An estimated 2,000 Democratic Party delegates will descend on Fort Wayne next weekend, marking a historic coup for the city and local Democrats as they host the annual state convention for its first ever foray outside Indianapolis.
The convention will bring in roughly a half-million dollars in tourist revenue. Mayor Tom Henry and the local party faithful hope it will also help northeast Indiana Democrats raise another type of capital – the political kind – and energize voters who may view going to the polls as a futile gesture in the Republican-dominated region.
Ahead of the convention, which will be held Friday and Saturday at the downtown Grand Wayne Center, Henry tried to capitalize on the political buzz that comes along with it, rallying discouraged local Democrats who face an uphill battle almost every election cycle.
“First of all, I think it was a coup for Fort Wayne to get (the convention) from Indy,” Henry said. “But I think it showed that Democrats in Fort Wayne and Allen County still have a considerable amount of strength.
“The Democrats in our city and county are saying, 'Yes, we have a voice, at least in our own party.'”
Putting Fort Wayne on political map
Party officials say Henry played a key role in drawing the state convention to Fort Wayne, showing his political clout as mayor of Indiana's second-largest city – a position he held last year despite big GOP gains elsewhere in the county and statewide over the last two years.
In Allen County, Republicans increased their majority on the Fort Wayne City Council last year while also gaining a monopoly on the New Haven City Council and winning control of the Woodburn Town Council in a huge swing of fortunes.
Statewide, Republicans dominated the 2010 mid-term elections, winning control of an open U.S. Senate seat and stealing two more congressional districts from Democratic control. The Indiana House swung back to GOP control, and Republicans increased their vast majority in the state senate.
But even though Republicans also gained a majority of the state's mayoral offices, Henry won re-election despite a strong challenge from Paula Hughes, keeping the Fort Wayne mayor's office in Democrat control for the fourth straight election cycle.
“I'm the mayor of the second-largest city in the state, and I just happen to be a Democrat,” Henry said. “Does that elevate my status in the party? I guess it does.”
The convention comes just a few weeks after some speculation pointed to Henry as a possible running mate for former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, the Democratic candidate for governor. Gregg ultimately chose state Sen. Vi Simpson.
The county's top Republican Party official agreed the convention would help put Fort Wayne on Indiana's political map, which rarely branches out from Indianapolis.
“Quite frankly, in my career I have not (ever) been jealous of Democrats, but this time I am,” said Steve Shine, chairman of the Allen County Republican Party. “I want to be first in line to get the Republican state convention here in Allen County if and when that should occur.”
Energizing Democratic voters
Part of the state Democratic Party's rationale for moving the convention away from Indianapolis was that it presented an opportunity to gain footholds in less Democrat-friendly parts of the state such as northeast Indiana, state party Chairman Dan Parker said.
“Why the idea intrigued me of moving the convention around is it would let Democrats showcase their ideas in different parts of the state,” Parker said. “We can compete and win the city of Fort Wayne, but we want to compete and win throughout northeast Indiana.”
Henry said many Allen County voters don't see party affiliation as a major factor when choosing which candidates to support. But he warned Democrats and independent voters not to stay home this year just because another round of GOP victories may seem like a foregone conclusion.
“If you don't vote, you get what you get,” he said.
While Shine said the convention could energize local Democrats, he rejected the idea that it could help them loosen the GOP grip on Allen County.
The convention could put Fort Wayne in the spotlight for both Democrats and Republicans, Shine said. But he pointed to nine straight Republican wins in the 3rd Congressional District and the all-GOP county government as proof that Democrats won't sway voters.
“No matter what kind of stunting the Democrats try to pull, Allen County will remain loyal to the Republican Party,” he said.
Interest running high
As for the convention itself, a contested gubernatorial race between Gregg and Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, along with President Obama's re-election bid and the convention's first move from Indianapolis, is helping drive interest, city and tourism officials said.
Dan O'Connell, president of Visit Fort Wayne, said Democrats reported high pre-registration numbers. Henry said the downtown Hilton and Courtyard by Marriott hotels were fully booked by Memorial Day.
To show off Fort Wayne to visiting delegates, many of whom likely have never seen the city before, Visit Fort Wayne and the convention host committee are collaborating with local businesses and attractions to put on special events, such as a tour of the DeBrand chocolate factory and a TinCaps baseball game.
“We're trying to make it have some entertaining value as well,” Henry said.
Most delegates will arrive Thursday or Friday, with the official party business and speeches by major candidates set for Saturday.
Delegates will spend much of Saturday formally nominating their candidate for lieutenant governor and Indiana's delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. They also will adopt the party's official platform.
Carmen Darland, Democratic chairwoman for the 3rd District, said the convention's move to Fort Wayne prompted a surge of interest from potential state and national delegates from the region. Northeast Indiana will bring a full slate of delegates to the state convention and could send more delegates than ever to the national convention, she said.
“People want to be part of this event, and they're very excited about being delegates,” she said.
As state Democrats weigh whether to move their convention from Indianapolis again in the future, Fort Wayne will likely set the bar for other possible locations, such as Evansville, Gary, South Bend and Terre Haute, Parker said.
“I told the mayor, 'No pressure, but every other city that wants to host the convention is counting on you,'” Parker said.