KEVIN LEININGER: It will take more than ‘Gorilla Glue’ to put GOP Humpty Dumpty together again

Republican mayoral nominee Tim Smith, left, speaks to the party's post-primary hot dog luncheon Wednesday as the man he defeated, John Crawford, looks on with City Clerk Lana Keesling. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

“I’ve got some Gorilla Glue in the car,” Allen County Republican Chairman Steve Shine responded Tuesday night when I inquired about his plan for party unity in the wake of an often-contentious mayoral primary between City Councilman John Crawford and victor Tim Smith.

But it will take more than that if the GOP hopes to end its 20-year exile from the mayor’s office in 2020 in light of Crawford’s post-election comment that his previous promise to support the party’s nominee is now “under consideration.”

“Half a million dollars in negative ads was the difference. It pushed our ‘unfavorables’ up,” Crawford told me outside Republican Headquarters not long after conceding defeat to Smith, an executive at MedPro who won 56.4 percent of the vote. “We tried everything we could, but that’s why people use negative ads: They work.”

Intentional or not, Shine alluded to that very thing at Wednesday’s day-after hot dog luncheon when he told the crowd — including Smith — that Fort Wayne is a “better place because of Crawford, and we will be grateful for a lifetime.” Just last month a Smith ad used similar language to insist that “20 years of John Crawford have hurt Fort Wayne” because of higher taxes, increased spending and failed contracts. Even some Smith supporters regretted the ad, but after that the two candidates who had proclaimed mutual respect at the beginning of the campaign were increasingly antagonistic.

Can the Republican Humpty Dumpty be glued back together again before November? Several people acknowledged the need to do so at Wednesday’s luncheon, but nobody offered a strategy. Smith’s willingness and ability to mend fences with Crawford is the obvious first step, and the fact that Crawford was in attendance indicates he is at least receptive to such an overture.

Smith, meanwhile, seems astute enough to make one. He told the crowd Wednesday he intends to meet with other Republican candidates to develop a strategy to deny Democratic Mayor Tom Henry a fourth term, and if I were Smith I would extend that offer to Crawford as well.

“We have to dodge what has happened in the past,” said at-large City Councilman Tom Freistroffer, who was renominated Tuesday. “I look forward to unity,” agreed Jason Arp, R-4th, who also prevailed.

“It will happen,” Shine insisted. “The last 20 years have not been as bad as measles on a cruise ship, but close to it.”

Would it even matter? Henry would be a formidable opponent even under the best of circumstances, and lingering GOP divisions would make the challenge that much more daunting. Before the results were known Tuesday, I asked Henry whom he would rather face in November, and his answer was suitably non-committal.

“I know Crawford’s strengths and weaknesses,” Henry said. “Smith is an unknown.” But if Smith was largely anonymous before the campaign began, that is no longer the case. He received 9,065 votes compared to 6,797 for Henry, and the three Republican mayoral candidates received a total of 16,075 votes compared to 7,888 for the three Democrats.

That doesn’t guarantee Republican victory in November, obviously, but does indicate the potential size of the Republican base — if it isn’t divided by animosity or indifference.

Smith regularly touted his endorsement by Allen County Right to Life, and Crawford acknowledged the organization’s support for his opponent contributed to his defeat despite the fact that abortion is not generally a local issue. Right to Life should be proud of its influence but should consider whether it can make candidates’ views known in a way that does not contribute to the need for post-primary fence-mending.

But while the GOP was seeking unity in the mayor’s race, there was one glaring exception. Several Republicans, including elected officials, told me they actively campaigned against at-large Council candidate Eric Tippmann, who was an Allen County Council member last year and became Perry Township Trustee in January despite not living in the township. The effort paid off, as Tippmann finished fourth among five candidates.

Henry said several large downtown projects could be announced before November, theoretically strengthening his case for re-election. But because Crawford supported city incentives for many such projects, Smith provides voters with a more distinct choice.

“Tom Henry has never seen a campaign like we’re going to run,” Smith promised Tuesday, proud of the number of new and enthusiastic voters he said his campaign attracted. But 20 years of futility indicate he needs to be the glue that will bring the party together and hold it there. If possible.

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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