KEVIN LEININGER: Abortion, taxes already looming as key issues in 2019 GOP campaign for mayor

John Crawford's list of campaign themes didn't include tax increases and abortion, but opponent Tim Smith will want to talk about them in May's Republican mayoral primary. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Tim Smith (courtesy photo)
Andy Downs
Kevin Leininger

City Councilman John Crawford had just announced his intention to run for mayor next year during a press conference at Republican headquarters in May when a woman he didn’t know raised her hand.

What, she wondered, is your position on abortion?

Crawford avoided a direct answer, insisting that as mayor he would have little influence over what is essentially a state and federal issue.

The question that seemed odd at the time made more sense earlier this week when insurance executive Tim Smith confirmed his mayoral ambitions and made it clear his positions on abortion, along with taxes and spending, will offer voters a clear and more traditionally conservative alternative.

“Was she a ‘plant’? Probably. That’s politics 101,” Crawford said, acknowledging the importance of social issues to the GOP base. “But what gains you votes in the primary can lose votes in the general election.”

Whether that will be the case next year remains to be seen, of course, but it’s already clear the two self-professed fiscal conservatives who on the surface might appear similar have given a lot of thought about how they can frame and capitalize on their differences in pursuit of the right to challenge Mayor Tom Henry in November 2019.

“I have my own opinion (on abortion), but I’ve never taken a political position because it’s not something the mayor and City Council can impact. I’ll focus on issues the mayor can have an impact on,” said Crawford, a physician who has made financial responsibility, crime, opioid abuse, economic development and improved government collaboration themes of his coming campaign.

RELATED: ‘Most expensive primary’ is official as Tim Smith challenges Councilman John Crawford in GOP race for Fort Wayne mayor

But Smith, a vice president with Med Pro, insists abortion is a local issue — and points to a recent Hoosier example as proof. In South Bend, Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently vetoed a zoning approval that would have allowed a pro-life women’s care center to open next to a proposed abortion clinic. Crawford also disproves of what Buttigieg did but insists the issue at stake was free speech — not abortion.

On the other hand, a bill passed by the Allen County Commissioners in 2010 may have hastened the exit of abortion Dr. Elrich Klopfer from Fort Wayne. The bill requires “itinerant” doctors to have a local back-up physician in case of emergency, and Klopfer closed his Fort Wayne clinic not long after his back up resigned in 2013. “I want Fort Wayne to be a pro-life city,” Smith said.

As for city finances, both support a “zero-based” approach that that would essentially rebuild the city budget from scratch in the search for inefficiencies and savings. But Smith points out that Crawford has supported two increases in the local income tax and a new tax on vehicles, while he would have opposed them.

“I voted to keep police on the streets, avoid laying off firefighters and to maintain our roads,” said Crawford, noting that the last income tax increase is funding improvements to sidewalks, alleys and the riverfront. “You can’t be for ‘quality of place’ unless you have the resources.”

But Smith, who is running to make Fort Wayne the “safest, smartest, strongest city in the Midwest,” said higher taxes would never have been necessary had the city spent its tax dollars more effectively and efficiently. Smith believes his business background equips him to do just that, while Crawford contends his 20 years of government experience would make make him a far more effective mayor than a political neophyte because “I know what can be done.”

Smith embraces that distinction, and believes voters will too. “I’m not a politician,” he said with obvious relish.

With each candidate having well over $230,000 in their coffers at the end of last year, Crawford and Smith will have plenty of cash to mount strong primary campaigns. Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue-Fort Wayne, suspects Crawford’s experience in meeting with voters could serve him well, but said Smith’s effort to paint himself as a political outsider able and willing to buck the system could also resonate.

Downs acknowledged the traditional GOP impulse for low taxes could benefit Smith unless Crawford can turn the issue to his advantage by persuading voters his support for increases was a pragmatic approach to real problems. And some politicians who have vowed never to raise taxes have regretted it later, Downs said,

In that respect, at least, the GOP primary could be more contentious than the fall contest. Smith may be able to criticize Crawford for those tax increases, but Henry couldn’t.

“He signed them,” Downs said.

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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