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Hard times for the Kelty Campaign

Can a candidate indicted on nine charges still become mayor?

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, August 15, mayoral candidate Tom Henry held a press conference at a residence on South Anthony Boulevard.

The prospect of the Democratic nominee for mayor finally doing some active campaigning probably would have gotten the media out anyway. The conference was very well attended, and the occasion was to announce Henry’s call for an initiation of a citywide safe house program. But not surprisingly, no one seemed to want to ask Tom Henry about that.

The night before, Henry’s Republican opponent Matt Kelty had been indicted by a grand jury on nine counts relating to an investigation into how he reported $158,000 in loans to his campaign.

Last December, Kelty reported lending his campaign $140,000 and $8,000, with a further $8,000 and $2,000 reported in April and May, respectively. After he won the primary against Allen County Commisioner Nelson Peters, Kelty revealed that $150,000 had come from campaign advisor Fred Rost, and $10,000 had come from campaign manager Glenna Jehl and her husband Steve.

Seven of the nine counts are felonies: five counts of fraudulent campaign finance reporting; and two counts of perjury stemming from Kelty’s testimony about a Zogby public opinion poll conducted during the Republican primary — in testimony, Kelty claimed he did not know the poll had been commissioned, and that he didn’t know that Rost and local businessman Don Willis had paid for the poll. The final two charges are misdemeanors of recklessly commingling funds.

So, on Wednesday morning, the assembled media listened patiently as Henry outlined his initiative to keep children safe through designated homesto which they could turn in emergencies, and then started asking him about Matt Kelty. "We were exposed to something our city has never experienced before,” Henry responded. “Anytime candidates are put into a situation where they are vulnerable, obviously it's a very serious concern for all.”

“But that matter is between my opponent and the criminal justice system,” Henry continued. “I ask all citizens to understand how the system works. Don't speculate. Don't prejudge. Let the system work. In the meantime, I have a campaign to run. Our campaign is not going to change. This a very progressive, aggressive, positive campaign."

But asking the citizens of Fort Wayne not to speculate on what might happen to the Republican mayoral candidate would be depriving every coffee shop, restaurant, bar and office of the juiciest topic of debate since this year’s American Idol ran its course.

In fact, it wasn’t long before Henry was asked to do some speculating of his own, when he was asked how he would feel if Kelty withdrew and were replaced on the ballot. "It depends on who the other person is," he laughed before immediately turning serious and responding: "I don't know the answer to that. Certainly, whatever Mr. Kelty, the Republican Party, the judicial system decide, we'll have to contend with that."

Actually, removing Kelty’s name from the ballot at this point isn’t so simple. The deadline for Kelty to voluntarily drop out was June 15 at noon (actually, June 16 since June 15 fell on a Sunday this year). Now, according to Indiana law, the only way Kelty can get his name off the ballot is if he (a) moves outside the jurisdiction served by the office; (b) is convicted of a felony; or (c) dies.

Seven of the charges are felonies, but since the trial is not likely to happen before November, the only way Kelty can be found guilty of one of those seven felonies is if he gets a plea agreement that involves a felony conviction. But many people who follow local politics think a plea agreement is unlikely. As one person (who asked not to use their name) put it, Kelty wasn’t even supposed to get the Republican nomination; he’s too much of a fighter to just give up.

So, unless someone can convince Matt Kelty to establish a permanent residence outside Fort Wayne, he will be on the ballot when November rolls around.

But is it still possible for a mayoral candidate under indictment to win?

A political expert who has served as a public relations manager for several big city political campaigns says that she believes the campaign will have to fight an uphill battle to dispel the image of Kelty being lead out of the Allen County Courthouse in handcuffs (for more on that, see this week’s Political Animal). “I heard Steve Shine (Allen County Republican Party Chair) on the radio this morning talking about how the media had shown pictures of Kelty in handcuffs and that was ‘outrageous’. But the media is going to do that if it’s not controlled.”

Her suggestion: make sure their message is consistent across all media, and hold their press conferences during times when there are no other conflicts. “You know you’re going to make news, so go out and make the news first,” she says. “The first guy gets the best crack at it. So go out there and highlight your positive qualities.”

Still, it’ll be a tough. As a veteran of some big city campaigns, this expert has seen political races get very ugly, but “…I never had a candidate in handcuffs.”

Well, yes, the clip of Kelty being lead out of the courthouse in handcuffs is threatening to stick around for a while, especially since it’s now being used in a promo for Indiana’s News Center (something to believe in, huh?). But Steve Cebalt of Bottom Line Public Relations says that the Kelty campaign can get past the negative publicity by putting the legal stuff aside as best they can and “going full steam ahead.”

Easier said than done, but Cebalt believes Kelty has time on his side. “His option is to really try to put his situation into two buckets, the legal bucket and the campaign bucket,” says Cebalt, who worked on Linda Buskirk’s first campaign for mayor. “He’s going to continually confront questions about his legal situation. The reporters will ask not because they think they’ll get answers, but because it’s their job, and his answers will be brief each time: ‘This is not the time or place for me to discuss that. This is the time for me to discuss what I will do as mayor.’ He can say that he’s glad to have this play out in the legal system so he can be fully exonerated, but in the meantime, ‘here’s what I can do as mayor’.”

Eventually, Cebalt says, reporters will tire of asking a question that isn’t going to get answered, and they’ll start to focus on what Kelty says about policy. While it would be a mistake for Kelty’s campaign to suggest that he was a victim (“That doesn’t play to a person’s leadership strengths. He can demonstrate leadership by showing how he deals with adversity”), Cebalt says people can empathize with someone in a bad spot.

Most importantly, people have short memories, and today’s headlines might seem very far away in a couple months. “By then, this story could have taken on a completely different complexion,” Cebalt says.

Andy Downs of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, is also unconvinced that the indictments mean the Kelty campaign is over. Downs lays out a scenario that’s full of plenty of “ifs,” but not all that implausible. Say Kelty is successful in, as Cebalt put it, keeping his legal situation and his political situation in two separate buckets. And say every time Tom Henry wants to make an announcement on some public safety issue or economic development initiative, everyone says, “uh-huh. Interesting. Is Matt guilty?”

“Then Henry gets no earned media,” Downs says. “His name recognition doesn’t go up, his ideas don’t get out there, and as Tom is trying to raise money, all he hears is ‘how can you lose to guy who is under indictment?’”

So Henry doesn’t have enough money to buy enough television to deliver the message that would have been delivered by earned media and/or paid media. In the meantime, over in the Kelty camp, the candidate is able to rally his base, a very enthusiastic and loyal base that already thinks, with no help from Kelty himself, that their candidate is being persecuted.

And all the voters who fall somewhere in the middle? “A lot of voters will find the criminal proceedings distasteful and just won’t participate,” Downs says. Add to that the fact that the majority of eligible voters in Allen County don’t participate in elections anyway, and… “Before you know it, low voter turn out and a very loyal base for Matt Kelty help carry him to victory,” Downs says. “It could be a very interesting election day.”

Of course, winning the election won’t make the indictments go away, and if Kelty is found guilty of a felony he can no longer hold elected. In that instance, what happens might strike some people as the most bizarre episode of the whole saga: the Republican precinct committee members within Fort Wayne would get together and select the new mayor. Just like that. Anybody could submit their name to be one of those candidates.

Allen County Republican Chair Steve Shine has already called for a meeting of precinct committee members to take place in late August. Though it probably isn’t hard to guess what they’ll be discussing, followers of local politics think it’s doubtful there will be any significant public comment on the meeting. “That would be violating Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, which is to not speak ill of another Republican.”

Whatever happens in the next few months, Steve Cebalt thinks both candidates should take the initiative now before legal speculation derails both campgins. “I would like to think there would be a good opportunity for Mr. Kelty and Mr. Henry to focus on the issues and have a good debate,” he says. “What would be a shame is if the legal issues so overshadowed the media coverage between now and November that the voters didn’t get a chance to see both candidates at their best.”

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