NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Get ready for big spending in mayoral race

Get ready for the most expensive mayoral race in Fort Wayne’s history.

On Tuesday night, Tim Smith became the Republican nominee in the fall election by defeating City Councilman John Crawford in what was easily the most expensive primary election in the city’s history. The Democratic and Republican candidates spent a combined $600,000, with Smith spending $346,450, more than half the total. Crawford spent $191,300.

For some perspective on primary spending, consider that campaign spending in the 2015 mayoral primaries totaled a little more than $80,000, just one-seventh of what was spent this year.

Incumbent Mayor Tom Henry, who did not face strong competition in the Democratic Primary, spent $58,494 on his primary campaign. Henry cruised to victory in the Democratic primary, garnering 89 percent of the votes against challengers Gina Burgess and Tommy Schrader. Henry had more than $570,000 in campaign funding on hand as of the most recent filing deadline of April 12. Expect him to spend that and more in his bid to win a fourth consecutive term as mayor.

“Tom Henry has never seen a campaign like we are about to launch for the general election,” Smith told supporters celebrating his primary win Tuesday night. “Tom Henry has never run against a person with my background and my energy, but more importantly with the energy of this room and the collective skills and talents of everybody in this room.”

But as much as Henry has never faced a candidate like Smith, similarly, Smith has never faced a candidate like Henry. Smith, a vice president with MedPro, a health insurance company, is a political newcomer. On Tuesday night, Henry noted that Smith “has never served on a (city) board or commission or even asked to serve.”

By contrast, Henry is a seasoned veteran, with a healthy campaign war chest, who spent $1.3 million in his bid to defeat Republican Paula Hughes in the 2011 mayor’s race. The candidates spent more than $2.2 million on that campaign, the record for a mayor’s race that likely will be broken this year.

Spending on city election races has been a cause for concern, so much so that it lead to the passage of the so-called pay to play ordinance in 2017. The ordinance restricts businesses from bidding on city contracts if any person with more than a 10 percent ownership share in the entity gives more than $2,000 to the political campaign of a city official who has oversight or influence on awarding contracts. The ordinance was written by Crawford and Councilman Jason Arp.

The ordinance, advocated by the Republican council despite a veto by Henry, faces a legal challenge from Witwer Construction Inc. Witwer owners Kyle and Kimberly Witwer said the ordinance unfairly restricts their right to pursue business with the city and their right to support candidates of their choosing.

The lawsuit was only filed recently and there likely won’t be resolution prior to the November election. But it is disappointing that the city council feels such an ordinance is necessary. Individuals should be free to contribute to campaigns and seek city contracts as they see fit. Besides, campaign donations and city contracts are open to public scrutiny; thus, voters can factor that informa¬tion into their choices.

Don’t expect the ordinance to keep the 2019 campaign from surpassing the $2.2 million mark. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, increased campaign spending can only help voters decide between two such distinctly different candidates. On one side is a well-funded insider with 12 years on the job who is running on his track record. On the other is a well-funded outsider who has never run for office before but who promises to shake things up.

It should prove to be an interesting six months. Let the campaigns begin.

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