KEVIN LEININGER: GOP mayoral debate showcased differences, but unity may be enduring message

City Councilman John Crawford, right, speaks at Thursday's debate as fellow Republican mayoral candidate Tim Smith looks on. (Photo courtesy YLNI)
Kevin Leininger

Of all the questions WMEE radio’s Andy Beckman asked at Thursday’s debate between Republican mayoral candidates John Crawford and Tim Smith, the most perceptive, challenging and ultimately decisive one boiled down to this:

In a city generally perceived to be heading in the right direction, why should voters replace three-term incumbent Democrat Tom Henry with either of you?

Their answers were thoughtful, respectful, occasionally passionate and even humorous — if not always persuasive.

Smith — an executive at MedPro but a novice politically — spoke with the freedom of a man who does not have a record to defend. His contention was that Fort Wayne isn’t as healthy as it may appear on the surface: Downtown is indeed getting better, but neighborhoods have been neglected, public safety has eroded and the demise of such major employers as International Harvester and General Electric has cost the city thousands of good jobs. Those and other problems could be solved without the sort of tax increases Crawford has supported as a member of City Council, he said.

As a councilman first elected in 1995, Crawford’s challenge was more daunting. He not only had to defend a lengthy record — the tax increases were necessary to avoid layoffs and boost spending on neighborhood improvements, he said — but also had to remind the 200 or so people packed into the gallery of the Arts United Center that he and other council members approved many of the downtown projects often credited to the mayor.

“We’re a city on the move, relentlessly increasing our quality of life, which is what site-selectors look for,” Crawford said. (But) Parkview Field had nothing to do with Henry. I’ve knocked on 7,426 doors — who’s counting? — and they say it’s time for a change.”

Whether that sort of change comes in November remains to be seen, of course, but both men acquitted themselves well during the hour-long debate sponsored by Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana. Having covered Harvester’s departure in 1983 I know the decision to move truck production to Ohio was due mostly to the company’s financial challenges, just as I know the Henry administration was deeply involved not only in Parkview Field — the catalyst for downtown redevelopment — but in many subsequent projects as well. But you can’t blame Crawford or Smith for trying. Selective memory is part of politics.

But so is an honest exchange of competing visions between two well-informed and capable candidates, and Thursday’s debate epitomized that both candidates sought to benefit from the businessman-vs.-politician contrast. Smith praised Henry for saving millions on competitive employee-health bids but said the decision should have been made years ago, and said the city committed “contractual malpractice” by signing a trash-collection deal with Red River that did not define when the contract could be voided for lack of service.

Crawford said he would accept “10 percent of the blame” for approving the Red River contract supported by the administration and eight other council members, but said his government experience remains an asset. “There’s so much to learn as an office holder,” he said. “I know who (in city government) should stay and who should go. It took me two years to do the job (on council). I can walk into the mayor’s office without a learning curve.”

Both said pledged to head inclusive administrations and would work cooperatively to fight drug abuse and boost education, with Crawford promising to donate some of his mayoral salary for scholarships, as he has as councilman. But perhaps the key area of agreement came when they were asked why the Republican party has failed to hold the mayor’s office for so long.

“We’ve been running terrible campaigns for 20 years,” Crawford said, noting that the party has failed to unite behind its candidate following the primary — something he and Smith vowed will not happen this year. “Both of us would be better than the current mayor,” Crawford said.

“And if I don’t win I will be the first to write (Crawford) a check the night of the primary,” Smith said.

On style alone, Smith prevailed Thursday. In his open shirt he moved back and forth in front of the crowd, forcefully making his points. Crawford, in his customary suit and tie, stood at his table and spoke in his equally customary measured tones. Even Crawford saw the difference, saying “Tim is a spirited speaker. I’m more reserved, but I speak from the heart.”

Overall, however, both candidates, their party and the public won. The GOP saw two impressive candidates eager to do battle but willing to make peace when the time comes. Voters saw that, no matter who prevails in May, Henry will face a formidable challenger.

Henry remains the favorite, but November is a long way away and if Thursday was any indication, the campaigns to come will be anything but boring.

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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