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Checking in with Mike Conley
The 2nd district county council candidate has learned some things on the campaign trail
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Last April, FWR talked to Mike Conley about his run for Allen County Council’s 2nd district chair.
The story interested us because, as 2010 political candidates go, Conley seemed an unusual one. A business man and a musician (he’s been “playing out” in the area for over a decade) making his first foray into politics, Conley didn’t vow to turn county government upside down, crush the establishment, etc. He simply saw where things might be better at the county level, and thought he could make a difference.
And he didn’t see where running as a Democrat in a Republican-leaning county should be much of an issue. Conley likes talking to people, he likes meeting people, and he’s very good at it. He also feels that, as someone who grew up in Kendallville and Angola, he understands the frustration some of the smaller communities in the 2nd district who might think county council is too Fort Wayne-centric. “I really think that (people are) interested in individuals first,” Conley said to FWR last April. “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.”
But Conley has learned a few things since then. Not that his enthusiasm has dimmed, or that he’s become cynical, or that he’s been treated with anything other than respect during his campaign. “I’ve had a few people say ‘thanks but no thanks,’ but people have been pretty receptive,” he says.
It’s just that often when he’s out there shaking hands, he finds himself being asked about issues on the federal level. “That’s what they want to talk about,” he says. “When it comes to politics, they go past the state issues, right to the federal issues. I hear myself saying ‘well, I haven’t read that 2,000 page document…’”
He shrugs and laughs: “When you first get involved in politics, the federal issues capture your attention first.”
But as Conley tells it, he has plenty of issues — immediate, local concerns — that he is trying to learn more about, things that as he’s campaigned consistently over the summer have proved to be vital to the people he’s met with and talked to. “County Council is by no means a ‘glamorous’ entity, partly because it’s a fiscal body,” he says. “They don’t get into the legislative issues like Fort Wayne City Council does, so some of the county council’s decisions are about allocating money.”
He adds: “Granted, though, that allocation of funds can still indirectly effect policy. Any time you control the purse strings, you control policy.”
And of course, what he’s hearing out there is concern about jobs, jobs, jobs. Conley is running as a Democrat, but he describes himself as a fiscal conservative who would rather see county council spend money wisely to attract business to Allen County than not spend it at all. He likes the steps council has taken over the controversial “shovel-ready” sites, seeing it as a practical solution to the issue. “Right now, we have 10 folks at the county level, and nine are Republicans,” he says. “One of the core Republican ideological stances is that they stay out of the private sector. Yet we’re buying all this land. But that’s admirable to me, because they’ve looked at the reality of the situation, and maybe realized that the private sector isn’t ready to do this at this point.”
While that’s a step in the right direction, Conley says he’d like to see this plan developed further. Allen County is a pretty desirable location for a big company to build a facility, but to bring businesses of that size in here, we need to be thinking long term. “Right now, manufacturing companies are up from last year, but still down considerably from 2007,” he says. “So if they’re spending money, they’re just sort of maintaining. They’re probably not building a brand new facility, but they will, and we have to be ready for that, because the days of these companies looking at a corn field and having a vision are over. You have to be a little bit further along, because every other community is doing that. You have to do it, or you’ll get left behind.”
He’s also studying different ways to get those companies to stay once the tax abatement is up. One of his ideas is a sort of “tier system,” and he’s looking at other communities that might have similar programs in place to see if it’s applicable here. “Is it worth discussing? I don’t know. I’m trying to become an expert and wrap my arms around all this stuff. But I think you have to throw those ideas out there, and see if one sticks.”
And that’s one of the things that makes Conley an interesting candidate — he’s not afraid to talk about ideas on the campaign trail. When he first began his campaign, he said he was trying to avoid being scripted, giving canned answers or bullet points, and as a musician and performer, he felt very comfortable with that. Now, with months of campaigning three or four times a week under his belt, he says he’s as committed to that as ever, though he concedes it’s not always easy. “I met with a group — I won’t mention their names — but it was one of those days when I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, and I did not have my ‘A game’ on at all,” he laughs. “I rambled, and I walked out of there thinking I had missed a couple keys points, and I ran into this guy outside who was smoking a cigarette. He said ‘I just have to tell you, I was the only Democrat in there…’.”
“But I still would rather take a genuine, non-scripted approach,” Conley continues. “I think people appreciate that, and see the ‘realness’ of it.”
For Conley, that “realness” is an essential part of what he sees as integrity. He fully admits that’s it a word a lot of political office hopefuls use, but to him, a politician’s “integrity” has to do with decision making. “You have your core principles, but there are times when you’re faced with a situation where your core principles might be contradictory to what the best decision is for the reality of the situation, or the people you’re supposed to be serving as an office holder,” he says. “You have to be willing to admit, ‘this is how I feel, but I recognize and realize that this is going to be the best decision overall.’ You have people hanging on to those hard core principles to the point where it’s harmful. I get the point, but look at what the ramifications are for your stubbornness. I think someone with integrity has to be able to back off of their ego. You have to make decisions based on what the needs are of the citizens, and sometimes be willing to step out of your hard core ideology.”