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Inside the mind of Matt Kelty

Will the mayoral hopeful’s conservative, populist message earn him the Republican nomination?

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


When Mayor Graham Richard announced last fall that he would not be seeking a third term, there were high hopes that an open field might lead to an exciting campaign year, with perhaps a nail-biting finish akin to the first Richard/Buskirk match-up in 1999.

Yet so far, with a Democratic contender still absent, those searching for excitement in Fort Wayne politics might find themselves better served by the Republican primary in May. As of this writing, no less than four hopefuls have thrown their names in to the public arena: Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters, local architect Matt Kelty, Wilbert Brown and Ivan Hood.

Brown and Hood — the former the owner of consulting firm Brown Financial Services, the latter the owner of a retail kiosk at Glenbrook — have done little more than file at this point. Of the other two, Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters is probably the most well known; he’s been in local politics for around 15 years, and enjoys a good relationship with Mayor Richard.

But it’s Matt Kelty, president of the commercial architecture and urban design firm Kelty Tappy Design, Inc, who seems to have launched the most aggressive campaign to get his name and his vision in front of the public. He announced he was running back in October, and immediately after filing on January 24 (just hours before Peters), Kelty hit the streets, going door-to-door and shaking hands. Billboards sprang up all over the city, fliers were sent out on the mail, and a handful of strong letters-to-the-editor appeared in local media.

When Nelson Peters announced that he would seek the nomination for Republican candidate for mayor, the press conference included an impressive sampling of local Republican officials. Republican office holders were conspicuously absent at Kelty’s own announcement, but that’s fine with him. It was not an orchestrated move on Kelty’s part to have friends, family, business associates, and other supporters at his press conference rather than GOP insiders, but nevertheless… “There’s no better way to demonstrate that I’m not from within the system,” he says. “This gives my approach, my candidacy, a freshness, an appeal, that I don’t think any other candidate already in public office can have.”

“These are the real people of Fort Wayne,” Kelty adds. “They want Fort Wayne to achieve its potential like I want Fort Wayne to achieve its potential. I’m not operating according to a pre-established paradigm. I’m operating according to the principles of the private market, as the owner of a small business, as the father of a family with four young children at home, with a wife that has to work to make ends meet while she’s taking classes at Ivy Tech. That is America, that’s a snapshot. I’m glad for Nelson that he has those sources of support, but I’ll take the family down the street or the small businessman from two blocks over everyday.”

The families, the small business owners, the hardworking “average” men and women… all of these archetypes form the cornerstone of Kelty’s philosophy. His campaign material espouses “true conservatism” (a billboard I pass everyday reads “this elephant won’t forget”), which Kelty describes as not necessarily Republican or Democrat, but “fundamental American principles where family, churches and neighborhoods are the core foundation.”

And Kelty makes a point to add “small businesses” to that list of family, churches, and neighborhoods. “In what I do and the leadership that I provide as mayor, my first thought will be ‘how does this affect families?’ and then secondly, ‘how does this affect small businesses?’ Because there’s a direct relationship,” he says. “Small businesses, those that employ fewer than 10 people, are like 80% of the employment in our culture, so you have to pay attention to what you’re doing as a government and how it affects those small businesses, because that affects the families who rely on those small businesses for employment. So when I talk about re-establishing this legacy, this vision for a New Legacy in Fort Wayne, it’s all about orienting government in such a way as to respect the role of the family, realign government so that it gets out of the way of the private sector and allows the private sector to do what it does so well, and that’s create wealth.”

But Kelty insists his vision of economic development is not just about wealth. “At the end of the day, it’s about a mom and a dad claiming that dignity that is not government driven, but rather is God-given, that dignity that comes from being able to take care of their family in a responsible way.”

Kelty’s philosophy is a familiar conservative populist message: low taxes, less government, let the market decide. This is his take on city/county consolidation, an issue where Kelty believes we have wasted a lot of time energy and resources for little gain: “Has consolidation resulted in a stronger economy? I would argue it hasn’t. I would argue it can’t if it’s pursued in such a way as to combine city and county government, because I firmly believe that the larger government becomes — and the further from people that you go with that structure of government — the less well it understands and serves the people. So if you’re going to create a larger government at the county level, you’re really going to fail some people in the neighborhoods of Fort Wayne. The further away from the people you are, the less effective you are, and the less efficient you are.”

As for the recent “Room for Dreams” branding initiative, Kelty doubts that businesses seeking to relocate are going to care all that much about how we brand ourselves. What it all comes down to, obviously, is whether businesses can make more money and be more competitive in Fort Wayne. They’re going to ask local business owners how the city administration treats them, and what the infrastructure is like, and we better have the right answer. “Last time I checked, we have an enormous, unfunded liability in our police pension,” Kelty says. “We have police on the street with Kevlar vests three years out of warranty. We’re raising sewer taxes 25%, solid waste disposal tax 10%, $350 million improvements on our storm water separation, a federal mandate we have to take care of. We’re losing hundreds of jobs, and they’re not manufacturing, they’re engineering, the kind of jobs you hate to lose the most. And we’re worried about a branding campaign? Let’s figure out what’s inhibiting the growth of companies here locally.”

Actually, Kelty is pretty sure he has figured out what is impeding the growth of local business: the influence of government. Here he is on the smoking ban. “The smoking ordinance you could construe as being good for families, but in fact, what it will end up doing is shutting down mom-and-pop restaurants and taverns that currently allow smoking,” he says. “Look, it’s not a matter of whether or not smoking is good for you. It’s not. It’s bad. But so are a lot of things. This smoking ordinance doesn’t do a thing to create jobs in any real terms. What it does do is infringe on personal liberty and personal responsibility, and this is a slippery slope.”

The role of government is not to create a perfect life for everyone, Kelty adds. Government is responsible for maintaining strong public safety institutions and infrastructure. “I include in that economic development, but not economic development as cast in the terms of the current administration,” he says. “I respect the role of the private sector, and I respect the hard work of moms and dads in earning their money, so I want to ask them to turn over to the government as little as possible in the form of taxes.”

If Kelty’s campaign so far is slight on details on how his ideology will translate in to workable policy, the general message is still one that has a good chance of resonating among area Republicans left nonplussed by some of the initiatives launched by city government in the last few years, from annexation to a downtown baseball stadium that — according to a recent Journal Gazette poll — many people think is a bad idea. Kelty’s “New Legacy” for Fort Wayne, his vision of a city where the market rather than government ordinances drives redevelopment and economic growth, could appeal to a lot of voters who perceive city council and the current administration as out of touch and fixated on its own interests.

Kelty’s list of achievements and experience in public life is a long one. He’s worked on campaigns for Senators Richard Lugar and Dan Coats. In 2003, just hours after coalition troops entered Iraq, Kelty organized the Rally for America in Auburn, which drew 20,000 people. In 2004, he organized Operation Recreation, shipping and packing 14 tons of recreational equipment for the soldiers in Iraq (and raising the $10,000 shipping cost) in a single day. All this, of course, doesn’t even touch on the successes of his professional life…

If there’s anything missing from that list, it’s political office. Kelty ran against Win Moses for State Representative in 2002, coming within 63 votes of an upset. He did it the old-fashioned way: pounding the pavement, going door-to-door, shaking hands and introducing himself. He still gets e-mails from people he met during that brief campaign, writing to give their support for his mayoral bid.

Kelty believes his lack of political experience is irrelevant when it comes to the mayor’s office. After all, Helmke hadn’t held political office before becoming mayor, and Richard had served just one term as State Senator back in the mid-70s. But more importantly, testing the political waters for a term or two on, say, city council just isn’t for him. “It would frustrate me to no end,” he says bluntly.

But what Kelty lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. “It starts and ends with good, solid, inspiring leadership that understands its role,” he says. “The fact is, my kids are at an age where I could pretty much just enjoy coaching football and Little League and watching them grow. Our architectural practice has turned a corner; we’re going to have a great 2007. Why would I want to mess around in politics right now? Well, look, I have an obligation. I’ve been given certain talents and certain convictions and certain passions, this is for me to step up and say look, these are my ideas, this is what I believe in for the city of Fort Wayne, this is my hope in its future.”

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