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KEVIN LEININGER: Divisive social issues didn’t cost Republicans the mayoral election, but they didn’t help, either

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

Back on March 30, two months before Tim Smith easily defeated City Councilman John Crawford in a bitter Republican mayoral primary, my column about the potential divisiveness of Allen County Right-to-Life endorsements in local races concluded with these questions: “Has it already affected one general election? Could it happen again?”

In a newspaper column that appeared days after pro-life favorite Smith won just 39 percent of the vote against three-term Democrat Tom Henry, Crawford answered with a cautionary but emphatic “Yes.”

“There are slightly more Republicans than Democrats in the city . . . (with the party) winning almost every county race and City Council majority for 28 years,” Crawford wrote in the Journal Gazette Nov. 10. “Why do we lose the mayoral race?”

Crawford, a physician, offered both a diagnosis and a cure: “Divisive litmus tests have developed over issues that are irrelevant to local offices. This is a race for mayor, not ayatollah.”

In truth, the piece was long on revisionist history. Crawford may or may not have won more votes against Henry than Smith did, but Ronald Reagan may not have prevailed on May 5. What’s more, as Crawford himself pointed out, much of the bitterness created by the primary stemmed not the pro-life endorsement — which was not an issue in the Smith-Henry campaign — but from Smith’s contention that “20 years of John Crawford hurt Fort Wayne.” And more than a few people have noted the irony of exacerbating divisions in an attempt to eradicate divisiveness.

But self-serving or not, Crawford’s central point was valid: Anything that unnecessarily creates hard feelings in May is likely to cost votes in November. That’s true for both parties, whose candidates regularly move to the right or left in May then moderate their message hoping to broaden support in November. But for Fort Wayne Republicans, who despite all their success have not won a mayor’s race in 24 years, the advice is especially apt.

At the local level, abortion is not quite irrelevant, as Crawford claimed, but neither is it part of a mayor’s usual job description. It is true, as I wrote in March, that Fort Wayne is without a legal abortion clinic largely because of the work of Nelson Peters, who with fellow County Commissioners in 2009 passed a law requiring “itinerant doctors” such as the late Dr. Ulrich Klopfer to have a local back-up physician. Klopfer was forced to close his clinic at 2210 Inwood Drive in 2013 when his back-up resigned. It is also true that a mayor can influence zoning decisions that could affect life issues, nut Crawford has not taken a public position on abortion one way or the other, and even Smith has admitted he could not have prevented a clinic from operating if it did so legally.

In 2007, despite checking all the right boxes on his right-to-life questionnaire, Peters had been passed over for the Republican mayoral endorsement by the Right-to-Life PAC in favor of Matt Kelty, who by that November was under indictment on campaign-finance charges and won just 40 percent of the vote against Henry. And that’s still better than Smith did this month.

I’m not suggesting Allen County Right to Life stop asking local candidates about abortion. If candidates want to fill out a questionnaire, and if voters want to consider the answers, all well and good. The problem comes with an actual endorsement, which as in Peters’ case often rewards one pro-life candidate at the expense of others. In Peters’ case, Right to Life endorsed Kelty because he had supposedly been more involved in the movement, while officials explained this year endorsements are also designed to support candidates who may aspire to higher office.

This year, however, when Republican City Council candidate Taylor Vanover checked all the right boxes on the Right to Life questionnaire but was not endorsed, some suspected another reason: Vanover is openly gay. Crawford was very wrong to suggest that people who embrace a faithful biblical view of homosexual behavior are inherently bigoted, but he was right to point out that if the organization is concerned only about protecting life, as its name suggests, its endorsements should not be influenced by extraneous issues.

As a voter, I consider life issues of chief importance at the state and federal levels, where abortion law and policies are really decided. But even people doing God’s work, as defenders of life surely are, should not be immune to self-examination. Nor should those who resort to overly personal or misleading negative campaigns. The GOP’s long record of mayoral futility, and the fact that other races this year were unexpectedly close or lost, should spur introspection among Republicans across the political spectrum — unless they are content to win only primaries.

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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