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Conley for Council
In his campaign for Allen County Council, Mike Conley tries to set a different tone
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
“I love Northeast Indiana, I’ve lived here my whole life, and I feel as though I can make a difference,” says Mike Conley. “It’s a pretty simplistic answer, but it’s the truth. What more do you need beyond that?”
Well, yes, it is a pretty simplistic answer, and Conley, who is running as the Democratic candidate for Allen County Council’s 2nd district chair, makes the statement with absolute sincerity and candor.
But as “throw the bums out!” seems to be the battle cry for the 2010 elections, it’s almost surprising to meet a political freshman who doesn’t talk as though the main reason he’s seeking elected office is because he couldn’t find a pitch fork and a torch.
Not that Mike Conley isn’t concerned about many issues facing Allen County and Northeast Indiana. Far from it. And like a lot of people who follow politics, he’ll even admit to yelling at the news on TV when he hears something he disagrees with.
It’s just that anger doesn’t seem to play a big part in Mike Conley’s decision to run for public office.
In fact, ask Conley his opinion of Allen County Council, and he’ll tell you that he admires a lot of the work they’ve done. Yes, he wonders about some decisions they’ve made (more on that in a bit), but in general he thinks they’ve been good stewards of the county’s purse strings. “They’ve been really fiscally responsible. They have… what? A $14 – $18 million rainy day fund? So, I can’t dog them for that.”
“I tell people ‘I’m getting into government, not politics,’” Conley says, before adding, with a laugh, “of course, a lot of my politician friends roll their eyes when I say that.”
Conley is running for the 2nd district seat currently held by PaulA Hughes, who is not seeking re-election in November in order to concentrate on a bid for the mayor’s office in 2011. Conley is running unopposed in the primaries on May 4 (Republican candidate Tom Harris is also running unopposed).
This is Conley’s first foray into politics, though as far as public name recognition goes, Conley has an advantage that would make most political newcomers envious — Conley has been performing regularly as a musician for over a decade. In an interview with FWR back in 2005, Conley estimated that he played out as many as three or four times a week, including a regular stint at Columbia Street West with Chris Dodds that ended only recently due to a throat ailment (Conley has recovered now). Last holiday season, Conley released a Christmas album where he collaborated with many other local musicians. “The music has put me in front of a lot of people, and I’ve met so many wonderful people over the years because of it,” he says. “As a performer, you develop a relationship with your audience. Even if you’re up there for just a few hours, you develop some sort of a bond there.”
Still, Conley initially didn’t quite see how his ability to connect with an audience, honed over his years as a prolific performer, could work for him in the political realm. “I had a meeting with Tom Henry, and he asked me ‘do you know what your greatest asset is?’ And I answered: ‘my business experience?’” Conley says laughing. “And Mayor Henry said ‘nooo…”
Actually, Conley does have business experience; he helps operate and manage a family business at Lake James. But as he began his campaign and started visiting some of the smaller communities in Allen County outside Fort Wayne, Conley realized that many people did not want to hear another candidate rattling off a list of bullet points. “Everyone has those same bullet points, and I don’t see how you can do that at the county level because those four bullet points for Harlan are going to be different than the four bullet points for Fort Wayne,” he says.
Most importantly… “Every person I’ve talked to out there, they do not feel adequately represented,” he continues. “I just want people to know that I will be accessible, and I will listen. Some of those communities, I hear ‘we don’t want county out here,’ and that’s fine. But if they have concerns, I’m going to listen to what they have to say and I’m going to be an advocate for them.”
Like we said above, it’s a far cry from the heated rhetoric we’re hearing this primary season, but Conley has found that the sort of strident partisan and inter-party fighting that plays such a prominent role in, say, a campaign for US Representative doesn’t seem to play at the local level. In fact, in 2010, the people Conley talks to seem tired of it. He says that even in a very Republican-leaning county, they’re more than willing to listen to a Democrat. “I was even advised ‘don’t go to Grabill. They’re all Republicans. It’s not going to help you at all’,” he says. “So what did I do? I went to Grabill. I really think that they’re interested in individuals first. Maybe it’s just because they’re exhausted of politics and politicians. I just approached it like ‘hey, forget about the parties. We’re individuals, and we have to work together regardless.’ And I found out that they’re open to listen. Even though it’s heavily populated by Republicans, they’re open to listen.”
Part of the reason those people might be receptive to what Conley has to say is that he understands small communities. He was born in Kendallville and moved to Angola in the seventh grade, settling in Fort Wayne after high school. As a musician he’s performed all over the area, and he manages and helps operate his family’s business at Lake James. His view of county government is not necessarily Fort Wayne-centric, a complaint he hears frequently while visiting places like Grabill and Woodburn.
Another reason: many residents and government officials of those areas share some of Conley’s concerns over Governor Mitch Daniels budget-cutting efforts, in particular a proposed plan to eliminate township government. “I’ve been out to Woodburn quite a bit, I’ve visited with folks in Grabill, I’ve talked to people in Harlan — I still need to get out there and really visit with them — but they’re just scared to death that the governor is going to eliminate township government,” Conley says. “Township government is very important, in particular to rural communities. That’s where they get their emergency services. Granted, some areas of the county rely more heavily on poor relief, while others rely more heavily on, say, emergency services. But it’s pretty critical to have a fire department, and when you have local people at the township level overseeing that, they’re going to be able to do a better job than someone sitting downtown at the city-county building in Fort Wayne.”
Sure, there are inefficiencies, but Conley compares eliminating township government outright to basically just giving up. “We’re supposed to be problem solvers,” he says. “There’s already a disconnect there between the citizens of the community and government. Township government is grassroots government. You eliminate township government, that’s going to increase that disconnect.”
Conley also talks about a meeting he had with Woodburn Mayor Hoeppner, who told Conley they were worried that in the current cuts in the education budget, Woodburn was going to lose its high school, something that could really hurt the community several years down the road. Though Conley calls himself a fiscal conservative, one of his biggest concerns is that he doesn’t think the severe budget cuts at the state level are taking into account the long-term social impact they’re going to have. He wonders in some cases if law makers have really explored all the options available. “County Council is a fiscal body. They make money decisions. But every economic decision you make is going to have a social impact. You make an economic decision to close a school because it’ll save you money, but that has a negative social impact on a community, and in the long run it has a negative economic impact. So you lost out in the long run. So we need responsible people in there to really look at every economic decision we make. You have to be able to recognize when to spend money, and when not to.”
And one particular issue where Conley feels County Council spent money they should not have is the controversial Maplecrest Road extension, which continues Maplecrest past Lake and into New Haven. Infrastructure and growth are great, he says, but the proposed benefits to the project seem inflated. “I probably would have agreed with Darren Vogt on that one,” he says, citing the lone council member who opposed the project. “$40 million is a lot of money to spend on that stretch of road. I read the report, and the argument that supported it was that is was going to create something like 7,000 jobs. That’s a lot of jobs; where are they coming from? I don’t know.”
Conley is running unopposed in the primary, and knows his big challenge will happen later on in the year, as November looms closer. He’s focusing on visiting as many places as possible, and talking to as many people as he can. Unlike many people who run for political office, when Conley says he enjoys getting out there, meeting and talking to people, you actually believe him. Maybe it was all those years spent facing crowds behind nothing but a microphone and a guitar? Whatever the case, judging from the reception he gets, it seems to be working so far. “I’m running as a Democrat in a very Republican area, but I’m welcomed in these places. The people are very open and receptive,” Conley says. “Like I said, I was told not to go to Grabill or some of these rural areas, because they’re all Republicans. That was very discouraging to hear, but I’m glad it’s not the case, because I think that’s a big part of the problem — too many people drawing lines.”
There will be a campaign fundraising for Conley on April 23 at Columbia Street West from 5:30 – 8:30. Performers include Susan and Paul Stephens of Fawn Liebowitz; The Beef Manhattans with Mike Conley; and 80s cover band Heartbeat City.
For more information on Mike Conley, go to citizensforconley.com