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Harper vs. Henry in 2015?

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2013-06-06


Mitch Harper is eminently qualified to be Mayor of Fort Wayne. He is a good man who knows nearly everyone in the city, as well as favorite pets and odd predilections. He has served long on City Council and was a bit of a boy wonder at age 22 when he was elected in 1978 to the Indiana General Assembly. He knows the nuances of politics and details of administration at both levels. There is no doubt that he is prepared to be Mayor.

More importantly, he has announced he plans to run for Mayor, has a web site, a Facebook page, a committee and all the trappings of a campaign. He has also started raising money at a furious pace. With more than two years to the next election, the mayoral campaign is off and running.

But, at this point Mr. Councilman Harper is not the only Republican considering a run: City Council President Tom Didier has made it clear that he would like the job, and there is bubbling insider speculation that Councilman Marty Bender, who is also a Fort Wayne Police Department chief, will run.

As for the Democrats, Mr. Henry has the nomination for the asking. Mayor Henry has come into his own in his second term scoring one success after another after a rocky first term. While Tom has already served two terms there is no law to prohibit him from running for a third: Mayor Paul Helmke served three terms, as did Mayor Charles Zollinger and William Hosey, while Harry Baals served four.

Harper clearly has a head start, but Republican leaders believe that Bender would be at least a match for Mitch. Bender served one term on city council in the late 80s losing a re-election bid when voters reacted coolly to some overly aggressive comments. He is in his third term since sitting out a few years after that dust up.

Bender has become an institution in Fort Wayne, helping nearly every local organization with crime prevention, crowd control or some other aspect of police support. He and his longtime close personal friend City Clerk Sandy Kennedy are usually the two top vote-getters in municipal elections.

Mr. Didier is also giving plenty of thought to a run. He has among the biggest hearts in the county, according to one Republican old timer. “People love him, he is everyone’s friend and he is very handsome and outgoing.” In other words, Mr. Didier would make nearly the perfect candidate. Beside being the councilman who ended Tom Henry’s 20 years on city council in a close election in 2003, Mr. Didier is a food salesman, sings the national anthem at Komet and Tin Cap games, is a thespian and his golden tones inspire many a wedding in Allen County. He, too, has become a wise politician over his years on council and is known for his “everyman” perspective on issues.

What sobers each candidate is money. The election will cost a candidate between $800,000 and $1 million. That means securing $1,000 a day for the next two years. Campaigning is a full-time, 12-hour a day, seven-day-a-week job.

Here, the distinct advantage goes to Mr. Harper for two reasons: He is a self-employed attorney with the time to wage a two-year battle, and his fund raising program is already recruiting the serious donors to support him. At a coming Harper Flag Day fundraiser you can be an Oliver P. Morton $500 level donor, or a $1,000 Benjamin Harrison level contributor.

Mr. Didier, on the other hand, is a commissioned salesman, works in a demanding field for a demanding company and has two daughters of college age with all the expenses, distractions and duties that entails. While Mr. Didier is still just testing the waters, Mr. Harper has his net spread for cash.

Meanwhile, Chief Bender is his usual mum self. His fellow Republicans are merely speculating, but for good reason. Marty is at a crossroads. The legislature passed a law that disallows a police officer from holding public office. Marty must decide soon whether he wants to stay on Council or stay on the force, he can’t have both after December 31, 2015. He can, however, run for mayor while both a deputy chief and a councilman, an almost ideal formula for a campaign. Or he could retire…

The reality of modern campaigning requires fundraising begin years before election day.
The other reality is that two-years is an awful long time where the twists and turns of life can render plans meaningless. Health or family problems, a major political faux pas or the entry of another candidate, such as Councilman Dr. John Crawford, could turn the campaign on its head.

At the moment, Mr. Harper is the favorite because he has announced and is making the ask. Didier and Bender are still weighing options. Mr. Didier has also voiced an interest in running for the State Senate should longtime public servant Tom Wyss decide to step down, and Chief Bender has said very little. Vacillation can kill a candidacy.

Meanwhile, Mayor Henry has his party’s nomination, but he has sown seeds of doubt. The current budget process has driven a wedge between him and the key Democratic constituency, labor. City workers are hopping mad at the way his administration has treated them and cannot be counted on for help in 2015, without significant fence mending. Additionally, Mr. Henry’s out-of-state fund raising leaves him vulnerable to ethical questions.

Odds are it will be a Henry-Harper match-up that November. Odds are it will be expensive and odds are it will be nasty.

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