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Party Crasher?

After a hotly contested primary, will the G.O.P. unite behind Matt Kelty for the mayoral race?

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


In the early evening of Tuesday, May 8, supporters of Nelson Peters’ campaign for the Republican nomination for mayor of Fort Wayne packed the Park Place Grill. Anticipation was high; practically everyone there, including many G.O.P. area heavyweights, thought that Peters would not only win the Republican nomination, but that they were welcoming the next mayor of Fort Wayne.

During the race, Allen County Commissioner Peters had enjoyed the kind of party support political candidates dream of. More than 20 Republican officials had endorsed Peters, including Mark Souder, and Peters’ campaign announcement last November — televised live by local stations — was attended by a virtual Republican “Who’s Who.” And though Mayor Richard declined to endorse any candidate during the run up to the primary, it was common knowledge that Peters and Richard shared a mutual respect and a close working relationship, despite belonging to different political parties. In short, it seemed as though Peters’ would easily have the city’s top elected position come November; everything up to that point was just a formality.

So, the guests had arrived, the DJ was setting up, the tables were brought out, the balloons were inflated… and by 8:30 pm, it was all over. Architect Matt Kelty, the self-described underdog and political outsider whose only previous run for office was against Win Moses for state representative in 2002, won the Republican nomination by 660+ votes. It was a relatively slim victory for Kelty, in one of the lowest primary turnouts on record, but nevertheless his populist, conservative message had struck a chord with Allen County Republicans. The guests at Nelson Peters’ victory party started streaming out of Park Place even as the caterer was bringing in the food.

The word “surprise” was used to describe Kelty’s victory, though close followers of the race recognized that Kelty was a more serious contender than some people gave him credit for. A very articulate and passionate speaker, Kelty ran an aggressive, smart campaign, hitting the streets almost immediately after filing. In an interview with the Fort Wayne Reader last February, Kelty claimed that his support comes from the “real people” of Fort Wayne, the families and small businesses owners that he believes make up the backbone of the community. “I’m glad for Nelson that he has those sources of support,” Kelty said in FWR #72, referring to Peters’ lengthy list of endorsements from Republican officials. “But I’ll take the family down the street or the small businessman from two blocks over everyday.”

Kelty’s strategy was pretty simple; find the audience most likely to vote in the primary, and speak directly to them. Andy Downs of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, says that, unlike a general election, the voters that tend to participate in a primary election come from the more “extreme” ends of the political spectrum. In general, these are voters who like to see an unambiguous, straightforward stance on issues. “Peters was portrayed as changing his position on Harrison Square and the county smoking ordinance,” Downs says. “That actually may have turned off some moderate voters who were looking to support him, but then they saw a guy who, at least in perception, hadn’t made decisions and was waffling on things. So those folks didn’t necessarily run over to support Kelty, they probably did not participate.”

Allen County Republican party chair Steve Shine believes that the mood of the electorate has swung towards a candidate from outside the system. He’s seen it happen across the state as well as nationwide, and that locally recent hot-button issues such as the Harrison Square project and the smoking ban probably had an effect in galvanizing voters. “I think there’s a feeling that (people) want government to stick to government business and stay out of people’s lives,” Shine says. “I think the candidate that wanted government to be limited to the things that government should be doing had an advantage over those who wanted a more proactive position.”

But the question for any party after a hotly contested primary is how well they’re able to come together behind the winner. In an interview the day after the primary, Nelson Peters said the Republican party “must coalesce around (Kelty) to move this Republican party forward,” and added Kelty would be a “great leader for this community.”

It’s not the first time in recent Allen County G.O.P. history where the Republican Party found itself coalescing behind an unexpected winner. In 1999, Linda Buskirk defeated party favorite Joe Squadrito to win the Republican nomination for mayor. “I think the party understands it has to come together after a primary,” Buskirk says. “I think most people also recognize hard work and appreciate that, and I think that’s why I won that year in ‘99, and I think that’s why Matt Kelty won. He got a great grass roots campaign going.”

Buskirk adds: “Sometimes it’s hard to really energize people that went for the other person in the primary, but I would say one wonderful thing this time is that Nelson Peters has been so very gracious and very clear in his statement that Matt won and now the party should unite behind him. I think that will make it a lot easier for Matt this time.”

Steve Shine agrees, saying he has never seen the party come together so quickly after a hotly contested primary. “It has become almost seamless, if you will, from supporters of Peters backing Matt,” Shine says. “Everyone realizes that this is one of the best chances we have to regain the mayor’s office, and no one wants to be responsible for not adding to that effort.”

This time around, though, the issue may be slightly more problematic for the Republicans. Though publicly most Republicans officials stand behind the primary winner, off the record many express concern over Kelty’s lack of experience and the fact that they feel his position on issues is to the right of the majority of Republicans in the county. Kelty has been adamantly opposed to the Harrison Square project. True, so have a lot of Republican office holders, including Peters, but since the initial stages of the project have been given the green light, the prevailing attitude among city and county government leaders has been to get behind the project, or at least not slow it down. “I was against Harrison Square, and Matt was against Harrison Square,” says city councilman Tom Smith. “But you know what? We’ve all said that now that it’s going to go, let’s make it work.”

Actually, Kelty has said no such thing at this point; in fact, he recently announced plans to form a volunteer committee called Genesis Fort Wayne to study how to make development more market driven. “The last thing we need,” said a local office holder speaking on terms on anonymity, “is for this project (Harrison Square) to lose momentum under an administration that doesn’t support it, and wastes more time with exploratory committees.”

Another voice of (mild) dissension came from Republican city council member John Crawford (R at large), who also faced a primary packed with contenders for a seat on the council. In an interview after the primary, he wondered whether Kelty’s stance on the Harrison Square project would make it difficult to raise funds from some of the business leaders/former Peters’ supporters who supported the project.

Right now, though, the Kelty campaign seems eager to find common ground with Peters’ supporters. Campaign manager Glenna Jehl says they plan to meet with people individually and “extend the olive branch at every chance we get.” Kelty is very pleased that his grass roots effort paid off (“I think we extended the degree to which we surprised people,” he says) and grateful to the small donors that make up his core support, but he is quick to point out that the race for mayor is still ahead, and Democrat Tom Henry hasn’t even begun to campaign yet. He adds that he’s grateful for the Republican officials that pledged their support after the primary.

Expressions of party unity aren’t that unusual immediately after a hotly-contested primary. The interesting part, says Andy Downs, will come in the weeks and months ahead. “It’s safe to say over the next few weeks that both campaigns — the Kelty campaign and the Henry campaign — will be contacting Peters supporters, and both will be trying to do one of two things. They will be trying to first and foremost get those supporters to back them. If they can’t do that, then they’ll be trying to do the second thing, which is to keep them from supporting the other candidate.”

Of course, no one foresees moderate Republicans flocking to the Henry camp; the fear is that former Peters’ supporters will not participate in the race. Endorsements may not have secured a victory for Peters in this particular primary, but they are still essential for any political campaign. Research shows that candidates that have the support of “community leaders” — not just elected officials, but popular former elected officials, business leaders, and other public figures, etc —are not only much more likely to win an election, but have a viable chance of beating an incumbent or warding off other challengers. And by “support,” we don’t just mean cheerleading and kind words. With the mayor’s race estimated to cost the candidates around half-a-million dollars each, the money they are able to raise depends quite a bit on who is in their corner.

But no matter what happens among the Republicans in the coming months, Kelty’s victory at the primary will probably clear up one thing that has been occupying local political pundits ever since the candidates announced their intentions last fall — who will Mayor Richard support? Richard is a Democrat, but his close working relationship with Commissioner Peters and his history of working across party lines lead some to think he might have endorsed a Peters for Mayor campaign. “I think the Mayor will be endorsing Mr. Henry,” says Andy Downs. “When a candidate has basically said to the mayor ‘I will undo most of what you have done,’ that’s a pretty good way to energize the incumbent.”

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