David Roach Democrat Mayor
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Seven of the eight candidates running for mayor of Fort Wayne participated in an unstructured debate Saturday at the Fort Wayne Urban League.
The discussion focused largely on issues related to the city’s southeast quadrant. When one audience member objected, asking whether other parts of the city are problem-free, Republican candidate William Collins said the scrutiny was appropriate because most of the audience members live in southeast.
“These are your problems,” he said. “If we were on the north side, we’d be talking about the north side’s problems.”
The event was organized and digitally recorded by local historian Eric Hackley, who didn’t impose – or even announce – time limits on candidates’ answers.
As the event neared the two-hour mark, Hackley allowed five audience members to ask questions on diverse topics one after another and then urged the politicians to address every inquiry in one short, focused response.
Nancy McCammon-Hansen, head of the local League of Women Voters chapter, said afterward that the result was more of a candidate meet-and-greet than an actual debate. Her nonprofit, non-partisan organization was not involved in the planning.
Nonetheless, McCammon-Hansen found the event valuable.
“I appreciate any time during a candidate forum where people in the audience can ask questions without being screened,” she said. “I think you have to give anybody running for office credit for coming out and answering questions in a format like that.”
Democratic Mayor Tom Henry participated, as did Republican challengers Collins, Robert Bastian and Fred Osheskie Sr. and Democrats Tom Cook, David Roach and Rick Stevenson Sr. Republican Mitch Harper is the only candidate who didn’t attend.
Henry left about halfway through, citing the need to attend a memorial service with his wife.
About 50 people attended the event, including 10 who wore yellow T-shirts supporting Stevenson, the only black man running for mayor. The majority of the audience was black.
Hackley began by telling the candidates that some people are afraid to approach them and ask questions. Each of the seven mayoral hopefuls reassured those in attendance that he is approachable.
“People ask me questions every day,” said Stevenson, who is Wayne Township trustee.
Roach used his turn to bash the incumbents. “What they’re doing is they’re just stealing our money for their benefit,” he said.
Collins put out a plea to voters. “My main platform is the fact that I’d just like more people to get involved,” he said.
Cook said his parents didn’t give him a financial leg up when he was starting out. “I didn’t go to these high-class colleges,” he said. “I want to change the way the city is run.”
Bastian, who praised the incumbent, wants to serve for just one term. After that, he said, Henry could return to office. “At my age, I’ve got no mountains to climb,” he said. “I just want to move the city along.”
Henry listed actions he’s taken to be more accessible to voters, including inviting anyone to drop in and ask questions at Mayor’s Night In events and taking his department heads with him to walk through neighborhoods and answer residents’ questions in a process he calls Mayor’s Night Out. He also launched the 311 answering service that allows residents to call and get answers about city-related problems and issues, he said.
“I’m doing all I can to make my administration accessible,” he said, adding that his email address is mayor@CityOfFortWayne.org.
Osheskie, a former mayor in Ohio, said friends and relatives have asked him to run for mayor. “There’s so much waste going on in this city, it’s pathetic,” he said.
Although Hackley billed Saturday’s event as one that would focus on local history, at least briefly, he didn’t ask participants any history-related questions.
Andy Downs, director of the non-partisan Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, was unable to attend the event. Contacted on Friday, Downs said Hackley likely increased the number of candidates willing to participate in the event by scheduling it at the Urban League and by issuing the invitation during a city council meeting.
Organizations, such as the Urban League, need to consider whether they want to partner with individuals who want to organize a debate or whether they can run the event just as well on their own, Downs said. A strong partner brings experience and legitimacy to the table, he said.
It’s up to individual candidates and their campaign managers to decide whether a particular forum or debate is the best use of the candidate’s time – as opposed to knocking on doors, for example.
Downs predicted attendance would be sparse because the debate had little advertising and competed with nice weather and NCAA basketball tournament games. In fact, Downs was unaware of the event until contacted by The Journal Gazette.
The audience included a few additional elected officials and candidates: John Crawford, Republican candidate for re-election to city council at- large; Rusty York, Democratic candidate for city council district 4; Geoff Paddock, Democratic incumbent candidate for city council district 5; and Cathy Cross, Democratic candidate for city council at-large.
Two candidates for city clerk – Democrat Angela Davis and Republican Derek Pillie – also attended.
A forum for city council candidates has been scheduled for Saturday at the Urban League. That session will begin at noon.