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Democratic mayoral candidate Tom Henry wants people to know that he’s passionate about his city… and equally passionate about being mayor.
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Mayoral hopeful Tom Henry says that early in his campaign, his staff considered creating a contest based on the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”challenges you to hook up any actor or actress with actor Kevin Bacon in six steps — actor X was with actor Y in this movie, who was with that actor in this other movie, who starred with so-and-so in movie Z, who was with Kevin Bacon in whatever.
In the Tom Henry version, you would need to “know” the Democratic Party’s candidate through a similar chain of friends and acquaintances. “But we were going to make you do it three steps,” Henry laughs.
The game never got off the ground, but it wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as you might think. Tom Henry comes from a huge family; 10 brothers and six sisters (and no, there’s no step-kids in that crowd), most of whom still call the Fort Wayne area their home. Many of them are business owners and entrepreneurs, and many are active in the community.
Add to that Henry’s own career in business (he is President and CEO of the Gallant Group, an insurance agency), his volunteer efforts, the fact that his wife Cindy owns the Green Frog restaurant/bar on Spring Street, and his 20 year stint representing the third district on Fort Wayne’s City Council, and there’s a darn good chance you know someone who knows someone who knows Tom Henry.
And anyone who knows Tom Henry will tell you he has a reputation for hard work, responsibility, and a strong belief in the power of a community. Growing up in a family of nearly 20 people, he says, you learn how to make the most of a budget and how to get along with people. “(My father) taught us how to make a dollar stretch, how to lend a hand when necessary,” Henry explains. “So I think a lot of the basic traits that I learned growing up are applicable in this work.”
Talking to Henry, the idea of service to your community, of lending a hand and helping those in need, comes up time after time. After he earned his MBA from the University of Saint Francis, he went to work for Parkview Hospital. He also volunteered for the American Red Cross, just in time to get hit by the flood of ’82. “My area was the Nebraska neighborhood area, which was hit very hard,” Henry says. “High Street was completely flooded. We had to evacuate all those people and put them over in Precious Blood School, in the gymnasium.”
But while Henry says the Red Cross was working hard at the local, state, and national level, the city didn’t seem to be doing enough for the flood victims. “It’s not that the city wasn’t doing anything — we were flooded all over the place — but in my little corner of the world I thought they should be doing more,” he recalls. “I thought ‘we could do better.’ So I said ‘I’m going to run for city council. I’m going to get in a position where I can make sure people are not in a situation like this again.’”
His 20 years on city council gave him a deep respect and admiration for the people he met working to help their neighborhoods. “You know, I got paid to be on city council,” he says. “It wasn’t a lot, but it was a job. But neighborhood association presidents and the officers of those associations, and people involved in the citizen’s crime watch… Those were all volunteers. They spent dozens and dozens of hours trying to make their neighborhoods someplace comfortable to live. I was just overwhelmed. When I called a meeting, by God they showed up. They were called upon time and time again to step up, and they did.”
“The more you get to know Fort Wayne, the more passionate you become about making this city continue,” he continues. “If I get the chance to serve as mayor, I want my administration to be able to leave a legacy that we made Fort Wayne a nice place to live.”
“I want people to know that I’m really passionate about our city,” Henry adds. “I don’t know how well I sell that, but it’s a neat, neat town.”
The phrase “I don’t know how well I sell that” is a telling one. In any other mayoral election year in Fort Wayne, an experienced businessman and politician with deep, deep ties to the community and a reputation for hard work would easily be considered a viable candidate.
But this isn’t a usual election year. The Allen County Democratic Party didn’t even have a candidate for mayor until late February, when Henry stepped forward just days before the filing deadline. While Democrats put their full public support behind their candidate, the perception was that Henry, who had lost his city council seat to Tom Didier in 2003, had been drafted by the party.
Also, the assumption at the time was not only that Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters was going to be the Republican candidate for mayor, but that Peters was going to be Fort Wayne’s next mayor. That assumption lasted right up until the evening of the primaries on May 8, when Matt Kelty emerged as the Republican nominee.
Suddenly, the 2007 mayoral race looked much different. Kelty, the “outsider,” is seen by his loyal supporters as a reformer, someone who will be able to bring a change to a city government that, as they see it, stopped listening to its citizens when they decided to push forward controversial projects like Harrison Square (just to name one issue) in the face of public opposition. Henry, on the other hand, is seen as the establishment guy, with connections to city government and business that go back years.
It didn’t help Henry that his campaign seemed to take a long time getting off the ground, with press conferences and announcements just trickling out over the last few months. Whatever your feelings about Matt Kelty, one thing is clear: this is a man who wants to be mayor.
For the record, Henry says he wasn’t drafted. When Graham Richard decided not to run for a third term, many Democrats thought fourth district City Councilman Tom Hayhurst would step up in the wake of his impressive although failed bid to unseat U.S. Senator Mark Souder. Hayhurst actually bested Souder among voters within city limits, even in the Republican-heavy Aboite area. However, as far as running for mayor, or even seeking re-election in the fourth district, Hayhurst said no. Henry had planned to run for an At-Large seat on city council, and after mulling it over and discussing the idea with his family, he decided to become the Democrat’s candidate for mayor.
Henry is very aware of the current mood in the city, and of the way his opponent’s supporters view their candidate. But Fort Wayne is at a critical point in its history, and Henry thinks a candidate with experience in local government is the best option for the city. There are some things missing from Kelty’s side of the ledger that Henry thinks he can bring to the table. “It took me years to really understand the process of government,” he says of his time on city council. “I made connections, creative relationships. Those take time to cultivate. Matt Kelty I’m sure is a fine man, but he has no political experience at all. Now he wants to run a city of a quarter million people, with an annual budget of $180 million budget, 1500 – 1700 employees? I’m not sure we can afford the learning curve that’s going to be involved in him getting that job.”
When Henry starts talking about Fort Wayne and his plans should he become mayor, there’s a gleam in his eyes that leaves no doubt about his excitement for the job. Still, the question for Henry is how a seemingly reserved candidate, one familiar with the workings of city government, can translate that genuine enthusiasm for the mayor’s job in the face of his opponent, a great campaigner who wears his enthusiasm on his sleeve. Henry says his plan is to be specific as possible. “You meet Matt Kelty for the first time, that’s exactly what you get: a young, highly motivated, very energetic person. The second time you meet him, you start asking him specifics. He doesn’t have any. He’s all generalities. So, from the very beginning, I’m trying to be specific.”
“I think where I’ll gain on him is when we’ll debate, because he’s going to have a very hard time, I think, being detail oriented. He’s going to have to bring it down to Earth someday.”
To which someone who has waited all summer for the Henry campaign to kick into gear might reply: “Great. Where are your specifics?” The press releases that have trickled from the Henry campaign over the last few months haven’t really captured the public’s imagination. One, addressing Henry’s support for the development of the Omnisource property, seemed to come a few months too late.
Henry is the first to admit that some of his ideas definitely fall into the “not flashy but solid” category. He plans to call for a citywide educator/employer summit, to get all the schools of higher education and secondary education in the same room with a good cross section of the city’s current and potential employer base. “Our employers now, and our potential employers, are saying they don’t have a skilled workforce in their particular areas of expertise. I want to get them all together and say ‘okay educators, these are the jobs we currently have in our community, these are the potential jobs, now how can we create skills to meet those?’”
He plans to create a not-for-profit governmental group purchasing organization. For 15 years, Henry ran a multi-hospital system, with 49 hospitals all cooperating for purchasing because they all bought the same thing. Since cities and counties all buy the same thing, he believes a similar regional group purchasing organization could work for all the cities and counties in Northeast Indiana, and save them a lot of money.
He’d also like to see a social service summit, something the city hasn’t seen since the Ivan Lebamoff days. Henry says he’d like to see what can be done to improve effectiveness and efficiency, eliminate any duplication of services, and investigate where they’re falling short in serving the community.
“No, they’re not big, sexy items,” he laughs. “The media in general has said to me ‘Tom, you need to get more aggressive.’ But look, running a city, a lot of it is nose to the grindstone work. Not everything is going to be a big splash. Something like Harrison Square, yes, but it took several years for that to happen. Now, are all my ideas big, splashy stuff? No, but these are things that need to be done.”
Henry wants to make inclusiveness and diversity a focus of his administration should he become mayor, making it a point to meet with as many segments of Fort Wayne’s minority community as possible. “I’ve met with the Hispanic community, met with the Asian community, met with the black community,” he says. “A lot of them feel very alienated. We need to get past that. We need to remember that this whole country was founded on the principles of freedom, of working and living together. I’m going to try very very hard to offer opportunities for more inclusiveness.”
“We’ve made attempts at diversity workshops and seminars, and that’s fine,” he continues. “But I think a lot of it has been hit-and-miss. I think we really need to create a position in the administration dealing with diversity, and actually working with the various cultures in our community to help them.”
As the post-Labor Day campaign season kicks in to high gear, Henry is aware that he has a tough fight ahead of him. So far, Henry has taken the high ground with regard to Matt Kelty’s legal troubles, opting not to make any public statements. He realizes that what happened to Nelson Peters in the primaries could happen to him in the election. If voters think that Kelty’s legal problems mean Henry will automatically win, Henry’s supporters might not go to the polls, then Henry loses. “Voter overconfidence,” he says. “That worries my campaign a lot.”
Henry also loses if he can’t get voters excited about his campaign, and he hopes that people will be able to see his genuine passion for the city and its people as the race to the November election begins in earnest. But Henry knows change can’t happen overnight. He points to Dick Lugar’s term as mayor of Indianapolis, when the decision was made to revitalize that city’s downtown. It took decades, but slowly, step-by-step, things changed. “If we know it’s the right thing to do for our community, then we just do it,” he says. “We have so much potential, and so much opportunity. We’re the second largest city in the state. A quarter of a million people. We can involve this whole community. Get a large enough group of people dedicated to a common cause, and it can get done.”