AP NEWS

At-large council races daunting

February 17, 2019

At $195,351, Fort Wayne City Councilman John Crawford spent more on his 2015 re-election campaign than the rest of the council winners combined.

Money is the biggest challenge for any at-large City Council race, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics.

“Throughout the entire city, the idea is to come into contact with 40,000 to 50,000 voters : that’s a tough ask,” Downs said. “Maybe (candidates) won’t be able to get to every door and will have to rely more on money and paid forms of communication.”

Election filings are complete and 10 candidates are running for three at-large City Council seats. The candidates include two at-large incumbents and a current, longtime district councilman who announced last year, while on the list for a kidney transplant, that he would not seek re-election. But the 6th District councilman got the transplant in December and filed to run at large earlier this month.

That number will be whittled down to six : three Democrats and three Republicans : after the May 7 primary. The primary also includes all nine council seats and the mayor’s race.

Crawford said it’s not always necessary to spend nearly $200,000 on a City Council campaign. Crawford, who is one of this year’s mayoral candidates, was first elected in 1995. He lost a re-election bid in 2007 but returned to City Council in 2011.

“You don’t need that much money to run a good campaign,” Crawford said. “A lot of people were kind enough to contribute to my campaign.”

About 31,015 was spent on signage, newspaper ads, catering, banners, magnets and fundraising events.

Crawford was the outlier among the three City Council members elected to at-large positions in 2015. Councilmen Michael Barranda and Tom Freistroffer spent 26,883, respectively. Mayor Tom Henry spent $1,119,089 on his 2015 re-election campaign. He faces two challengers in the Democratic primary, and there are four candidates running as Republicans.

District races tend to be cheaper than at-large races, Downs said, because typically less voter contact is required. It’s easier, he added, for district council members to directly contact a larger percentage of their voting base.

“District candidates can rely much more on personal contact than an at-large candidate can,” Downs said. “That affects the amount of money that can be raised.”

The 2015 primary fielded 16 at-large candidates for three seats: seven Republicans and nine Democrats.

“Dollars go up when races are competitive, regardless of which race you’re talking about,” Downs said. “At-large starts with a higher minimum bar than the districts because of the requirements.”

Republicans swept all three at-large seats in 2015, and Barranda, Crawford and Freistroffer outspent each of the other six winning council members. Calls placed to Barranda seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Running at-large is harder than campaigning in one of Fort Wayne’s six City Council districts, Crawford said.

“You have to run citywide, so you have to try to do the same amount of marketing and getting out to meet people and advertising as running for mayor,” Crawford said, noting that it’s hard to generate interest in an at-large City Council race.

“The mayoral race usually sucks up all the political oxygen, so it’s hard, trying to get attention to a citywide council campaign,” he said.

Downs and Freistroffer agreed.

“Traditionally, district candidates have more evenings filled with door-knocking than at-large do because at-large candidates have to think about a broader number of people,” Downs said. “At-large candidates will have a walk plan, and some will have a more elaborate plan than others. But because they can’t reach every door, they have to worry about maximizing the appearance that they’re engaging in that activity.”

Freistroffer said at-large council members have to have an ear for each of the six city districts, but also understand that sometimes things that may be beneficial for one district may not be appropriate for the city as a whole.

“When I make decisions as a councilman at-large, I have to keep that in mind,” Freistroffer said.

Both Crawford and Freistroffer said that in an at-large race, candidates can’t take anything for granted.

“When you run an at-large race, you’re magnifying a district by six times. That magnification is reflected on the amount of money you have to raise,” Freistroffer said. “You have to try to walk the neighborhoods. It’s difficult as an at-large, but you have to combine money and walking, phone calls and organize a committee. You can’t do it yourself. It’s almost like running for mayor.”

dgong@jg.net