991 reelection bid and was a finalist for the state auditor vacancy when it opened up under Gov. Mike Pence, told HPI Wednesday afternoon that he is “in the same position I was in the primary at this time, which is the underdog. And I’d say many in Fort Wayne think Tom Henry is going to win, just like John Crawford was going to win the primary.” Smith defeated Crawford by 14%. “I feel incredibly positive about where I stand.”

Henry believes that when the dust settles, more than $2.5 million will be spent on this campaign. “We’ve been concentrating on social media over the past several months,” Henry said. “That has helped with fundraising and put us into position to use television and other components of the media in the next 70 days. It takes a lot of money. We’re up on TV now, he has not gone up. Our thinking is he’s going to wait until the last five or six weeks and then pour money in.”

Nick Lauritsen, Smith’s campaign manager who has worked for U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Virginia’s Ed Gillespie, told HPI the campaign is currently introducing the GOP nominee to voters. “Crawford was up on TV the night after November election,” Lauritsen said of the primary sequence. “We didn’t go up on TV until March 30. We’re talking to voters about Tim’s experience and how he plans to leverage his business experience. As we go up with contrast messages, that message will echo on digital.”
Henry’s vision

The thrust of Henry’s campaign is downtown development. “I’m looking to invest heavily in our downtown. I think the downtown is the heart of every city. If you don’t have a captivating, exciting downtown area which is hospitable and entertaining, people are not going to come to your city. They’re not going to come and live in a neighborhood if there’s nowhere to go. You’ve got to have a downtown that is inviting. That’s what we’ve invested so much in the last 10 years and it is beginning to pay off. I would be foolish not to continue that.”

It was announced Wednesday that Ruoff Home Mortgage is moving its headquarters to downtown Fort Wayne. However, John Perlich, spokesman for Mayor Henry, told the Journal Gazette the city still does not have a formal economic development agreement with Ruoff, and “no plans are final.”

Henry also believes that the city is poised to weather a recession. “A lot of us feel the economy is going to slow down,” Henry said. “I’m going to make sure we have good access to capital and have a cash balance to sustain ourselves through a period that might put a lot of other communities in jeopardy.”

Henry won the Democratic mayoral primary on May 8, 2007, with 82.4% of the vote against token opposition. He defeated the Republican Matt Kelty in the November election, with 60% of the vote after the Kelty campaign imploded on ethics issues. Henry won a second term in 2011, defeating Republican Paula Hughes 49.9% to 46%. In 2015, Henry won a third term, defeating former Republican legislator Mitch Harper 56.8% to 43.1%.

Smith’s issues

Smith believes Henry is vulnerable on the crime issue. “It wasn’t more than a generation ago that annual homicide rates in the Summit City were in single digits. A five year stretch in the mid-1980’s saw an average of 14 homicides a year,” the Smith campaign website says. “By the 1990s, Fort Wayne’s homicide rate climbed to average 24 homicides a year. The most recent five years, from 2016 through 2018? An average of over 40 homicides every year!”

The campaign website adds: “The increase in violence is not simply a product of contemporary culture. But our culture, the culture of family, businesses, and non-profits in Fort Wayne can either ignore the statistics and accept the status quo or we can rise up as a community to re-claim the joy of public safety and of our family’s security.’

Smith uses FBI statistics to paint a challenged picture for the city. “Violent crime is up 17% since he took office,” he told HPI Wednesday. “We have 46 murders per capita, which puts us in a very bad spot. You’ll learn we have 360 unsolved murders. The mayor is on TV saying ‘Fort Wayne is a safe city.’ I’ve knocked on over 10,000 doors and that’s not what I hear. We’ve had murders on every side of town. We’ve had live gunshots at our Krogers and Walmarts. We had a shooting at the end of a high speed chase at the Children’s Zoo.”

Smith said he will put in place community-oriented policing. “We have so many unsolved murders, though we have witnesses, we know who the shooters are. Witnesses don’t come forward due to a lack of trust. You rebuild trust the old-fashioned way. You have those relationships, officers working smaller territories, parking their cars and getting out into the communities.”

Smith is also planning to move 50 police officers from desk jobs to the streets, saying that will bring a $4 million “optimization” of public safety resources.

The Republican nominee is also advocating “zero-based budgeting,” explaining that in his corporate experience, “Starting at zero is what we do in private business where every dollar spent must be justified (not just new dollars). This confirms that every dollar budgeted is actually necessary; it challenges bureaucratic inertia.”

The campaign adds: “Zero-based budgeting is not enough by itself. If zero-based budgeting is joined by zero-based regulation, then private sector employers gain a measurable advantage in the market because every regulation – like every dollar – is reevaluated, and those deemed unnecessary are eliminated. An advantage in the market leads to additional sales, additional employees, more pay, and more opportunities. Let’s start over with city ordinances – eliminate the unnecessary regulations that are onerous to our residents and choking to our employers.”

Smith said he will run a government with “business principles” and not the standard “run government like a business” because government lacks a profit motive. He leads more than 1,000 employees and contractors. “Every year, I have to start from ground zero,” he told HPI. “I have to justify every expenditure. You find new ways to save, more efficient ways to spend, find better partners.” 

He noted that Henry recently renegotiated the city employee health contract, saving $4.5 million. “In business, we do this every year,” Smith said. “It’s one of the most expensive line items. Tom Henry didn’t do it until his 11th year in office. If Tom Henry makes that change in his first year, taxpayers would have had $50 million to redeploy.”

Smith plans to paint Henry as a career politician, noting that he first ran for the Fort Wayne City Council in 1983. “That’s 10 consecutive elections,” Smith explained. “This is a race for a person running for his 40th year, to an outsider who wants to provide business principles.”

The Republican said that debt under Henry had doubled to $1.2 billion.

Smith said the city has lost 40,000 jobs in the last four decades, though he notes, “I don’t lay those all at the feet of Tom Henry.” He says he’s running because his children and their friends “are moving to greener pastures” in Indianapolis, Dayton, Cleveland and Chicago. 

Working in the “specialty insurance space,” there are 7,000 such employees in northeastern Indiana and northwestern Ohio with a $7 billion value. “Here’s how a mayor attracts business,” Smith said. “It’s data, IT and analytics. If we don’t have those three things, we are dead in the next 10 years. The mayor of Fort Wayne should be talking to small- to mid-sized IT, data and analytic firms and saying, ‘Do you want access to 7,000 employees and $7 billion? They will come. They will move to Fort Wayne.” He said that defense and aerospace contractors and the auto-parts suppliers can be lured to the region.

“We need a mayor to sell Fort Wayne as a value proposition,” Smith said.

Henry fatigue?

Asked about seeking a fourth term and whether there is “Henry fatigue,” the incumbent responds, “I think there is a certain portion of the city that feels that way, but interestingly enough, because our city is doing so well, they hear about these wonderful projects like Promenade Park and we’ve got a few more coming up, I think there’s a lot of excitement over the next thing to come along. We’ve spent years pulling this together and now it’s coming to fruition.”

Henry is a Democrat who has been able to pull support from businessmen who tend to vote Republican for Congress, governor or president.

While Smith is adding new voters, stressing social issues like abortion in his primary victory, he may have alienated Crawford’s supporters. The councilman has not endorsed either candidate at this point. When HPI asked Henry if the abortion issue ever comes up with voters, he responded, “Never.”

Smith defeated Crawford 56.39% to 42.15% in the May primary. He said that through his fall campaign, be believes he can bring Crawford’s supporters back into the GOP fold.

So, Smith’s challenge will be whether he can unite the GOP, including the Crawford wing, and change the dynamic from what’s going well in Indiana’s second largest city to what isn’t, and open up an era of “business principles” in government.  HPI starts this race leaning toward the Democrat, but most observers we’ve talked to believe this could easily move into the tossup zone and beyond once Smith’s homestretch media kicks in. HPI Horse Race Status: Leans Henry.

Indianapolis: Merritt issues crime plan

Republican mayoral nominee Jim Merritt unveiled his anti-crime proposal on Wednesday, vowing to flood neighborhoods with police units in the wake of homicides. Mayor Hogsett’s campaign called it a “stop and frisk” plan.

Merritt explained, “A Merritt Administration will create a Metro Homicide Unit that brings together experienced homicide investigators from the seven surrounding law enforcement agencies, ATF, the FBI and the prosecutor to assist in solving homicides. We will bring the specialties of the police department to bear on the homicide problem, including the vice unit, the gang unit, the narcotics unit, the violent crimes unit, and the officers who work where the murders occurred. We will empower our officers to stop and question everyone moving about in the neighborhood where the crime occurred. We will also include the prosecutor’s office and the marshal’s office in the process to ensure a full view of the crime and the criminals. We will implement targeted and unannounced warrant sweeps to gather and collect wanted criminals within a two-mile radius of any murder that takes place. We will conduct immediate interviews of those arrested and share information gathered with the Metro Homicide Unit,” Merritt explained.

Hogsett campaign spokesman Heather Slager responded, saying, “Over the last four years, Mayor Hogsett has returned IMPD to neighborhood-based beat policing, invested in grassroots organizations tackling the root causes of violent crime, and worked to build community trust. We know these strategies are working, as overall violent crime was down in 2018 and many indicators, including criminal homicides, are trending down in 2019. It is incredibly disappointing to see Sen. Merritt stand up today and pay lip service to police-community relations while promoting a ‘stop and frisk’-like strategy. These plans would turn back the clock on years of progress and create a culture of fear harmful to neighborhoods and officers alike.”

Merritt began his proposal by calling Mayor Hogsett’s response to the city’s homicide rate by saying, “The silence coming from the mayor’s office has been deafening. This is unacceptable.”

Merritt acknowledged that African-American residents are disproportionately affected by violent crime. “During the campaign, I have learned about the disparity within our city,” he said. “While I am creating a plan to get our city on the right track, failing to address this specific issue is a disservice to our city. Out of the 159 homicides in 2018, 118 of them were African-Americans – and 83 cases are still unsolved. When he ran for mayor, Joe Hogsett touted his law enforcement background and told us he would keep our city safe, and yet his record is one of abject failure.”

According to Merritt, the only people who currently feel safe in our city are the criminals. “People’s homes have been violated. A score of teen lives cut short. Fear prevails in many of our neighbors’ eyes. This isn’t acceptable,” Merritt said. “My administration will make it clear: If you are a criminal, you have no place in our city.”

Merritt’s plan to combat violent crime includes using proven law enforcement practices previously abandoned and getting back to grassroots crime prevention programs that work. “The communities most affected by this violence have a distrust of law enforcement. This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “People should not be in fear when officers are called to help in any situation. We need members of our community to connect with our officers and engage with them outside of a law enforcement capacity through community events.”

Slager of the Hogsett campaign added, “While chest-pounding and battle plans to invade neighborhoods with swarms of traffic stops may make Sen. Merritt feel like he’s tough on crime, Indianapolis residents know that empty talk and half-baked ideas won’t address the systemic issues affecting too many in our city.”

New Hogsett ad

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s reelection campaign is airing a TV ad touting the administration’s capital improvement programs. The ad highlights the repairing of streets as well as adding 27,000 new LED street lights. “Building a better city with more work to do,” Hogsett said in the ad’s tagline. Hogsett’s campaign has spent at least $1 million in TV ads thus far this cycle.

Merritt, Hogsett debate

Mayor Hogsett and Sen. Merritt debated last week The candidates disagreed strongly on a topic of upmost importance to voters: How to pay for fixing and maintaining the city’s 8,000 miles of roads. Hogsett earlier this year introduced a regional plan that pools future income tax revenue from a nine-county area to pay for infrastructure improvements throughout the region. Mayors in cities surrounding Indianapolis, particularly those in Hamilton County, have balked at the idea, saying the plan unfairly creates winners and losers. Hogsett defended his plan, saying he believes his idea is a compelling one and provides a solution without creating a new tax, such as a commuter tax, which also has been an unpopular proposal. He wants to see his plan “fully vetted” but said he’s open to discussing other ideas. “The truth is every day nearly 200,000 people get up and drive into Indianapolis from outside of our county,” Hogsett said. “They go to work, and when they drive home that night, they take their income tax home with them. That is fundamentally unfair to the residents of Marion County.” 

Merritt has proposed adding optional toll lanes on commuter-heavy roads such Binford Boulevard and Fall Creek Parkway. The toll lanes would give drivers traveling downtown from the suburbs an express lane if they are willing to pay for it. Thursday night, he said the toll lanes could create new funding to help address the city’s infrastructure problems. “I see that as a real possibility for the future of our infrastructure,” he said. Both candidates agreed poverty is an issue facing the city, where 20% of the population is affected by it. Sen. Merritt said it’s important to discuss food deserts and food insecurity when talking about poverty (IBJ). He was critical of Mayor Hogsett’s plan to combat food insecurity in Indianapolis, which involves using public funds to transport people to grocery stores via Lyft. 

Merritt called for a “robust” program in which food is delivered to people’s homes, saying “Lyft is decaying neighborhoods.” He also proposed the idea of creating a food tax increment financing district to help those who are struggling. Meanwhile, Hogsett said quality education is the ticket to pulling people from poverty. He touted his Indy Achieves Promise Scholarship, a new program sponsored by the city that provides financial aid to low-income students from Marion County who attend IUPUI or Ivy Tech. Horse Race Status: Likely Hogsett