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The Kelty faithful
As the October trial date approaches, loyal supporters of the former mayoral candidate wage a different kind of campaign.
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Back in February 2007, with the mayoral primary still over two months away, aspiring Republican candidate Matt Kelty had this to say in an interview with the Fort Wayne Reader (issue #72):
“The fact is, my kids are at an age where I could pretty much just enjoy coaching football and Little League and watching them grow. Our architectural practice has turned a corner; we’re going to have a great 2007. Why would I want to mess around in politics right now? Well, look, I have an obligation. I’ve been given certain talents and certain convictions and certain passions, this is for me to step up and say look, these are my ideas, this is what I believe in for the city of Fort Wayne, this is my hope in its future.”
Even if you didn’t vote for the guy, you’d have to be made of stone to read all that enthusiasm and not wince in sympathy, just a little, considering what came next.
After defeating favorite Nelson Peters for the Republican nomination for mayor in the primary, Kelty was indicted by a grand jury on August 14, 2007 on nine counts related to how he reported $158,000 in loans to his campaign. The trial is set to begin in October.
Kelty still lives in Fort Wayne. After an auction of his house this past summer failed to meet the price they were looking for, the Keltys moved back in to their home. Kelty was hesitant to participate in an interview, and instead referred me to his lawyer, former prosecuting attorney Bob Gevers II.
But during our brief conversation he seemed as upbeat as ever. He’s still working, he’s coaching football, his kids are going to school in the area. “Tammy and I and the children are blessed by a large circle of very supportive friends, folks who have a lot of confidence in the situation,” he says. “It’s been a long, difficult year, but I’m grateful for all the support from a lot of very special people here in Fort Wayne.”
Indeed, if politics is the providence of fair-weather friends, then Matt Kelty can count himself lucky in at least that aspect of his public life.
From the very beginning, Kelty positioned himself as a political outsider who drew his support from the families and small business owners that he believes make up the backbone of the community. “We all know Matt was not the chosen one of the Republican party, and if you looked at his opponent on paper, there’s no way Matt should have won in that primary race,” says Dave Ferro, a volunteer on Kelty’s mayoral campaign who now does work for Kelty’s legal defense fund team. “But you got to give Matt credit, and his campaign. We got out and got the grass roots vote and got him in front of people, and that’s what really swung the primary election for Matt.”
And those people who helped him defeat Nelson Peters in the primary and vigorously supported and defended him through the campaign are still standing by their man, organizing fund raisers and soliciting donations for his legal defense, offering advice and counsel, and trying to use whatever resources they have to help their candidate. A rummage sale this past summer raised over $10,000 for Kelty’s legal defense, and brought out a lot of kindred spirits. “One lady said ‘I’m writing you a check for $500. I’m mad as hell, this is a bunch of bullshit’,” Dave Ferro recalls. “That was a very good fundraiser for us.”
Still, for Kelty’s loyal supporters, rummage sales and legal defense funds must seem a bitter end for what started out as a promising campaign with a lot going for it. Kelty is an excellent public speaker and tireless campaigner. During the race, his enthusiasm seemed inexhaustible. More importantly, his campaign seemed to tap into a mood in the city, to galvanize a voter base that was angry about property taxes, eminent domain issues, Harrison Square, and the smoking ban, to name a few.
“Matt Kelty got a raw deal,” says John Popp, C.E.O. of Aunt Millie’s Bakery and a friend and supporter of Kelty. “What else do you want to know?”
“Let’s put it this way,” Popp adds. “A lot of people who should have been siding with him, there was a whole group that became Republicans for Henry. You don’t do that. That’s not loyal. That’s a violation of the eleventh commandment Ronald Reagan talked about — you don’t become disloyal to the party candidate.”
John Popp counts himself a close friend of Matt Kelty and continues to raise money for his legal defense. He believes the charges of financial misdealings against Kelty are ridiculous. He says many candidates put their own personal money into their campaign fund. “They don’t say ‘this is from my mother or this is from my friend or this is from the bank.’ It happens all the time. But the press made it look like he did something wrong. He never did anything wrong.”
In December of 2006, Kelty reported lending his campaign $140,000 and $8,000, with a further $8,000 reported in April and $2,000 reported in May. After the primary, 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. (Fred Rost still keeps in touch with Kelty but has nothing to do with his legal defense. He declined to be interviewed, suggesting I talk to “someone who wasn’t going to get called to testify.”)
Popp points out that Kelty’s first attorney, Jim Bopp, is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on financial law (Bopp was an advisor for Mitt Romney). “He tried to make the point that there was nothing Matt did that was improper,” Popp says. “If Jim Bopp says that, that’s the way it is.”
Why didn’t Matt Kelty just explain that the money was given to him by Fred Rost and the Jehls? Most people understand politicians usually have financial backers. “Well, I don’t know,” Popp says. “I know when I ask people for money, a lot of them say ‘gee, I don’t particularly want to have my name involved. I’m in business and I don’t want to the Democrats to know I’m giving money to a Republican.’ A lot of people just don’t want that publicity.”
Besides, according to Popp, once the media got a hold of the story, they wouldn’t give Kelty a break. “Both of the major papers, they don’t want someone who is that conservative, who believes in limited government and pro-family issues,” Popp says. “(Kelty) said ‘we used to be considered the city of churches and now we’re considered the city of strip clubs.’ I don’t think the more liberal newspapers wanted someone that strong, that conservative, that pro-family with that kind of integrity.”
It’s not just the press that draws Popp’s ire. He points out that the election board found 2-1 in favor of Kelty (voting along party lines), but that the prosecuting attorney took only 24 hours to appoint a special prosecutor (a Democrat) to keep the case open. Popp wonders why the prosecutor didn’t take some time to review the case. There was also, he says, no need to bring this all up during the election. “So it looks like it was all done to make Matt Kelty look like he was a criminal,” Popp says. “A lot of people don’t know the difference between ‘indictment’ and ‘conviction.’ They both have ‘i-c-t’ in them, don’t they?”
Dave Ferro is a businessman who had never been involved in politics before volunteering for the Kelty campaign. He knew Kelty for several years before Kelty ran against Win Moses in 2002, and when he heard Kelty was running for mayor, he offered his services. “The first thing about Matt is that Matt speaks from the heart,” says Ferro. “You can tell that. There are a lot of people who say they speak from the heart, but you don’t feel or hear the sincerity in their voice.”
Early on, Ferro and his wife hosted a coffee for Kelty. It was the first time his wife Terry had met the candidate. “From the moment she meant him, she was 200% behind him,” recalls Ferro. “She said ‘I’ve never seen an individual that I could trust so quickly in my life. He just has that sincerity, you know that it’s real’.”
But Ferro says that working on Kelty’s campaign opened his eyes to the world of politics. He knew politics on the national level was cut throat; he didn’t realize that that killer mentality trickled all the way down from Washington D.C. to the local level.
“I think he’s been wrongly accused,” Ferro states. “People in this town need to connect the dots. And by that I mean, look, Jim Bopp, the most renowned attorney in the country on election law, comes here, tells everybody that according to the way the law is written in Indiana, he’s (Kelty) done absolutely nothing wrong. Now, the board that’s appointed to handle these things, the Allen County Election Board, found no wrongdoing. Don’t people find it strange that the one dissenter was Andy Downs, who the very next day resigned from the board of common cause, and then the very next day a four sentence e-mail was sent to the prosecutor and then right after that a special prosecutor? Doesn’t anybody find that strange? Odd?”
“If you feel this man is guilty, there’s probably nothing I can say that would change your mind,” adds Ferro. “But here’s the thing: if people know Matt Kelty, they will know that what has transpired is a travesty.”
Ferro cites the “birthday cake” incident as an example of how people seemed to have it in for Kelty. During the campaign, Kelty’s supporters made a birthday cake for their candidate with a sort of Wizard of Oz theme, showing a yellow brick road leading to the mayor’s office and an outhouse labeled G.O.P. headquarters crushing someone laying on top of a baseball diamond. Two word bubbles came from inside the outhouse, one saying “Nelson, we’re not on the bypass anymore” and another with “Shine on, Shine on harvest moon.”
The incident caused a flap once a picture of the cake appeared in the media and local blogs, and Kelty insisted he had never seen the cake before it was carved up and served. “If you know Matt Kelty, when he comes into a room, the very, very last thing he does is go over and look at the food,” Ferro says. “That doesn’t interest him one bit. The fact is that he was in that room and never saw that damn cake… even though at the end they had a picture of him holding up the house, that cake had already been sliced up and diced up a thousand times. I’ll guarantee you he never saw it. That’s not his style. His style is to come in… he loves to talk to people. That’s what he does.”
Still, the cake incident, as goofy as it may sound, says something about the Kelty camp, too, whether or not Kelty actually saw the cake. The cake was both celebratory and combative, a show of love for Kelty and a raspberry to the establishment. As Kelty’s supporters tell it, the story of Matt Kelty’s run for mayor is a classic tale of a good man who dared to challenge a closed system mired in entitlement and self-interest, and paid the price. The rogues gallery can be a little hard to untangle — was it the Democrats taking advantage of legal ignorance to strike a blow against a Republican mayoral candidate? The G.O.P. establishment punishing an outsider for crashing their party? The liberal media fearing a city free of strip bars? — but the forces are still against them, and the campaign still rages on.
“I don’t fully understand why there were so many people that were so paranoid that he get elected,” says John Popp. “These people, they played hardball, they didn’t want him to be mayor. As a matter of fact, they don’t want him to ever run for office again. And that makes you suspicious, doesn’t it? That these people don’t want him to ever run for office.”
That’s why seven of the nine counts against Kelty are felonies and not misdemeanors, according to Popp; once you’re convicted of a felony, you can’t even be precinct committeeman. “And so that’s why they want to make sure they put the nail in the coffin, and that’s why he’s gotta win that case.”
And as to who “they” are… “I don’t know. They’re somewhere,” Popp laughs. “It’s a mystery. This would make a heck of a novel, wouldn’t it?”