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The Mind of Mitch Harper
“… in public service, you need to be looking at least 20 years out…”
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
It seems like pretty giddy days when it comes to economic development in Fort Wayne, especially downtown. Buildings are going up, committees are being formed, plans are being floated, artists renderings displayed for our wide-eyed appreciation, and new rumors about “what’s next” seem to pop up every few weeks.
And looming behind all these visionary, transformational projects is the “Legacy Fund,” the $48 million or so that grew from a trust city leaders initially set up in 1974, and which came to maturity about six years ago. Earlier this year, at a YLNI event, Mayor Henry offered up a document suggesting that, with good stewardship, the Legacy Fund could grow to over $100 million by 2024.
$100 million + can make a lot of big visions come true.
In this kind of environment, Mitch Harper, the Republican candidate for Mayor of Fort Wayne and representative for the city’s 4th district, has taken on the difficult role of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.
Or, more accurately, that such rosy predictions amount to political sleight of hand, and that the current administration has mislead the public in explaining how many of these development projects have been/will be financed. In the long run, it will hurt Fort Wayne. “When the administration puts out documents like that, or makes predictions… it’s misleading at best,” Harper says. “It’s just kicking the can down the road.”
And according to Harper, picking winners and losers in the economic development game is exactly how the Henry administration has run quite a lot of city business over the last two terms. He explains that much of it amounts to loading up expenses on people who are having trouble keeping their financial heads above water, while extending corporate welfare to those who don’t need it. “Local government sometimes supports buying down private entities’ risk, or subsidizing them directly, and that money is coming from people who, in some cases, are barely figuring out how to pay their monthly bills,” he says.
“I know that as we talk to people, the message of who gets favored by government and who pays the bills and who ought to see a return… that message is resonating,” Harper adds.
The cautionary role is one Harper has played with consistency since being elected to city council in 2007. An attorney, with an attorney’s eye for detail, Harper has been one of the more strident voices for transparency, accountability, and foresight in local government. Along with council member Russ Jehl (R-2) and others, Harper was key in establishing a more vigorous approval process to vet requests for money from the Legacy fund.
Not that Harper is against spending Legacy money, or against development; anyone who has talked to Harper knows he’s a pretty visionary guy, enthusiastic about new technologies and ideas. Furthermore, Harper likes the idea of downtown development, or more specifically, the ideal behind it — creating a “center” for a community. “Government regulation hastened the demise of traditional neighborhoods and businesses back in the 30s, 40s, 50s…” he says. “It’s not the entire explanation, but it certainly hastened the demise of retail downtown centers and the neighborhood centers. Now, we’re trying to turn back the distortion that occurred because of the application of these policies back then,”
He continues: “Rather than concentrating on downtown, I think there’s a need — and I think people want to see — a concentration on creating many neighborhood centers for commerce.”
But as Harper sees it, the way the administration has gone about development has fuelled a disconnect between citizens and leadership in the area. It has catered to big interests to the detriment of the community. “Folks know that their neighborhoods don’t seem to be getting the resources they need,” Harper says. “Until this year, when we had a frenzy of activity in our neighborhoods, streets and other infrastructure issues were neglected. That neglect leads to a loss of wealth.”
“Say you have two houses, one in a well-maintained area, another with crumbling streets. Which one has a higher value? Is that decline $5,000, $10,000 of the value? That loss in wealth is absorbed by the homeowner. Even if they don’t sell and realize their gain or loss, they don’t have as much borrowing power, they don’t feel as wealthy. They pay taxes, but haven’t gotten the services back from their investment, and that’s a decline in wealth in the whole community.”
“That’s kind of what’s happened in Fort Wayne,” he continues. “After a long period of not paying attention to our neighborhoods, we have a ‘crash’ program — a very visible program — during an election year. But there ought to be a steady investment in our neighborhoods, something that people can count on.”
Harper points to a program under the Helmke and Richard administrations that divided an amount of tax money equally among city council districts to be used for development. The projects went through a process and were ranked. “It energized the neighborhood associations to make their best pitch for particular capital projects in their district,” says Harper. “But in its first year, the Henry administration took that program away. I’d like to see it restored. This was a useful program. It gave neighborhood associations the ability to talk to their neighbors, build support about doing something in their community. We really don’t have those conversations anymore.”
There’s something a little “old school conservative” in Harper’s ambivalence towards stolid economic development tools like tax abatements. After all, this is Fort Wayne and Allen County, where many economic entities seem very tax abatement happy, no matter which political party is “in charge.” But to hear Harper tell it, his conservatism is simply a kind of conservatism that’s unfortunately not much in evidence these days.
Don’t get the wrong idea — Harper is solidly Republican, and has been for as long as he can remember. And “as long as he can remember” isn’t just a hackneyed phrase here. A New Haven native, one of Harper’s early memories is of riding his bike near Village Wood school with a friend. Their conversation wasn’t about sports or movies or comic books; it was about politics. “We must have been eight years old at the time,” Harper laughs. “I don’t know if that’s what ‘normal’ eight-year-olds talk about.”
Unusual? Maybe. But on the other hand, that will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Harper. He was “active” in his local party at age 12. At 16, Harper wrote a letter to Indiana Governor Otis Bowen, and became Bowen’s state high school representative.
When Harper became the youngest member of the Indiana House of Representatives a few years later, at the ripe old age of 22, he had already established many of the relationships that most people in politics work over half their careers to build. People often ask him if his colleagues in the House took a while to take him seriously because of his young age. “I tell them, ‘the governor already knew me by my first name, and the other legislators knew that’,” he recalls.
Very early in his career, he met a politician he describes as one of his political heroes — Jack Kemp. “We need someone like Kemp who can speak about working people, about minorities, in a way that Republicans are not seen as doing,” Harper says. “Someone who talks about growth and conservative ideas.” He points to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by two writers who recently authored a biography on Kemp. The writers paraphrase many of Kemp’s ideas. “If you want to know how I think about municipal issues — what we ought to be doing on economic issues and who we ought to be focused on — it is in that piece,” he says.
After 12 years in the Indiana House of Representatives, Harper declined to seek re-election and left in 1990. He was on an unofficial mayoral candidate shortlist around then, when he was still in his 30s, but was reluctant to commit to a run. Though he wouldn’t run for Fort Wayne’s city council until 2007, Harper has, in some sense, spent a life time in politics. It’s given him a unique perspective. “I get to see the effect of some of the things I was involved with, whether it’s Fort to Port or the airport or the library,” he says. “I’ve gotten to see these things in my life time, whereas some folks in politics… they really don’t see how the rest of the story can turn out. I’ve gotten to do that.”
“I’ve always thought that in public service, at a minimum, you need to be looking at least 20 years out,” Harper continues. “I want to greet whatever new technology that’s coming. There are a lot of good things that are going to occur. But we’ve got to be ready for them, and we can’t be spending our financial capacity today to subsidize folks who don’t need it, and we can’t keep spending legacy money like it’s been spent, or there isn’t going to be money to fund these ideas that we can’t even imagine now.”
For more on Mitch Harper's campaign, visit www.mitchharper.com