UPDATED: John Crawford says negative campaigning will divide the GOP; opponent Tim Smith responds

Republican mayoral candidates Tim Smith, left, and John Crawford promised to support the other against Mayor Tom Henry in November no matter which of them wins the primary in May. But is that pledge of unity fading? (Photo courtesy YLNI)

When Republican mayoral candidates John Crawford and Tim Smith concluded their March 8 debate at the Arts United Center, each pledged to support the winner of the May 7 primary in the hope a united party could end the Democrats’ 20-year stranglehold on the city’s top office.

“Both of us would be better than the current mayor,” said Crawford, an at-large City Council member.

“And if I don’t win I will be the first to write (Crawford) a check,” said Smith, an executive at MedPro.

But now, less than a month before the election that will decide who will challenge three-term incumbent Tom Henry in November, visible cracks are developing in that promised GOP unity — if it ever existed at all.

Crawford, who is serving as council president this year, held a press conference Tuesday morning to “respond to negative and misleading campaign advertising aimed against him and other Republican City Council members” and told The News-Sentinel he’s “reserving judgment” about whether to rescind his pledge to support Smith if necessary pending what happens on the campaign trail between now and Election Day.

Crawford said he takes exception to Smith ads insisting “20 years of John Crawford have hurt Fort Wayne” because of higher taxes, increased spending and failed contracts. Crawford has supported tax increases, the city budget has increased during his tenure and he did vote for what Smith calls the “terrible” contract hiring Red River as the city’s waste hauler, but Crawford has said the tax increases were necessary and the decisions were not his alone, in any case.

“I have dedicated 20 years of my life and likely 10,000 hours of public service to make our community better. To summarize my whole career of public service as harmful to the city and citizens I’ve served is insulting, over the line, and unacceptable,” he stated. “In over 20 years of political campaigns, I have never attacked another Republican I was running against. It is extremely disappointing that my opponent is taking the low road of negative campaigning.”

Crawford pointed out that Smith’s pessimistic view of Fort Wayne does not match the mood of residents. Fort Wayne is doing well overall, Crawford said, and that is partially due to the actions of the Republican City Council majority.

“We eliminated collective bargaining for six city unions, which saves at least $3 million annually to the city budget. In 2007, I passed a $3 million property tax cut to the city budget, which cumulatively has reduced city property taxes by over $30 million. My opponent follows the classic negative campaigning playbook of the challenger with no record or experience in government. No specifics, just empty rhetoric, and criticizing others who have made the tough choices to keep the city doing well.”

Smith, however, defended his campaign, which he said “is committed to offering voters a clear, informed choice, and the choice could not be clearer. Had I been in Councilman Crawford’s seat the past few years I would’ve voted against the same tax and utility rate hikes because I believe the city’s budget is managed inefficiently.”

Smith said he is “fully committed to running a clean, issues-based campaign. Councilman Crawford doesn’t welcome the full, public exposure of his tax and regulatory rate hikes. Further, in spite of Councilman Crawford’s now publicly stated reluctance to support my candidacy in November (should I win the primary), I remain fully committed to supporting his. I will say again that if I lose the primary election I will write John his first check towards his campaign in November.”

Smith said that in addition to the three recent tax increases for which Crawford not only voted but openly and advocated (COIT in 2013, Wheel Tax in 2016, and LIT in 2017), Crawford also voted for numerous utility rate hikes. City officials have said many of those hikes were necessary to comply with federal mandates.

As as Crawford told The News-Sentinel last week, he is also upset by calls being made to voters by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which he said imply he would increase taxes for downtown development or other purposes. Crawford said he has received more than three dozen calls to his cell phone as a result of AFP lobbying.

But Smith said his campaign has nothing to do with the calls by the group founded and largely funded by David and Charles Koch, and the group’s state director agreed.

Justin Stevens said callers are not involved in the mayor’s race at all but are contacting most City Council members — including Crawford — to oppose “corporate welfare” for such things as downtown development. If voters agree, they can be forwarded to council members at the number on the city’s web site.

“We want to raise awareness of corporate welfare in Fort Wayne, It’s a huge problem. Government shouldn’t pick winners and losers,” Stevens said, adding the neighborhoods have been shortchanged and that AFP has already contacted 10,000 prospective voters and will make more calls before May 7. Voters are asked such questions as whether they support tax increases for development, but one increase in the local income tax was to pay for neighborhood infrastructure as well as riverfront development. Other increases helped pay for additional police and fire personnel and street improvements — something Crawford has said helped avoid lay offs.

Councilmen Jason Arp, R-4th, and Paul Ensley, R-1st, who generally vote against business incentives, are not the target of calls, Stevens said.

Smith has said he would have avoided tax increased by attracting more jobs and saving money by making better choices for such services as trash collection and employee health care. A spokesman said the campaign stands behinds its ads.

“(Republicans) have been running terrible campaigns for 20 years,” Crawford said following the debate, alluding to post-primary rifts he insists benefited only Henry. If nothing changes, he said, it could happen again. “I will continue to focus on our campaign’s positive ideas about fighting the opioid crisis and crime, keeping city spending under control, economic development, and maintaining our neighborhood infrastructure. But we will respond to correct misleading attacks of our opponent.”