It was, as several council members observed, a historic night for Fort Wayne.
Sharon Tucker and Michelle Chambers, the first African American women to serve on the City Council, took their seats Tuesday night. Tucker, who represents the 6th District, and Chambers, an at-large council member, are both Democrats. Their election, combined with the reelection of Geoff Paddock in the 5th District and Glynn Hines' at-large victory, means the council has shifted overnight from a 7-2 Republican supermajority to a 5-4 Republican-Democrat split.
Tucker and Chambers are also the first women to serve on the council since 2011.
The meeting also was marked by a visit from newly reelected Mayor Tom Henry, who has made it a tradition to greet the new council at the start of each of his four terms. But this year's visit was especially significant. In recent years, Henry has enjoyed bipartisan council support for most of his efforts to remake downtown Fort Wayne. But even some members of his own party have suggested the mayor has been too standoffish with the council.
Henry extended an olive branch of sorts as he welcomed the council and commended its new members Tuesday night. “The lines of communication are open,” he said. While commending the mayor, fellow Democrat Hines quickly turned that around, reminding Henry that communication is a two-way street – and reminding observers that in local politics, at least, party labels don't tell the whole story.
Most of the meeting, in fact, was a bipartisan love fest.
“I think it's important to celebrate this momentous event and what it symbolizes,” said Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, with a nod to new members Tucker and Chambers. “I'm honored to be here sitting with you, to be a part of it.”
All the conciliatory statements, though, didn't change the 5-4 math when the council reorganized for the coming year.
There was no surprise when the five Republicans chose Councilman Tom Didier, R-3rd, as president for the coming year. But the majority caucus lost an early chance to put bipartisanship into practice when it passed on Democrat Paddock's bid to become council vice president. On a party-line vote, Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st, was selected for the post.
When Didier, who as president gets to make committee chair assignments, tried to shoehorn Hines into the job of Finance Committee chair for the first half of 2020, Hines asked instead to be allowed to chair the committee during the crucial second half of the year. But Didier, usually a consensus-builder, said only that he would take the matter under advisement.
“The most important role the chairman of the Finance Committee has is to shepherd through the discussion of the budget” during the late summer and early fall, Paddock said Wednesday. He noted that unlike, say, the speaker of the U.S. or state House, the council's Finance chair doesn't have the power to call up or bury a proposal. The appointment would mainly mean recognition of the larger role Democrats will be playing on the council this year.
Like their colleagues, Tucker and Chambers said they were optimistic about the year to come. But they were quick to speak up in support of their Democratic colleagues. “History doesn't have to stop here,” Tucker said. “I ask for balance. I didn't quite see that in the appointments. ... I think balance is what we're looking for in our council.”
Hines is the body's senior member, having served since 1999. But he has never been the Finance chairman, and neither he nor Paddock, who joined the council eight years ago, has ever served as president. Given the council's record of bipartisan progress the last four years, and given the Republicans' razor-thin majority today, Didier could generate some valuable good will by granting Hines' request to be tapped for the later-in-the-year Finance chairmanship.