The Journal Gazette
Sunday, November 10, 2019 1:00 am

Fort Wayne's mayor's race: an autopsy

John Crawford

The Navy's SEAL Team 6 conducts after-action reviews on every mission. They are bluntly, honestly critical of one another in order to identify anything that could have been done better. An after-action review of the 2019 Republican Party's mayoral campaign is in order.

Since we've lost six mayoral elections in a row, maybe it would be better to describe this as an autopsy.

There are slightly more Republicans than Democrats in the city. County GOP Chairman Steve Shine does an excellent job with party infrastructure, winning almost every county race and the City Council majority for 28 years. Why do we lose the mayoral race?

The big reason is that the Republican Party hasn't unified after the primary. Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment was to speak no ill of another Republican. Strong-spirited primary campaigns are a good thing. But these campaigns should be fought on the issues. There are lines not to be crossed.

When campaigns become excessively negative and go to personal attacks, hard feelings develop, making it difficult to unify after a primary. Criticizing your opponent's policies or voting record is always fair game. But this year, a Tim Smith mailer insulted my entire public service as: “20 years of John Crawford Hurt Fort Wayne.” That was below the belt – making it extremely difficult for my supporters to then coalesce behind him.

The Republican Party has another problem making it difficult to win in November. About 35% of voters consistently vote Republican or Democratic based on party affiliation. That leaves 30% as swing voters who often decide city elections.

Republican primary voters are farther to the right than general election voters. This has led Republican primary campaigns to often overemphasize social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and even religion. This is a race for mayor, not ayatollah. Divisive litmus tests have developed over issues that are irrelevant to local offices.

Mayors don't deal with abortion. The issue has absolutely nothing to do with who would be a better mayor of Fort Wayne. Out of 92 counties in Indiana, only Allen County's Right to Life asks candidates for local office to state their views on abortion. If a candidate for local office is deemed only 98% pro-life by their questionnaire, then a lesser candidate in every other way with a 100% score will get their endorsement. Dividing our party in such a narrow way creates not a big tent but an ever-shrinking one.

Taylor Vanover ran for Fifth District City Council. He is 100% pro-life. His Democratic opponent was pro-choice. There is no conceivable reason the Right to Life board had not to endorse Vanover except that he is openly gay. Bigoted social media remarks by Allen County Right to Life Board President Peter Scaer such as “Homosexuality is a sin” left little doubt that was the reason.

The board should take a long hard look at itself. Members need to decide whether their only mission is pro-life or if they want to sanctimoniously judge and endorse candidates on other issues.

It's time for all local-office Republican candidates to simply refuse to fill out the Allen County Right to Life questionnaire. By doing that, we will stop enabling this organization's ill-advised division of our party, which directly contributed to our mayoral race losses in 2007 and again this year.

By emphasizing social issues in the primary, policies important to swing voters such as jobs, quality of life, neighborhoods, streets, taxes and crime are discussed less. We also unnecessarily alienate voters who disagree on social issues and would have voted Republican had those issues been left alone.

If the Republican primary is decided on far-right issues, we get a more far-right candidate. This doesn't help in the fall with a more moderate electorate.

Fort Wayne is a centrist city. That's why our mayors, for many years, have not been extreme.

The Republican Party has lost the mayor's race for 24 years and has not learned from those losses. If we want to win, we need to:

1) run honest, positive, issue-oriented primary and general election campaigns. At all costs, avoid negative personal attacks on fellow Republicans in the primary.

2) not emphasize social issues irrelevant to local offices that turn off moderates and divide our party.

3) nominate a center-right candidate who has a better chance of attracting swing voters, and

4) get 100% behind the primary winner and run as a team.

On the other hand, if we enjoy spending more than the Democrats (more than $2 million vs. $1.5 million) and still lose 61% to 39%, don't change a thing.

This year, we spent 800% more than in 2015, losing worse and even hurting down-ticket races.

This landslide loss of 2019 is historic; it is incredibly worse than '07 when our candidate was under indictment. The present, self-destructive strategy is perfect for losing. The best description of this strategy and the conclusion of the cause of death of this political autopsy: suicide.

John Crawford, who lost the Republican nomination for mayor to Tim Smith, is an at-large member of Fort Wayne City Council.

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