Political analyst on debate: “I think they both did what they needed to do”

Henry and Harper square off in mayoral debate

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Monday night’s mayoral debate focused on three topics: downtown and community development, Fort Wayne safety, and the future of the city. It quickly became clear the two candidates don’t agree on much, with both calling the other out plenty of times throughout the night.

The 60 minute debate was full of both men touting records and accomplishments while pointing out the other candidate’s flaws. The evening brought out different and perhaps unexpected sides of both Republican candidate Mitch Harper and incumbent Democratic Mayor Tom Henry.

“When you set up a debate, you kind of think well, we know their basic personalities, maybe it’s going to go the way everybody expects. What I found interesting was that Henry did come out sort of swinging away a little bit, not awful, not real vigorous, but there was a little bit of swinging. Harper didn’t really seem to take the bait, and so then it sort of calmed down a little bit from there. There was a nice level of tension and a little bit of jabbing going on all night long, but that’s good because people need to see where the candidates believe they differ from one another. The candidates need to challenge each other, please explain why you think this is a good idea, I think that’s a bad idea. They need to do that sort of stuff, and I think we got a fair amount of that last night,” Director for the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics Andy Downs said.

Throughout the night, both candidates went back and forth on each others records and histories.

“Tom Henry is known as this guy who is known as very friendly. A lot of people have known him for years, and when they meet him in the street, he’s a friendly, nice guy. But, what they don’t see is a guy who can be a little combative. People who have known him for a long time, whether that was back when he was on city council or in other instances, he can be combative. That’s just not his normal way of doing things, so that was probably quite a shock to some people,” Downs said. “Part of what people learned, people who know Mitch Harper pretty well realized that he can be incredibly concise when he needs to be, which for some people is an interesting thing to find out about him. They also realized that Tom Henry is not just somebody who is this meek, mild, quiet guy and that he can get a little combative. So, we got a little insight into their personalities that we maybe didn’t have before.”

Both candidates more or less read off their resumes to the crowd, with Henry touting his two terms as mayor and Harper bringing up his time in the state legislature from 1978 to 1990. At one point, Mayor Henry said,

“Councilman, you’re talking about being in the legislature, that was 45 years ago. Things have changed significantly.  I realize you’re very proud of that, and I’m glad you were a legislator, but we’ve got to get with the times, and it’s been almost five decades since you were there.”

Harper responded with,

“Mayor, I’m not yet 60. I don’t know how it could’ve been five decades ago.”

When the mayor said it was roughly, Harper responded “very rough.”

“One of the thing that candidates have to do is make people believe that they can do the job. We do that by talking about our experiences. So, Henry obviously wants to talk about eight years he’s been mayor. He can talk about the several terms he’s been on city council. So, he really should know city government inside and out. Mitch Harper, obviously, can talk about time on city council. But, part of being a mayor means being able to interact with people at the state legislature and at the state level. So, part of his building credibility is being able to say ‘I was in the state legislature’ and let people know yes, he can communicate with people on that level,” Downs said.

When public safety came up, Harper quickly called out the mayor for saying crime is down when murders remain unsolved. He thinks Henry should put extra resources to solve even the murders that happened before his administration. Henry said he refused to respond to that “outlandish remark.”

While both candidates questioned the other and spoke proudly about his plans for the city, Downs said determining a clear winner is a tough call.

“I think they both did what they needed to do. I think that neither one did any harm to themselves. I know that I talked to some folks last night, and they basically thought Harper maybe won on points, but not a big enough victory to make a whole lot of difference in the election. I know some other people thought that Tom Henry, this is not his forte and the fact that he didn’t get his clock cleaned, they thought well maybe that’s the victory for him,” Downs said.

He does think it’s clear, though, that both Henry and Harper did their homework and showed up well-prepared.

“When it comes to a debate, actually when it comes to any sort of interview, I always tell people answer the question you want to answer, not the question that was asked. The questions that were asked last night were specific, but they were also worded in a way that good candidates would be able to pivot in a lot of different directions, and we saw that,” Downs said.

Will the debate have enough of an impact to change or solidify voters’ decisions? Downs thinks it just might.

“It probably helped to inform some voters. I think there were probably some voters who were watching it, and they weren’t sure what they wanted to do. This probably gave them enough information to make that decision. There’s some places where there isn’t a lot of difference between the two of them, but there are also some stark differences. I think there was enough of that that people who are undecided would’ve been able to make their decision,” Downs said.

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