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Morrison Agen: On the Record
The Democratic at-large candidate for County Council is on a mission
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Morrison Agen is on a mission.
He’s running as a Democrat for an at-large seat on Allen County Council, and of course he wants to be elected. But there’s something else there, too…
It’s a mission to get people like him — Democrats and other “progressive-leaning folks” in the area — to realize there is much, much more going on in an election year than whoever is at the top of their respective party’s ticket. “There are 520,000 elected seats in this country, and all anyone cares about is one of them,” Agen says. “But all those ‘down ticket’ candidates, those are the ones that affect you on a day-to-day basis. That drainage ditch on your property? Donald Trump is not going to come drain that ditch. Hilary Clinton is not going to come drain that ditch. Gary Johnson is going to tell you to do it yourself…”
To put it simply, if you’re frustrated, despondent, or angry over your presidential choices this year, don’t give up — instead, take a serious look at the candidates running on the state and local level.
Maybe it’s a message we’ve heard before, but 2016 seems a good year to make that case. True, we’re all tired of hearing about the presidential race this year, or at least we say we are. But if there’s an upside to all the attention being given to the national candidates, it’s that the controversy might spur action, driving more voters to the polls on election day and giving a boost to some down ticket candidates that otherwise might go overlooked.
“I feel part of my job as a candidate is try to make local elections sexy again,” Agen jokes. But in all seriousness… “I tell people, if you are sick of this presidential election, and I am too, know there are so many things you could vote for rather than who is at the top of the ticket.”
Agen’s campaign for county council began long before Trump vs. Clinton was a certainty, but the desire to run started with a similar frustration at the lack of candidates in our area. The owner of Neat Neat Neat Records and a resident of Allen County for nearly two decades, Agen has been a “political junkie” for about as long as he can remember. He uses the word “progressive” a handful of times to describe his politics, but when he talks about issues and ideas he comes across more as an old-school Democrat, albeit one who is barely in his 40s. He grew up in Porter County — Chesterton, to be exact — and remembers at nine years old going out with his father to canvas for then candidate Pete Viscolsky. “I swear we knocked on every door in Portage,” he laughs.
He continues: “Everybody I knew had parents that worked in one of the mills there. My own father was an auctioneer; he did a lot of bankruptcy auctions at the time (mid 80s). But those experiences planted an idea in my head of how important politics could be.”
Agen stayed active in politics to some degree, usually as a supporter, championing Democratic candidates. What spurred Agen to finally put himself in the ring were a couple of Facebook posts last January from people he corresponds with regularly.
The first was from Phyllis Bush, part of the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education’s Executive Committee. In the post, she listed all the political races coming up in 2016 that were running unopposed. “It was an insanely long list,” Agen says. “There were something like 20 unopposed races.”
And while a bewildered Agen was asking why no Democrats were stepping up to the plate, Jack Morris, the Chairman of the Allen County Democratic Party, wrote in response to a post — “If there’s something that you think is missing from the ballot, maybe that something is you.”
So Agen gave him a call, set up a meeting, and made the decision. “With Bill Brown deciding not to run for election again this year, I think we have a shot to make something happen,” Agen says.
Agen is enthusiastic and chatty, with a clear, pragmatic view of the duties — and limitations — of the office he’s running for. There’s also a refreshing lack of (1) smarm; and (2) the sort of polarizing, firebrand “us vs. them” rhetoric that dooms most political novices.
But for someone who says he wants to make local elections sexy again, Agen, by his own admission, has probably chosen one of the least sexy offices to run for. “When I’m out talking to people, they don’t want to talk about the ‘social issues’ that consume so much of the big elections,” he says. “Those aren’t things they care about in their daily lives. They’re talking about drainage issues, roads, infrastructure stuff. It’s things that are personal and literally in their own backyards. On county council, you have the ability to make those things happen. You have a say over how dollars are spent and what gets priority.”
A refresher course on local government might be in order here, and we’ll make this quick… Allen County is governed by a separate body than the city of Fort Wayne. The city has the mayor and the city council. Allen County has the county council, made up of seven members, and three commissioners. The commissioners are essentially the legislative and executive body of county government. The council itself is basically the fiscal body. They make decisions on expenditures, etc.
All three commissioners and six of the council members are Republicans, with Sharon Tucker as the lone Democrat. An unbalanced situation like that, Agen contends, doesn’t lend itself to the kind of careful oversight and accountability government should practice. “Is there anything off about the way county council works? Probably not,” he says. “But anytime I’ve talked to someone, that’s been news to them. That kind of super-majority doesn’t lend itself to good government.”
As a “for instance,” Agen points to the recent Blue Kingfisher case, a company setting up a big milk processing plant in Allen County. Blue Kingfisher asked the county for a sizeable tax abatement, saying they were planning to hire 150 people. Agen watched the meeting, and while he didn’t have access to the paperwork council members had in front of them, he had about a dozen questions he wanted asked of Blue Kingfisher. “Blue Kingfisher supplies 600 Wal-Marts,” he says. “That’s all the company does. Are they a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wal-Mart? Considering they’re based out of Bensonville, Arkansas, I have a feeling they are. So, it took 12 minutes, and this company got a $10 million tax abatement.”
And maybe that’s okay, Agen concedes. But is the company actually hiring 150 people? What’s the average wage? How many of those people are labor and how many are management? “If they decide to unionize, is Blue Kingfisher going to fire everyone, or just pack up and move somewhere else? Because Wal-Mart has done that before.” Agen continues. “Those were some of the questions I would have asked in that 12-minute meeting, but those questions never got broached. Do we need jobs? Of course we do. But I’d like to make sure it’s on the up and up and everyone is doing what they say they’re going to do.”
He’d also like to see county government do a better job “selling” the region’s various development efforts to the area in general. Agen says that the farther away he gets from the city limits, the less people seem to understand or see much benefit to things like the Regional Cities Initiative or revitalization efforts in Fort Wayne. “I talk about it as a quality of life issue,” he says. “The more people we attract to the region — the more people we have buying houses, raising families, putting down roots here — the better off Allen County is going to be. Bigger, better, more. But I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t see it like that. I love living here, I love the quality of life we have here, and we need to make sure we keep these efforts happening.”
Another regional improvement he’d like to see is more funding towards drug courts and other programs directed towards rehabilitating non-violent offenders in the area. “We know it’s a problem in our area, and it’s a problem no one seems to be talking about,” he says. “For example, take someone with three DWIs. If you’ve got three DWIs… that’s a problem. So what can we do to actually make those non-violent offenders functional members of our community? It costs much less to rehabilitate someone than to incarcerate them, and you’re not paying taxes when you’re in jail. Are we doing all we can to provide for their family, pay taxes, and help our community to grow?”
Those are “big picture” issues, the kind of things that really don’t come up regularly when he’s out on the campaign trail “door knocking.” And they’ll take a lot of work to accomplish. That said, Agen doesn’t seem like the kind of person easily intimidated by what he calls “the tweaky stuff.” He’s doing his homework, and… “I am a really good ‘on the job’ learner. I may not know all the ins and outs, but I’m willing to learn and to listen.”
Of course, the big elephant in the room is… well, it’s not literally a big elephant, but it’s a big elephant. Allen County leans very Republican, and while Agen hears from a lot of “progressive leaning folks,” they’re often discouraged by a lack of representation, or see their own cause as hopeless. There are Democrats out there in Allen County, but it’s hard to get behind the party on a local level when clowns like David Roach and Tommy Schrader pop up on the ballot. “How do I get those people to vote? It’s tough,” Agen says. “I know a lot of people, particularly young people, who were disappointed by the way the primaries turned out. But there are a lot of candidates who are running on progressive issues in our area. I would implore people to reach out to those folks, have real conversations with them. Locally and across the state, the Democrats have a super-solid team this year, and a real chance to get our voices heard.”
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