As I follow the presidential campaigns and listen to the debates, I cannot relate to all the negativity. I do not see it reflected here at home. It is true that, during the early primaries, John Geer, head of the Political Science Department at Vanderbilt University, claimed that 75 percent of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s advertising consisted of negative campaign ads and in his estimates, opponent Mitt Romney was not far behind, but when I try to find examples of that kind of attitude in my hometown, I come up short. As I see it, we have just as many problems as anyone else, but we weather them differently here. There is a certain level of optimism and ingenuity that I have always seen come out of Fort Wayne, and I think it is reflected even more so during these trying times.
In the tumultuous world of politics, it can be discouraging trying to find representation, and casting your vote into a sea of ballots often does not bring the immediate gratification we desire. However, in Fort Wayne, I have had the pleasure of meeting optimistic people who go above and beyond the minimum requirements of civic duty and have found a way to bring pleasure and fulfillment to the world of politics.
Here are a few of your neighbors who have decided to create their own tickets and pick up where they feel others have left off.
Photography by Neal Bruns
Haley Ahrendt peers over his coffee, and his eyes move over the others seated around a coffee shop across from Parkview Field. “I was the opposite of what happens to young people in Fort Wayne,” he said. He feels Fort Wayne has suffered a “brain drain,” as young people pursue higher education and then leave to find jobs in larger cities. Born in Toledo, Ahrendt began working in Fort Wayne in 1995 and moved here soon after, taken in by the city. “I really, really like Fort Wayne. I like that people still look you in the eye. I like the fact that I’ll run into someone I know. I like the history,” he said. But eventually Ahrendt found some things he wanted to improve about the city and decided to run for mayor of Fort Wayne. In 2011, the independent candidate went up against Republican Paula Hughes and incumbent Mayor Tom Henry, who was elected to a second term.
Running for mayor is not the obvious conclusion I come to when I think of how to help my hometown, so I ask Ahrendt, why mayor? “I ran for mayor because no one ever told me I couldn’t. If you are limited to what you think you can do, you’re selling yourself short. I thought: Go big or go home,” Ahrendt said. I like that. I think it is a fitting attitude for a city that has developed the television, America’s first pocket calculator and magnet wire, which brought in technological giants like Magnavox to our growing city. Fort Wayneans have never been afraid to dream and when they dream, they dream big.
In running, Ahrendt was not merely hoping to address his own agenda but rather to change the focus of local politics. “Politics have turned into more about control and less about people. Lately, both parties seem to be more worried about the control. Citizens pay for that in delays, changing of direction and blocking progress. We need to make elections more about the people of Fort Wayne and less about the politicians or their party affiliation,” he said. But he stressed that he is not bitter. “I didn’t run angry. I ran this year because I’m not getting any younger. I wanted to do it. I love the city and wanted to fix things,” Ahrendt said. He believes that ingenuity is essential for the health of a city.
Ahrendt said he did not think Henry was a bad candidate; he just felt he could do better. “Fort Wayne is not broken, but it could use a few tweaks,” he said. To start, he said, he would like to focus on smarter spending. As an operations manager for a local business, Ahrendt likes to keep costs low and resourcefulness high. He feels that Fort Wayne is rich in human resources and would like to seem them used more efficiently. He cited past outsourcing that he believes hurt the city. “Why would we use out-of-town consultants when there are unemployed, brilliant marketing people right here?” he said.
Ahrendt enjoyed running for mayor and is glad he was able to meet so many people. Running as an independent, a candidate must collect enough signatures from voters to demonstrate that there is a public interest in his or her campaign. In Ahrendt’s case, he needed 1,400 signatures, a number he insisted on collecting personally. “One of the coolest things was getting to meet all the people,” he said. He feels he rose to the occasion and took a lot from the experience. “It’s like there’s a huge corporation and you’re applying for a position and who does the interview? 250,000 people,” he said.
Photography by Neal Bruns
Mark Vogel ran for Congress on a dare. He was studying at Purdue University when his friends began pushing him to run for Congress. Vogel was becoming more outspoken regarding his political views until someone told him to put up or shut up. “Someone suggested I do it, so I did it,” Vogel said.
Dissatisfied with the available candidates and desiring someone more sympathetic to his interests, he nominated himself. “You have to be active with the movers and shakers. A couch potato isn’t going to make things happen. Target the ones who can do something,” he said. So, setting his sights on Congress, Vogel ran in Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District in 2008 against Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Luke Puckett and, despite only collecting 2.68 percent of the vote, ran again in 2010.
That year, Vogel found his campaign making larger waves than he had anticipated when he was entangled in a Democratic Party attempt to split the conservative vote and strengthen their own candidate’s chances. In a surprising flyer created without his knowledge or permission, the Democratic Party claimed he was the only true conservative in the race and urged the Republican voters who received it to vote for him. His campaign filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against the Indiana Democratic Party, which paid for the flyers.
Currently residing in Fort Wayne, Vogel grew up in South Bend and served four years in the Navy. After a naval career that took him across the world, Vogel joined the Air Force Reserves and later attended Indiana University and Purdue University, graduating from Purdue with a Ph.D. in pharmacy. Vogel has met people of all political affiliations through his military, college and political experience and found not that many differences between one group and the next.
“Whether I was stationed in Florida or Japan, the people were all the same. They all want the same things. They want freedom and respect,” he said. Vogel has met people from all over the United States and the world, and he is concerned that a polarization can occur between political groups and that polarization warps how we view our fellow citizens. “I think the media tries to pit these groups against each other. So it is nice to meet these people and say, ‘Hey, all this stuff I hear about you doesn’t seem true now that I meet you,’” he said. Vogel ran as a Libertarian in the 2008 and 2010 Congressional races, but said he does not like to use terms like “liberal” and “conservative.”
Vogel said he is frustrated with the “childish antics” of both parties. “It doesn’t matter what party you run for. I wish people wouldn’t look at the party; I wish they’d look at the person, what their ideas are, what they stand for. I think running for office is essential to giving you a perspective aside from just Democrat or Republican,” he said.
Getting on the ballot is easy. Voting in the Republican or Democratic primary automatically makes you eligible to run in the next election. Vogel said he considers the election board a valuable resource. “The best way to do it is that there are people out there that that’s what they do, they help people run for office. They help you through the process,” he said.
Whether you are writing to your representatives or trying to take their jobs, Vogel believes that educating yourself and others is important and that if you have an idea you should share it. “Explain your position, try to write them a letter, try to open up some dialog with them. Maybe you’ll find that they agree with you,” he said. However, Vogel doesn’t believe that efficacy stops there.
One voice may not always be heard, so speaking above the din takes tenacity and practice. “Good ideas don’t die. I think it is important to talk to your neighbors, talk to your politicians. If you can’t convince your neighbors, you’re not going to convince the politicians,” Vogel said, “If you can convince the people around you, your community, your neighbor, maybe you can make a change.” Participation in your community is paramount. Many people are not educated on local issues, and some may not even be aware of them. Vogel encourages citizens to stay abreast in their community and to share their thoughts with others.
Many of your neighbors may agree with you, but unless you talk to them, you may never know it. “I still believe that education is the best thing you can do for your community. Keep it local. I think it’s the best way to effect change,” Vogel said. Even if those around you don’t agree, there will always be others out there who do. Keep at it, get out there and stay vocal. “Sometimes it looks gloomy but I think that in the long run, by talking to your neighbors, truth wins out in the end,” he said.
Photography by Neal Bruns
Phillip Marx is full of energy, and I am trying to keep him focused on the interview as he rattles off a quick introduction and asks about my personal politics. He seems genuinely excited to hear someone else’s ideas and I get the feeling that he would listen all day, so to get back on track I ask him if he really expected to become an Indiana congressman.
“Some people say an ordinary guy can’t get involved with politics, but I think they just haven’t done the groundwork,” is his answer. Marx said he found it was an efficient way of projecting his voice higher up the political ladder. “The ordinary guy doesn’t have a chance? That doesn’t matter. Get your voice out there. Your voice might affect him more than writing him a letter or a letter to the editor,” he said. It is true that you don’t have to get elected to make a difference in the political process. During his campaign for Congress, Marx read an article on Tom Wyss in which the senator referred to and agreed with much what Marx had said.
“He thinks that if more people ran for office, Hoosiers would be better off politically. I think everyone should run for office once in their life, just so they can say they tried,” Marx said. He is concerned that a lack of participation limits choice when it comes to electing officials and he encourages everyone to run for office. “It’s not really a two-party system anymore. It’s really more of a one-and-a-half party system. Most offices in Indiana run unopposed. Half of the others don’t have a real challenger.”
Marx said he has no intention of changing his career as a self-employed carpenter. For him, politics is more about efficacy than profession. “I am not looking for a career in politics. I am looking to engage, get involved and make a difference. I made connections within the Democratic Party and that is good, anytime you can connect with more people.” In running for Congress against Mark Souder in 1996 and then for township trustee in 2010, he appreciated the opportunity to meet so many different people and hear so many different opinions. He said that he grew as a person and that the experience gave him a humility and acceptance of others. “It is silly for anyone to think they know it all, so you can broaden your knowledge by connecting with other people,” he said.
One way Marx connects with others is by attending city council meetings. Every second and fourth Tuesday of the month, citizens are allowed to address the council directly regarding any topic they would like to bring up. Marx said the setting is friendly and he has never seen anyone stopped or corrected, as long as they were speaking genuinely. “Just seeing someone stand up and talk about an issue might get other people involved,” he said.
He believes an important part of citizenship is opening honest dialogue between yourself and those who disagree with you. We often fall into a trap where we surround ourselves with what is familiar and comfortable and reject that which makes us question our own beliefs, which Marx says can lead to stagnation. “I think there are so many people who dismiss news and media that disagrees with them when those are the ones you should engage. There are so few people who genuinely engage someone who disagrees with them and do it in a mutually respectful way,” Marx said. Democracy does not work without participation, and without continuous dialogue and camaraderie we become divided. Government requires leadership and big ideas, but it starts with compassion and community. Be a part of yours and get involved, he believes.