KEVIN LEININGER: Fort Wayne’s ‘pay to play’ bill is already having an impact, in more ways than one

Mayor Tom Henry hasn't announced whether he'll run again in 2019, but the money is still coming in anyway. (News-Sentinel file photo)
John Crawford
Tim Smith
Nelson Peters
Kevin Leininger

To potential Republican mayoral candidate John Crawford, a series of major contributions to Mayor Tom Henry’s campaign in late December proves the wisdom and necessity of the “pay to play” law that took effect Jan. 1.

On the other hand, some might conclude from the campaign-finance reports filed last week by Crawford and other possible 2019 opponents of the three-term Democratic incumbent that the law has only made personal wealth and connections more important than ever.

“It’s not illegal but it is a little unseemly that a great proportion of contributions to (Henry) are coming from out-of-town contractors (doing business with the city) that don’t always represent the low bid,” said Crawford, currently an at-large City Council member and co-sponsor of the bill that prevents firms from doing business with the city if they contribute more than $2,000 to individual candidates in a given year. Council overrode Henry’s veto by a 6-3 vote in December — a vote Crawford believes was responsible for the under-the-wire flurry of contributions that followed.

The Indianapolis law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, which received $3.84 million in city business between 2011 and 2015, donated $5,000 on Dec. 12. So did the local law firm of Beers Mallers Backs & Salin, which received $2.6 million in city contracts during that period. The Fort Wayne legal firm Carson Boxberger, with $2.7 million in contracts, gave $3,000 Dec. 29 and Eilbacher Fletcher of Fort Wayne, which did $1.01 million in city legal work from 2011-2015, gave $3,500 on that date. The Trier Law Office, with $2.9 million in contracts, gave $5,000 on Dec. 29.

Individuals associated with city contractors also made large contributions on Dec. 29. Gregory Henneke of the Indianapolis engineering firm American Structurepoint, which received $2.9 million in city contracts during those four years, gave $2,500. Jamal Anaptawi of Fort Wayne is associated with A&Z engineering, which did $4.7 million in city business.

Because those contributions were made in 2017, they will not affect the firms’ ability to do business with the city in 2018. Henry, who has not said whether he will seek a fourth term, has explained the donors wanted to get the contributions into their 2017 budgets, but Crawford suggested they had not done so in previous years.

The reports filed by Crawford and other possible GOP mayoral candidates do not contain a lot of last-minute or out-of-town contributions, as Henry’s does. But the stories they tell are interesting nevertheless — and much different.

Of the $259,392 in contributions listed in Crawford’s report, for example, he and his family seem to have donated more than $237,000 of it. Medical Protective executive Tim Smith received $20,000 from the Fort Wayne legal firm Barrett McNagny in November, $41,500 from Northern Indiana PAC for Better Government and $50,000 from local businessman Daryle Doden and wife Brenda. But Smith also donated more than $75,000 to his own campaign.

Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters hasn’t yet decided whether to seek the mayor’s office but has again filed a mayoral campaign report, just in case. His mayoral report lists a $3,500 loan from his mother, Sally, and his commissioner report, which lists funds he could roll into a mayoral contest if necessary, lists about $6,300 in previous loans from Peters himself. Crawford, Smith and Peters won’t be seeking city contracts, of course, but does the ability to contribute to one’s own campaign take on added importance now that contributions from would-be contractors are limited? Crawford doesn’t think so — in fact, he thinks it will help level the financial playing field.

Saying much of his fund-raising has been in response to Smith’s early entrance into the race, Crawford said an incumbent mayor’s ability to raise large sums has made it almost impossible for all but the well-connected to compete in the past. The pay-to-play bill will help change that, he insisted. Crawford, a physician, says he’s “99 percent” sure he’ll run for mayor.

That remains to be seen, of course, but in a mailer to would-be donors last week Crawford made it clear the law will be an issue one way or another.

“I will need to raise a large sum to make a credible run for mayor, so the response to this letter will help me decide which race (mayor or council) to consider,” he wrote. “The current mayor received nearly $1 million during the last election cycle from vendors seeking a contract with the city . . . If any of you plan to seek competitive contracts from the city, do not contribute more than $2,000, since I will not accept any donations larger than that.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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