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Sam Talarico: the exit interview

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


This year, Sam Talarico Jr., a two-term At-Large Fort Wayne City Council member, got an e-mail from someone who told him they were looking forward to reading his obituary soon. Talarico didn’t know how seriously to take the e-mail, but just to be safe, he forwarded it to the Chief of Police. “I would not call that a death threat, but it was a little alarming,” he says. “I forwarded it on because I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know if they were wishing me some natural death, or…”

That particular e-mail did not play a part in the Republican’s decision to not seek a third term on city council. He had made the decision long before that, and for much different reasons. “I have three young kids that are involved in all sorts of things,” he says. “It’s pretty simple: I don’t want to be sitting at the council table when I should be at my son’s football game. It’s not fair to the voters to miss a meeting so I can be on a Little League diamond, but that’s where I want to be. Or I want to be at my daughter’s soccer game. Our kids are already growing up too fast.”

Nevertheless, Talarico says the e-mail he received, whether it was serious or not, is indicative of a hostile political climate that made the decision not to run an easy one. “I thank God I decided not to run when I did, because I would not want to be running in this climate,” he says. “This has been the roughest year ever in politics. You can talk to my colleagues on council. It’s the angriest people have ever been. It’s not just city council. People are angry at George Bush, people are angry at Mitch Daniels, people are angry at the school board…”

Just like Talarico says, Fort Wayne city council may not be the only governmental body out of favor with its constituents, but it is facing a healthy share of public wrath. And as someone who has broken with his party several times and been a leading champion of the controversial Harrison Square project, Talarico has perhaps seen a little more of this wrath than most.

Yet since his decision not to run, Talarico has seemed to enter local political debates with a little less caution than he would have, say, a year ago, notably on a few of the local political blogs. Not that Talarico is exactly ranting and raving in these forums, but he’s been pretty direct in his defense of Harrison Square, a frequent target of attacks from many local political junkies, as well as candid about other election year issues. Responding last month to a post on the Libertarian Party’s blog about possible results for the upcoming elections, Talarico wrote, “in 100% honesty, I would have to say that the odds of the libertarians taking 4 seats on city council would have to be just slightly lower than the odds of me being crowned Mr. Universe 2007.” And later: “all of this talk about massive ‘throw the bums out’ type of result just is not going to materialize.”
“I’ll be honest, if you were running for office right now, you would not want to be posting on blogs,” he laughs. “Nothing good can come of that. I think I’m the only politician stupid enough or brave enough or whatever you want to call it to post comments on those.”

Talarico Jr. is the son of “Silent” Sam Talarico, a city council Democrat known for his calm demeanor and concise way with words. Talarico Jr. says that he also considered himself a Democrat when he went to Butler University after high school, but it only took a few meetings of the “Young Democrats” organization at Butler to make him switch sides. One of the main issues where he differed with other Democrats was that of abortion and abortion rights. “Growing up in a Catholic family, I’ve always been pro-life, and it got to the point during that time where the Democratic party would basically ridicule you for that sort of position,” he explains. “If you look at the climate now, a pro-choice person certainly can find a home in the Republican party, but a pro-life person has a hard time finding a home in the Democratic party. That wasn’t the only issue, but it was one of the main ones.”

“My dad would have always been considered a pretty conservative democrat, and I’m a pretty moderate republican, so I’m not that far removed from my father,” he adds. “At the end of the day, I’ve always been someone who puts community before my political affiliation. I don’t wear it on my sleeve as something that identifies me.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone that has followed Talarico’s stint on city council. He’s ruffled a few feathers among his party’s leadership, the first time during the debate over the future of the Memorial Coliseum early in his first term. Talarico was part of the camp that suggested looking into moving the coliseum downtown. Some Republican party veterans at the county level insisted that the current facility should be renovated. Talarico got behind a new slate of Republican candidates for county council in 2002. “To take on fellow Republicans in a primary doesn’t make you the most popular person at the annual bean dinner,” he says. “But I felt so strongly about it, I was willing to get involved and recruit some good candidates.”

The candidates Talarico supported for county council were successful; the plan to relocate Memorial Coliseum downtown wasn’t. But Talarico believes that debate not only brought about a much-needed change in county council, but refocused attention on downtown and laid the groundwork for Harrison Square. “What we’re seeing today with Harrison Square is actually a continuation of what started back then,” he says. “A lot of the same business leaders have been motivated about this.”

Talarico’s support of Harrison Square is unqualified. He sees the project as a “once in a generation” opportunity that is essential for the future of the city. “We’ve had $2 million in private investment in downtown in the last 15 – 20 years. How can we turn our back on $65 – 70 million in private investment that’s going to result from this project?”

“As much as the polls consistently come in with numbers against (Harrison Square), I’m regularly confronted by people who are for it,” he adds. “I think it’s a generational thing. The younger generations tend to be for it, the older seem to be against it.”

That said, he thinks the administration has done a terrible job of getting the relevant facts out to the public in a clear form. This has put Harrison Square supporters in constant defensive mode, battling misinformation. Talarico says there are two major issues that critics don’t seem to understand about Harrison Square. “The first: people consistently do not believe there are no general property tax dollars being used. They must believe that we’re lying, or the administration is not being upfront with them.”

The second? Talarcio says he constantly hears people saying “this is a great project; let’s do it without the baseball stadium.” The fact is, Harrison Square just doesn’t happen without the baseball stadium. The owners of the baseball stadium brought the development to Fort Wayne. Without the baseball stadium, we don’t get the hotel and we don’t get the condos. “People consistently say ‘why don’t we have a water park?’” Talarico says. “Well, show me the water park developer that has come to us and said ‘hey, we’ll make it happen!’ It hasn’t happened. People feel like they can play Legos with it and say ‘we want this part and not this part,’ but it’s all one package, and it’s all resulting from Hardball capitol who owns our baseball stadium.”

Despite the controversy, Talarico believes Harrison Square will move forward no matter who becomes mayor. “(Republican mayoral candidate Matt Kelty) has tried to use this issue as a wedge issue,” Talarico says. “He’s basically an opportunist looking for whatever will make the voters angry, and this is the issue he picked. But if he gets in there, it would be a benefit for him to have it succeed.”

Talarico is one of a number of Republicans supporting Kelty’s opponent, Democrat Tom Henry, for mayor. Henry and Talarico frequently butted heads when they served on city council together, but Talarico says there is no doubt in his mind that Henry is the better candidate. “We’re talking about the second largest city in Indiana, and who ever we elect is going to be the CEO of that city,” he says. “Given the way we’ve seen this campaign play out, I can’t support anyone but Tom Henry.”

“I’m not going to support electing someone for mayor who I feel does not have what it takes to be mayor just because he has an ‘R’ after his name,” Talarico continues. “People who have that mindset, that they’re going to vote for an ‘R’ even is he’s a lesser candidate… I just don’t understand that. If we lined up all the issues for Tom Henry and Matt Kelty, I’d probably agree more with Matt Kelty, but at the end of the day, there’re other things that go into being mayor. You have to be a leader, you’ve got to have good judgment, you have to have integrity, you have to be honest with the people, and those are all check marks I put in Tom Henry’s column.”

Talarico doubts he’ll return to local politics anytime in the near future, saying he’d rather focus on his family and practicing law. Politics is exciting, but… “The more you get involved in politics, the more it takes away from other things. As your kids get older and you’re more and more involved in things with them, you want to make sure those are priorities.”

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