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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
City Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, says he’s undecided on whether to seek re-election.

Political suicide? Crawford’s not afraid

– It was the height of the battle over the future of collective bargaining for city employees, and there were three options on the table.

One option was to end collective bargaining for all city workers except police and firefighters, a second was to eliminate those unions and replace them with two city-created unions. The third option – to eliminate collective bargaining for all city employees, including police and fire – was so politically toxic that not even Russ Jehl, R-2nd, who co-sponsored the other two proposals, would support it.

Speaker after speaker during the City Council’s public comment portion called that third option “political suicide.”

But is it political suicide if you’re already dead?

“I think I have a political death wish,” said John Crawford, the at-large Republican councilman who sponsored the measure and co-sponsored the other two with Jehl.

In an unnoticed move 18 months ago, Crawford seemed to grant that wish: He filed paperwork to disband his campaign committee. With that, it became illegal for him to raise or spend money to run for office.

“I hadn’t decided whether I was going to run again,” Crawford said when asked about disbanding his campaign. “Why keep it going for two years if I haven’t decided?”

And now – 18 months later and after a bruising but victorious fight to end collective bargaining for most city workers – has he decided whether to run for re-election?

“No,” he said. “I still haven’t decided. In view of all that’s happened with this, I think I’ll need to look at it.”

‘Not in lockstep’

People disagreeing with Crawford love to try to pigeonhole him, usually as a right-wing conservative. But his record over the nearly 20 years of his City Council tenure tells a different story.

It was Crawford who wrote the city’s first anti-smoking ordinance in the late 1990s, requiring restaurants with smoking areas to have those areas separate and sealed off – a move that drew lawsuits, recruited election challengers and charges of government overreach.

When the city was considering condemnation and demolition of the defunct Southtown Mall, it was Crawford who argued that sometimes government must step in and clear the way for the market to act. Another controversy, and another victory.

Today, Southtown Centre is home to Menards, Wal-Mart and several other businesses.

He also sided with the Democratic city administration on Harrison Square downtown, which has become a symbol of the downtown renaissance, and wrote an even more restrictive public smoking ban, a stance that has since been adopted statewide.

And then he was booted from office in 2007.

“It wasn’t the smoking ban that did it,” Crawford said. “That issue by itself was never powerful enough to beat me.”

What did it, he said, was the indictment of Republican mayoral candidate Matt Kelty, leading many moderate Republicans to stay home instead of voting.

“Moderate Republicans are my voters,” Crawford said. He was about 2,000 votes behind Democrat John Shoaff; in 2011, he ran again and won his seat back – this time with about 2,000 more votes than Shoaff.

“Nothing had changed at all,” Crawford said, “except that in 2011, Republicans showed up and voted.”

Regardless of the reasons, Republican Party Chairman Steve Shine said no one can argue that Crawford does not approach issues thoughtfully or with his beliefs firmly behind him.

“I respect his efforts to follow his convictions and his commitment to the betterment of this community,” Shine said. “He is a man who is not afraid to tackle controversial issues, regardless of the consequences.

“And I think whether you agree with his positions or not, I think no one can deny he has the political courage to confront issues of concern that others have not had the courage to address.”

In fact, Shine said, the willingness to take a stand on an issue – regardless of the political consequences – is the definition of a good leader.

“If you listen to what people are saying nationally, as well as locally, they are looking for someone who is not in lockstep with the status quo,” Shine said.

Nothing personal

Crawford said you just have to have a sense of humor and not take anything personally. As a reminder to himself, he carries a bumper sticker he had made that mimics those made by opponents after the last smoking ordinance fight: This one says “Smokers for Crawford.”

Crawford, 65, is an oncologist and says it’s about perspective.

“People ask me if being on City Council is stressful. I tell them, I’ve been dealing with cancer patients all day. If the worst thing that happens is someone yells at me, I didn’t have a bad day,” he said. “If you lose an election, the worst thing that happens is you lose an election.”

Indeed, even during the heated collective bargaining debate, several people during public comment spoke movingly about how Crawford had treated a loved one, about his warm, caring bedside manner while they battled sometimes terminal illness, and how hard it was for them to square that with what seemed like such a heartless attack on their work as city employees.

“I don’t take it personally,” Crawford said. “Anytime you want to change anything in Fort Wayne, you’re going to be opposed.”

‘I haven’t decided’

So what does the future hold? Crawford insists he doesn’t know.

But he does admit that Tuesday – the day of the final, decisive vote on the collective bargaining issue, when the council overrode the mayor’s veto – Crawford filed papers to create an exploratory campaign committee.

For re-election? Or for another office?

“That’s the great thing about an exploratory committee,” he said, smiling. “It can be for anything.”

So which is it?

“I haven’t decided,” he said. “With this, you leave your options open. You can run for re-election, or run for something else if there’s an opening, or you can disband it and run for nothing.”