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KEVIN LEININGER: Tuesday’s drubbing offered Republicans a lesson: Are they smart enough to listen?

Tim Smith talks to reporters Tuesday after getting 39 percent of the vote against Tom Henry -- a lower percentage than the previous three GOP candidates. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Henry was probably unbeatable this year, but he's promised not to run again in four years. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

George Santayana’s observation that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” goes double for politics, especially after the sort of drubbing Republicans suffered in Tuesday’s city election. But history improves the future only if it is interpreted accurately and honestly — which is why the GOP must avoid snap decisions even as it confronts the real challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

“Nobody was going to beat Tom Henry this year,” a supporter of Republican mayoral challenger Tim Smith told me this week after the Democrat won a fourth term by capturing a whopping 61 percent of the vote. The comment may have been flavored with sour grapes, especially after Smith’s campaign spent more than $1.1 million. But he had a point nevertheless, which is why Republicans should not overreact to results that could be considered something of an aberration.

As even Allen County GOP Chairman Steve Shine conceded, Smith and other Republicans this year were forced to run against Henry’s visible legacy, including riverfront development and numerous neighborhood and downtown improvements. The Republican-dominated City Council approved and provided funds for many of those projects, but as mayor it was Henry who got most of the credit. All of that, coupled with a strong national economy that has filtered down to the local level, left Smith with an impossible hand to play:

He had to persuade voters he could make Fort Wayne even better while insisting things really aren’t as good as they seem.

Smith, the best-funded and most energetic Republican mayoral candidate in years, was able to do neither. In fact, as a percentage of the vote his campaign’s 39 percent was the worst GOP showing since Henry took office. Matt Kelty was under indictment for campaign-finance violations when he won 40 percent of the vote against Henry in 2007. Four years later Paula Hughes ran a terrible campaign and won almost 47 percent of the vote. Mitch Harper ran an even more lackluster race in 2015 and still got 43 percent.

In conceding defeat Tuesday, Smith was undeniably right: A healthy majority of residents like Tom Henry and approve of what is happening in Fort Wayne, and saw no reason to jump off a winning horse in midstream. Beyond that, however, Tuesday’s results offered a mixed message.

In results that surprised me and many others, Democrats captured two of the three at-large City Council seats now held by Republicans. John Crawford voluntarily vacated one when he ran against Smith in the primary, and his replacement on the ballot, Nathan Hartman, was defeated Tuesday along with Republican Michael Barranda. Democrats Michelle Chambers and Glynn Hines will be at-large members come January, and with Sharon Tucker in Hines’ former 6th District may try to move council to the left after years of 7-2 Republican dominance.

But as Republicans were quick to point out this week, Tuesday’s results hardly constituted a Democratic mandate. Republicans still have a 5-4 edge on council in part because its two most-conservative members — Paul Ensley in the 1st District and Jason Arp in the 4th — were also re-elected Tuesday, as was Republican City Clerk Lana Keesling.

Council’s five remaining Republicans no longer have the veto-proof majority they would need to push through controversial legislation of the sort that eliminated most city unions a few years ago. But, on the whole, the two parties have worked well together, and the new balance of power means that is likely to continue. Third District Councilman Tom Didier, who was re-elected Tuesday and is a possible candidate for president in 2020, has already stressed the need for unity in his caucus.

Here’s the biggest reason of all Republicans don’t have to surrender their principles to be successful in four years: If Henry is true to his word, he will not seek a fifth term — which means both parties will start with a clean slate in 2023. And, at least at this point, the Republican roster of potential candidates is longer and deeper than the Democrats.’

The new Democratic diversity on council (three African Americans, two of them women) is something the GOP will ignore at its own peril. But with Henry and his coattails out of the way, no thanks to Republicans, the GOP’s first priority should be to consider how they can avoid the sort of internal schisms that hurt previous mayoral candidates and was present again this year.

Crawford’s lingering hurt feelings from the primary didn’t cost Smith the race, but it didn’t help. If Republicans want to persuade voters they’re smart enough to run a city, they’ll have to first prove they can run a mayor’s race without shooting themselves in the foot.

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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