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On the Campaign Trail with Gina Burgess
Allen County Council candidate runs a tight ship
By Gloria Diaz
Fort Wayne Reader
If it seems like Allen County Council candidate Gina Burgess is everywhere this campaign season, it’s because she tries to be. She really does.
Take the Three Rivers Festival Parade, for example. There was another parade in Woodburn at the same time, and thanks to the Burgess team and a driver, she was able to participate in both. Her photographer though, is probably exhausted. Burgess said the Woodburn parade went at such a fast pace, her photographer was looking a little tired. So, she invited him into the truck she was riding in. It doesn’t look good to have your staff collapse from heat exhaustion.
In talking with Gina Burgess, it’s evident that thought goes in to every decision. Whether it has to do with her business, or running for office, you get the sense that she is concerned about doing good things, making decisions that make sense and saving money.
As an Allen County Council-at-large candidate (D), she’s a little bit city, a little bit country. Born in Fort Wayne, she attended Precious Blood School for her first years of elementary school before moving to Dekalb County. There, she was a founding member of DeGoats of Dekalb 4-H Club. It was while in 4-H that she learned about the costs of running a farm, and on a smaller scale, how much it would cost to have livestock as a 4-H project. Vet care, feed, housing, storage and electricity played a part as to what market price the livestock could get, in order to maximize return on investment. She understands the issues of rural life, as well as the issues of city life.
Despite the distance, she went to Bishop Dwenger High School, because it was the closest Catholic school to her home.
No one in her family was a lawyer, but partly because of the International Harvester strike, she became interested in law. A member of IvyTech’s first graduating paralegal class, she took a job at Whitmore and Associates, as an office manager and paralegal. Her experience included working on real estate transactions, small business and corporate set ups. She is one of five paralegals in the United States running for office.
In 2005, she started Model T Bicycle Rentals. She saw it as a way to bring people downtown, have something for them to do, and to give back to the community. Her employees are inner-city youth, and offering employment to them was important to her. With the work on the Clinton Street Bridge, now renamed the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge and the U.S. 27/Clinton Street/Spy Run renovation project, Burgess decided to scale back the business, because the numbers weren’t looking good. “We saw a 50% drop in our ridership,” says Burgess, which happened during the pre-construction period. People have told her she should just move the business, but Burgess picked Headwaters Park for a reason. It’s downtown, but the fountain provides a place to cool off, if anyone renting a bicycle gets over heated. Since Burgess can’t move the park, the business is still operating, but on a limited basis, for special event rentals. When the construction is done, the bicycles will return.
Burgess credits her ability to see both sides of an issue partially to her law background, and partially to her parents. The daughter of a Republican dad and a Democratic mom, she says she had a front row seat to many a political debate. She considers herself a fiscal conservative (and you’ll see how conservative she can be) and a social liberal. With that admission, why not run as a libertarian?
“[People are] more willing to vote for major parties than ‘minor’ parties,” Burgess explains, adding that it’s a shame that people feel that way. She acknowledges that the Libertarian Party has made great strides in the past few years, but she thought that if she ran as a Libertarian, she would have to do double duty, educating people about the Libertarian Party as well as trying to get her own message heard. Saying that “time is money,” Burgess decided to run for a party that people were more familiar with.
And that decision wasn’t a quick or easy process. As someone who hates wasteful spending, this topic was something she was passionate about. After hearing the “put up or shut up” line, she threw her hat into the ring. “What did I have to lose?” she said.
Well, your privacy, for one thing. But Burgess explains she’s not about to let that happen. “I don’t want to make the mistake a lot of women politicians do … a lot of people want to know who the husband is, or who the children are. I’m not having my privacy invaded like that.”
Her husband David is supportive, but they both agreed he would be as close to invisible as he could be. “Practically nonexistent,” says Burgess. “And so far, that’s worked out.” Burgess wants it that way, because she wants people to know they are electing her, and not her family. “If I’m making a policy, or if I’m saying something, it’s truly me, and it’s not anyone else’s influence, and that way they can hold me accountable.”
Burgess runs her campaign on what she calls a “dental floss budget” — not a shoestring budget. Referring to Tommy Schrader, the M.I.A. candidate who won one of the Democratic primary for an at-large city council seat, she says name recognition was a key factor. She is trying to grab that edge. But she also wants to prove a point. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money. There are ways around it. You don’t have to be dependent on the political parties. Or you don’t have to be dependent on the corporations or the major donors that fund the political parties.” To win without spending a bundle would be, as Burgess says, “the crowning achievement.” Instead of spending $150 on a banner to use in parades, Burgess went a different route. “With some good old fashioned Hula Hoops, duct tape, poster board, we created something with a similar, gigantic effect — $27.50.”
It’s the same thing with the Burgess team uniforms of red polo shirts and black pants or shorts. “My volunteers all pretty much get their own shirts, but I encourage everybody to go to Goodwill or The Salvation Army or whatever, and I encourage to go on Saturdays, because they’re more likely to have a fifty percent off sale. Our shirts have been averaging thirty five cents to a buck. We’re talking maximum cost, two bucks with the badge and the shirt.”
The support of family and friends is a huge factor. “I would not be anywhere near where I’m at right now [without them]. We figured it out — we basically had thirty nine people in thirty nine positions, helping us out, for that one day (first Saturday of Three Rivers Festival) because there was so much going on.” Participating in the Three Rivers Festival Bed Race was one way to promote her visibility. “Ours was the only campaign bed,” says Burgess. Despite her crew being in their forties, they held their own, especially when pitted against the defending champs from 2011 — Imago Dei Ministries — which had twenty-something bed pushers. Religion vs. politics. Burgess jokes that she wasn’t struck by lightning. Her crew was disappointed, but Burgess says they did great. “They were neck and neck all the way through. They were awesome. They said, ‘we’re so sorry, we’re so sorry,’ and I said, ‘sorry?’ That was such an amazingly close race, they couldn’t even call it. I was very, very happy.”
When asked what the biggest waste of money in the county is, Burgess thought she had the answer — while she is a huge supporter of things happening downtown, and understands that the city is putting money into downtown, she doesn’t understand why the county is putting money into downtown. Burgess finds this especially irritating considering that township fire departments have to look for ways to raise money “Township fire departments are struggling to make their operational costs. To me, I think we’ve got some things … our priorities are out of whack. Economic development is a good thing … but government wasn’t designed for economic development. We focus on economic development to the detriment of our public safety and our public health. I used to think I knew what exactly was the biggest waste was (in county government) but I don’t know anymore, and part of that goes back to accountability.”
At New Haven Canal Days, I was a witness to Burgess talking to someone who was not registered to vote and didn’t have plans to register, because she thought her vote didn’t matter anymore. Burgess told her that she understood completely. “I myself have those feelings sometimes,” she says. “I encourage them to register to vote, and to vote for me, not because I am running for office, but because I promise that if I agree with you, or I disagree with you, I promise I will always take the time to listen to your viewpoints. And I will take the time to try to get an understanding of what it is you are wanting to get, and if I can’t help you, I will try to refer you to someone who can.”
And what about the whole Tommy Schrader thing? He’s the guy who was “mysterious” — no one knew much about him, he didn’t do any campaigning… and he still got 2,300 votes. There was a concerted effort to get him off the ticket, but Burgess championed him. “What they did to him (Schrader) was wrong,” she says.
The reason why she felt Schrader deserved to stay on the ticket is not what you would expect. “My dad served over in Tikrit, Iraq, when they earned the right to vote over there,” she says. “The mainstream media showed Iraqi citizens with the purple finger — indicating they had voted. What they didn’t show, that my dad and brother in law and other members of the military shared with me, was that the politicians over there were given bodyguards, security details because their lives were threatened, that several Iraqi citizens lost their purple fingers for executing their right to vote.”
“And so people in other places around the world are willing to die for the right to run for office, or willing to die for the right to vote, and here in the U.S., here locally in Fort Wayne, we just totally pissed on that. Tommy Schrader, whether you liked him, or didn’t like him, the fact remains that 2,300 people voted for him. I’m sorry, but after you have 2,300 people voting for you, after the primary, our system, our electoral system is set up so once you make it through the primary for each side, that’s it.” Burgess says there was time to take Schrader aside and talk to him about running, and whether or not it was the right thing to do, but apparently, no one did. And that’s what made Burgess upset. “It wasn’t about Schrader at all. It was about restoring the integrity to the electoral process.”