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After the election
Linda Buskirk talks to FWR candidly about the mayoral race
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
By all accounts, Fort Wayne’s 2003 Mayoral Race should have been a nail-biter. After all, when the same candidates went up against each other in 1999, Republican Linda Buskirk lost to Democrat Graham Richard by a mere 129 votes. Analysts predicted another tight race for 2003, especially after the loss of many manufacturing jobs during Richard’s first term in office.
The results were far different. Despite heavy campaigning and key endorsements from several local firefighter and police groups, as well as many area business people, Buskirk lost with only 43% of the vote.
What happened? How was Richard’s margin of victory so wide compared to four years ago, when the vote was so close that a recount was called for? Moreover, the main issue in many people’s minds seemed to be similar for both parties: the question of what could be done to bring more jobs to Fort Wayne. Why were the results so different this time?
As the votes rolled in on election night, commentators on local media outlets gave their opinion. The verdict: Republican candidate Linda Buskirk’s “negative campaign” had cost her the election. In fact, the phrase “negative campaign” was evoked so often anyone watching might have thought the commentators had patented the phrase and were getting a royalty check.
Still, no matter how quickly we grew tired of hearing the words, the commentators had a point. In one oft-cited incident, Buskirk’s campaign manager Jim Banks accused Richard’s administration of being “soft on drugs” because of a hiring policy in the police department that states that applicants who had tried hard drugs no more than once and more than 10 years ago could still be considered for employment. It was part of a larger battle over the police department, one of the only big issues where Buskirk and Richard could point to specific, differing positions. Some said such attacks diluted a strong, basic message that should have appealed to more voters.
Absent from much of the post-election discussion was Buskirk herself, who in her first interview since the campaign says that she was “surprised” as anyone by the margins on election night. But when asked about the prevailing opinion in the mayoral race coverage that “negative campaigning” cost her the election, Buskirk expresses some doubts, both about the perception of her campaign as negative and whether that lead to Richard’s victory. “I don’t think the campaign was as negative as it was portrayed,” she says. “A challenger has to bring up the issues. I was hard-hitting, but I never questioned the personal integrity of the mayor and always stuck to the issues.”
If the words “negative campaign” conjure images of a certain kind of politician, Buskirk seems anything but. Pragmatic and candid, she calls running for public office a great privilege. Before her bid for mayor in 1999, she was Fort Wayne’s Director of Public Works, and describes herself as someone more interested in administration, the day to day steps it takes to get a project running. “I love working with people, trying to figure out how to make things happen,” she says. “The strategy and politics of it, I’m not into at all.”
Buskirk admits that the perception of her campaign as negative may have cost her votes, but that ultimately she was trying to get out the message that she had a different point of view and different priorities. “You have to point out differences between yourself and your opponent.” The reason behind Richard’s decisive victory, Buskirk believes, is a lot less sinister than accusations of a negative campaign: simply put, people in Fort Wayne are generally happy with the way things are right now.
“This is a great community, a great place to raise children…Overwhelmingly, people in Fort Wayne are happy,” Buskirk says. “I think ultimately that’s what happened. There wasn’t enough compelling reason to change.”
Greg Haegele, the campaign manager for Graham Richard, agrees in part that Richard’s strong victory wasn’t necessarily a result of what kind of campaign Buskirk ran. “In almost any election where you have an incumbent, it’s about the incumbent’s accomplishments,” he says. “Fundamentally, Graham Richard did a good job, and people wanted him to stay.”
Buskirk says she was well aware that people in Fort Wayne were generally happy with the way things were when she started her campaign. What she hoped to do was call attention to what she saw as important issues in the city’s future. “This is a great place to live, no doubt about it. I was hoping to offer a message that said we can go to the next level anyway. Just because we’re good, doesn’t mean we can’t get better. We always talk about what Indy is doing, what Grand Rapids is doing. Why doesn’t anyone talk about what Fort Wayne is doing? We have done many great things. I just feel we could step it up and take it to another level, and that was the message I was trying to get out.”
But while Buskirk acknowledges that voters may not have found her message compelling enough, and may feel that the current administration is serving them well, she worries that one of the key issues vital to the city’s future is not being addressed to its full potential. The departure of manufacturing jobs in the area has left many in the community in dire circumstances. “This is different from the 80s, when International Harvester left, and then General Motors came in and we all just kind of took a breather. But those manufacturing jobs we’ve lost are not coming back. How are we poised to face the future when it comes to the economy?"
The need to attract new jobs to the city was one of the central points of Buskirk’s platform. It’s an issue she says she is glad to have played a part in bringing to public notice. “I’m proud of how much attention our community is paying to economic development in general. There was more news coverage on that topic than there’s been in the last four years.”
Buskirk won’t go into detail on how she felt about hearing herself accused of running a negative campaign time-after-time on election night. She says the post-election political analysis is just a fact of politics, and something that anyone running for public office has to get used to.
The loss of many Republican races across Indiana — considered to be traditionally a Republican stronghold — has prompted some questions among the party as to how campaigns are being run, with an eye towards more quality control in TV and print ads. Buskirk points out that Republicans did win in some unpredictable places, but the fact that so many Republicans lost in larger cities worries her a little bit.
As to Buskirk’s future, she says she has no interest right now in running for public office again; the 2003 race “got that out of her system.” Also, displaying a disarming frankness for someone recently in political life, she wonders if she’d be very valuable to the Republican party at the moment (“After all, I lost”). Whatever her next step is, Buskirk says she’d like to use the organizational and motivational skills which lead her into public service in the first place. “I love working with people, and helping them to do things they never thought were possible. I feel I could do that anywhere. Whether it’s for a business or a not-for-profit organization, I really like the idea of managing people, and helping them accomplish what they want to do.”