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Conley for City Council
The First District Candidate hits the campaign trail
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
While he’s out meeting people on the campaign trail, Mike Conley sometimes has a question for constituents of Fort Wayne’s First District: when it comes to local politics, do you vote for the party, or do you vote for the individual?
And an overwhelming majority of the time, Conley says, they tell him they vote for the individual. If that is truly the case, Conley is hoping they’ll take a close look at him as he runs for First District representative as a Democrat on Fort Wayne’s City Council. “I’m a moderate Democrat, guided by common sense,” says Conley. “I’ve had a great deal of diverse business experience, and I’ve been engaged with the community for years.”
He adds: “But I hope people pay attention to this election, because in the First District, the choice is between a moderate and someone who appears to be an ideologue. There’s so much dysfunction in government at the federal and state level because of political polarization, and like a lot of people I’ve talked to, I don’t want to see that oozing into local politics.”
A heavy subject for a City Council race, maybe — after all, an old saw of local government tells us there’s no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pot hole. But in a so-far sleepy election year in Fort Wayne, the First District is an interesting case study. Up until the primaries this past Spring, the First District was represented by long-time councilman Tom Smith, a Republican. To many political observers, it seemed Smith would hold on to his council seat until he chose to resign. The district, like most in our area, was solidly Republican, Smith’s record was solidly Republican, and there was no particular mandate to remove Smith from office.
So, it seemed a safe seat to many people in local politics, including Smith, who apparently did not take challenger Paul Ensley seriously enough. A concentrated push by Ensley’s supporters combined with a voter turnout that was extremely low (even by the miserable standards of the primaries) forced Smith off the ticket and made Ensley the Republican candidate.
Them’s the breaks, as they say. But not quite lost in the scuffle was the fact that Ensley was (is) heavily supported by Indiana State Representative Bob Morris, who came to notoriety several years ago by charging the Girl Scouts with un-American activities, a stance that earned him the derision of fellow GOP’ers in Indianapolis (they stacked boxes of Girl Scout cookies on Morris’ desk).
Of course, that incident was an odd piece of political buffoonery that’s good for a few jokes and eye-rolls, but it also represents the sort of extremist, intractable style of politics that distracts from real issues and the business of government (getting things done). The 25-year-old Ensley is a business associate of Morris, received financial backing from Morris, uses Morris’ campaign headquarters, etc. A case of the apple not falling far from the tree, maybe.
The Republican candidate was hardly the sole reason Conley entered the race for City Council — in fact, the subject of Conley’s opponent doesn’t even come up until we’re a long way into our interview, and then only briefly — but Conley concedes that had Smith stayed on the ballot, he most likely would not have run. He considers Smith a friend, and felt the district was well-represented by him. The two also share a passion for downtown development (Smith was a very early proponent of developing the riverfront). But Conley has long been interested in local government, and as a resident of the First District feels there are some important issues — both in his district and in the city in general — that are in danger of being overlooked. With no incumbent on the ballot, and no Democratic contender, Conley decided to put himself forward as a moderate voice.
And Conley’s voice is a moderate one in every sense of the word. Politically he lines up in the center, and his business experience — he’s an advisor for BIB Group, a mergers and acquisitions brokerage; the Vice President of Sowles Bay Yacht Club and Sowles Bay Storage on Lake James in Angola; and is also a Certified Mediator — has given him a prudent approach towards investment and spending. “In business, you have to invest if you want your business to grow,” he says. “In government, like in business, there are many things you can do to protect that investment and make sure you’re spending it wisely.”
Perhaps more to the point, you won’t hear much negativity or anger coming from Conley when he talks about his decision to run for City Council. Conley first ran for office back in 2010 as a candidate for County Council; though he had a business background, he was primarily known in the area as a musician. These days, music has taken a back seat to the daily, daily, though he still credits his music as the best means to break down barriers and meet people. During his 2010 run for office, Conley told FWR that his reasons for running were simple — he likes people and he thinks he could make a difference. The same holds true now. In fact, the relatively smaller scope of a city council district seems to suit Conley’s style much better. He excels at the one-on-one, and actually seems to enjoy that aspect of campaigning. “I like working with people, I like talking to people, and I think I could do a good job in local government,” he says. Laughing, he acknowledges that it might sound a little naïve, but… “It’s really that simple with me.”
Though Conley lost his 2010 bid for County Council, he felt it was important to stay engaged. “(The County Council race) really opened up a lot of doors for me,” he says. “Afterwards, I thought that maybe I can get more done as a private citizen.”
Many community leaders that Conley got to know on the campaign shared his interest in downtown development, so Conley printed up an enormous satellite map of downtown Fort Wayne and, during meetings, shared some ideas he had. “This was around the time the Legacy money became available,” he says. “We were talking about all these ideas, some of which you’re beginning to see come to fruition four or five years later. I’m not saying I had anything to do with it, but I’m excited to see the direction we’re moving in.”
But primarily, Conley’s decision to run for City Council came from issues he saw much closer to home in the First District. These are the kind of issues — infrastructure, etc. — that any home owner or resident would naturally be concerned with, and Conley finds that while out on the campaign trail he’s hearing similar concerns. “I live there, and I know what we experience,” he says. “There’s a lot of places in the 1st that have drainage problems; there’s a lot of flooding. There are also a tremendous amount of power outages in our area, which is really frustrating.”
He also hears a lot about the cuts in public education and associated services. “With the cuts in public education on the state level, and then with the cuts in transportation, we’re going to have a lot more kids walking to school,” he says. “In the 1st district, you have long stretches of Maplecrest, Trier, or Reed… that have no sidewalks on either side of the route. And these are main streets. When there’s a foot of snow on the ground, people will be walking on the roads in those areas. We really need to be serious about this. The four entities that need to start this conversation are the city, the schools, neighborhood associations, and the homeowners. Maybe we can get some state or federal assistance, I’m not sure what’s available.”
“But I recognize these infrastructure issues are things we need to address,” Conley continues. “I hear from a lot of people that they’re worried the focus on downtown development means their infrastructure needs are not being met. The reality is that the city is spending quite a lot on infrastructure, you just don’t hear that much about it — it’s not as interesting, maybe, as a downtown arena. But there’s more we need to do (in the 1st district), things we need to address. If you don’t recognize your issues to begin with, you’ll never get anything done.”
Conley is excited about what he sees going on downtown. He’s been an astute observer of “Legacy Fund” ever since it became available (he says he has a printout of “every dollar spent”), and thinks that overall, we’ve been pretty responsible with that resource. To him, two venerable business maxims apply when it comes to how that money is spent on development: (1) you need to invest in your business if you want it to grow; and (2) in order to attract clients, you need a good product. “I’ve looked into the Regional Cities Initiative, and one thing I’ve discovered with this study is that we are losing a high percentage of college graduates,” he says. “When someone graduates from college, they look for a cool environment to live in, and the second thing they look for is a job. We’ve taken on that model. It all starts with attracting and maintaining a talent pool. If we have that, we’re going to attract businesses.”
Conley adds: “Some folks are concerned that we’re spending too much money downtown. We want to make sure that the Legacy money is protected, and I think that so far, overall, we’ve been pretty responsible when it comes to that. But we want to make sure that when it comes to that investment, we have adequate private sector participation.”
He points out the University of Saint Francis projects downtown as an example. “We invested in them by giving them $3 million towards a project. But the overall project is $15 million. I like the ratio there. The private sector has 80% of the burden. Obviously, I’d have a big problem if the taxpayer shouldered too much of that burden.”
Conley shares concerns he hears while campaigning that too much attention is being paid to downtown. He thinks that when community leaders talk about revitalization or redevelopment, they’re missing some opportunities in the outlying areas. A study like The Regional City Initiative stresses the importance of environment in order to attract or retain a talent pool of college graduates. After a while, of course, those young graduates will put down roots. They’ll look for affordable housing in safe neighborhoods with reliable services and good schools. “Let’s not just assume we need to always talk about downtown when we talk about redevelopment,” he says. “Do these things always need to be downtown? I’m going to make it a point to keep the First District a part of the conversation.”
Local government can be fractious and even acrimonious at times, and the decision making process is seldom smooth or easy. But as Conley sees it, a responsible community leader should be willing to engage in that process, and recognize that negotiation, not dogma, is key to accomplishing anything. “I know many people are concerned about the sort of polarization we see nationally trickling down to the local level. I know it’s a concern I have,” he says.
Indeed, the only time Conley displays a flash of irritation or boredom while talking about local government (and it’s a very minor flash of irritation or boredom; barely a blip) is when the subject of party affiliation comes up. To him, at the local level, it shouldn’t matter all that much. The bottom line: “We need to be able to work together, and I think the majority of the people want to see that. I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning thinking ‘what would a good Democrat do today?’ or ‘what would a good Republican do today?’. We all just want to do a good job.”
Mike Conley’s website is citizensforconley.com