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Helmke stepping down at Brady Campaign

Helmke

Former three-term Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke said Thursday he’ll step down July 10 as president of the Brady Campaign and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

That date marks the end of the five-year commitment Helmke made when hired as president by the Brady boards in 2006. He plans to remain with the organization through the end of July, although not as president, to help with the transition to new leadership.

Brady Vice President Dennis Henigan will serve as acting president while the Brady boards search for a new leader.

Helmke, a Republican, was Fort Wayne mayor from 1988 to 2000. He was president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1997 and 1998.

Helmke said he’s leaving the Brady Campaign on good terms after what he considers five years of positive work to promote its platforms as moderate, reasonable approaches to gun control.

Helmke hasn’t figured out whether his next step will be in politics or the private sector, but he said he’s weighing several offers. He also hasn’t decided whether to stay in Washington, D.C., or return to Fort Wayne, where he has a home.

“I’m going to take some time to figure things out,” he said Thursday.

In a memo to staff this week, Helmke called his five years “busy, active, challenging, exciting and fruitful.”

The trials of the national economy did not spare the Brady Campaign, which Helmke said has undergone staff cuts in recent years and gotten used to doing more with less.

The group is named for James Brady, former press secretary for President Ronald Reagan, who was shot during a 1981 assassination attempt. The organization historically has been the financial underdog in its fight against the well-funded National Rifle Association.

In the past nine days, two separate trips to New York bookended three days in Baltimore, where Helmke gave two speeches and did a crack-of-dawn appearance on a cable news show.

The Brady Campaign on Thursday provided a lengthy list of what it considers Helmke’s achievements for the organization. Among them: Improving the Brady background check system; engaging a new generation of victim advocates, such as Virginia Tech survivor Colin Goddard; and pursuing an aggressive media strategy.

He’s also worked to engage political allies in the more-receptive Obama White House and non-political ones, such as NFL player Plaxico Burress, who was the reason behind one of Helmke’s New York visits last week. Burress, who accidentally shot himself in the thigh and served prison time on weapons charges, joined Helmke at the National Urban League to talk about gun violence.

Helmke considers his major accomplishment to be his efforts to move the gun-control debate from taking-our-gun scare tactics to a more common-sense conversation about preventing violence.

He’s tried to frame court rulings, such as the historic 2008 overturning of a D.C. gun ban, as evidence to elected officials that most restrictions short of a general gun ban are constitutionally permissible.

“This shouldn’t be this controversial of an issue,” he said.

Since his appointment, Helmke said, he has fielded skeptical questions about his appointment. What’s a Republican from the Midwest doing leading the National Rifle Association’s archrival?

At the time of Helmke’s appointment, the NRA had given $15.3 million to political candidates since 1980, more than three-fourths to Republicans. The political arm of the Brady Campaign had made $1.8 million in donations to candidates in that same time, 93 percent of whom were Democrats.

While mayor, he participated in events in Washington with Jim Brady, calling for gun locks to prevent deaths such as that of a 3-year-old Fort Wayne boy killed in 1995 when his father accidentally discharged a gun.

He was part of a group of 70 mayors and police chiefs who asked President Clinton for tougher restrictions on gun owners, including a national registry of new gun purchases, higher taxes on ammunition and firearms, and more liability for illegal sales by gun dealers.

“I got involved with this issue as mayor because it’s a law-and-order issue,” Helmke said.

The Brady Campaign, in announcing Helmke’s departure, spoke highly of his leadership, saying he has made the organization’s voice louder and its movement stronger.

“Jim and I thank Paul for his wonderful work over the past five years,” Sarah Brady, chair of the Brady organizations, said in a statement.

“He has poured his life and soul into both the Brady Campaign and Brady Center. He is a man of the highest integrity who has worked tirelessly to keep Americans safer for so many years, long before his tenure with us.”

aturner@jg.net

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