KEVIN LEININGER: New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald prepares for his last speech, and new challenges

Terry McDonald was first elected mayor of New Haven in 1999 and will deliver his final State of the City address Monday. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

As much as he appreciates the difference between church and state, Terry McDonald figures his roles as pastor of Woodburn United Methodist Church and mayor of New Haven are alike in at least one respect. “They’re both ministries; a service, not a job,” he observed.

Now the wisdom he learned from Scripture — “for everything there is a season” — is being fulfilled in life as McDonald prepares to deliver his final state of the city address after leading Allen County’s second-largest city for nearly 20 years.

“I promised the citizens we’d leave New Haven better than we found it, and I think we have. But I’m happy I’m not running again. I’m tired; I’ve given as much as I can give,” the 59-year-old Republican said as he sat in his office and reminisced about how much the city of 15,000 just east of Fort Wayne has changed since he ran as a Democrat to unseat three-term incumbent Republican Lynn Shaw in 1999.

McDonald plans to highlight what he sees as New Haven’s positive evolution during his 7 p.m. speech originally scheduled for Monday at the Orchid, 11508 Lincoln Highway E., and in a three-page summary to be included in the city’s next utility bill. The speech has been postponed until April 8 due to a family emergency, but the numbers are impressive: an average of 63 new homes built every year between 2000 and 2018; about $58 million in commercial growth and nearly $105 million in industrial growth contributing to 600 new jobs. A new community center, Jury Pool, controversial but necessary utility improvements and modernization of city technology and services are all part of McDonald’s legacy.

But if government really is ministry, politics is the sacrament by which its blessings are achieved and distributed. McDonald will leave his mark there, too, and not just because he initially ran as a Democrat when the party’s ballot was open and he filed too late to challenge Shaw as a Republican.

“I thought New Haven needed a change,” said the former New Haven emergency medical technician and police officer who grew up in Hoagland. “When I took office I had a computer with nothing on it.”

Since then change has come in such forms as a permanent New Haven seat on the board of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the community’s top economic development effort; plans to upgrade Havenhurst Park and the community center; tracking devices for police cars and various downtown improvements. But McDonald also fought change when he felt it necessary, such as when he opposed a 2014 plan to reorganize county government that was supported by business leaders but overwhelmingly rejected by voters.

He has also stood up to traditional allies from time to time. Several years ago McDonald unsuccessfully backed a proposal to unite New Haven and other towns in a legal entity called “East Allen Communities” to prevent encroachment from Fort Wayne, and nine years ago his frustrations with the East Allen County Schools caused McDonald to suggest his own restructuring plan and even to suggest New Haven might start its own school system. That didn’t happen either, but McDonald said the tension resulted in a better relationship between his office and the schools, which is one reason he backed the district’s successful $87 million capital improvement plan in 2016.

“I’ve stood my ground (when necessary). Who’s going to speak for New Haven if I don’t? This job is about cultivating relationships,” said McDonald, who has now spent nearly 40 years in public service.

And although much of Monday’s speech will focus on the past, McDonald also plans to challenge his successors and community to remain committed to positive change. “I want New Haven to keep the doors open as a welcoming, more diverse community,” he said. “We can’t live in isolation.”

McDonald has loved his job, but a prolonged illness in 2017, followed by his mother’s serious medical challenges a year later, persuaded him he should become part of the changes he has witnessed and helped create. He plans to leave the pulpit in June but hopes to continue some form of ministry, perhaps by reaching out to young people who are reluctant to join organized religions. He’s also open to taking another job if the right offer comes along.

Come Jan. 1, however, somebody else will have the mayor’s job. City Council President Steve McMichael, EACS Board President Bob Nelson and former New Haven Police Chief Steve Poiry are all seeking the Republican nomination, while the Democratic primary ballot is still vacant.

Just as it was 20 years ago before an unknown named Terry McDonald came along, seized the job and kept it until his season had passed.

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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