ELKHART — The two men campaigning to be the next mayor of Elkhart met Tuesday for the first of at least three debates before the Nov. 5 election.
Republican Dave Miller and Democrat Rod Roberson both told the audience at the Matterhorn Conference Center that their experience makes them the right person to succeed incumbent Mayor Tim Neese, a Republican, on Jan. 1.
Both candidates have worked in the private sector and for public school corporations. Roberson was on the City Council for 16 years, while Miller sat on the council for four years before being elected mayor from 2000 to 2007.
“The way you measure a person’s ability is, you look back at their record,” Miller said. “I have 20,000 hours of being mayor of the City of Elkhart.”
“I have the, probably, the most comprehensive experience,” said Roberson, “with respect to 20 years of corporate experience and management, 16 years on council, 12 years in a not-for-profit executive relationship.”
Local journalist Marshall V. King moderated the debate, which was hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Elkhart. Kiwanians submitted questions before the debate, one of which asked what industry each candidate would most like to attract to Elkhart in order to make the city less reliant on the RV industry.
“Any of them,” Roberson said. “I think that’s going to be driven by the way that we transform our livable spaces.”
He promised to host community discussions to create a unified vision for what the city should become.
“I guarantee that we will make sure that we won’t step over folks that typically don’t have an opportunity to give their input,” he said.
Miller said he thinks the city needs to take advantage of its location by the toll road and railroads.
“We happen to be along a conduit or corridor that God put us here to take advantage of,” he said. “And one of the things that we can advantage of in that corridor is fiber, fiberoptics.”
The city should bring in industries that need the kind of high-speed internet that runs through the city, he said.
Elkhart, a city of roughly 55,000 residents, has many thousands of people living outside city limits driving in each day for work. It is widely acknowledged that the city has a housing shortage, especially when it comes to affordable homes. King said the current administration has attempted to address the issue, though it has been criticized for focusing too much on high-end homes, and asked how Miller and Roberson would deal with the problem.
“I have experience doing this,” Miller said. “You may remember Newland Village or Hope subdivision. We put three different little subdivisions on vacant properties in Elkhart, when I was mayor before, that allowed first-time homeowners to have their own homes.”
He said the city still has vacant lots where that could be done again, while taking advantage of local expertise in building tiny houses and manufactured homes.
According to Roberson, the housing shortage is about more than just a lack of structures. The city needs to improve its public spaces, such as parks.
“We have an opportunity to literally transform neighborhoods and the services that come into those neighborhoods, regardless of where they are,” he said.
Another issue, King said, is that Elkhart has received plenty of negative attention nationally in the last 18 months. That includes coverage of police brutality and an RV industry going through a downturn.
King asked how each candidate would work on the perception of the city, and the story each would tell locally or nationally.
Miller said negative stories have the potential to scare off businesses or people who might otherwise settle in Elkhart.
“So we have to be unified in this: That we love Elkhart, and we do our very best to put forward a positive message about what’s going on,” he said. “The mayor is not only the chief salesman, he’s also the chief cheerleader for the city.”
Roberson said that in some areas, perception can affect reality, and so it is important to address how members of the community see the city.
“I’m very strategic about the things I say and when I say them,” he said. “I think about you first, and that will guide how I deal with any perception that exists.”
The candidates were not allowed to rebut and did not throw verbal punches. Over the last few days, both have said that they want to avoid making the election personal or negative, after Roberson accused Miller of having worked with the local political action committee Best for Elkhart to run a negative campaign against Roberson. Miller since denied that he had anything to do with the attack that the PAC made on Roberson, though the man behind Best for Elkhart, Jeff Petermann, was briefly paid by the Miller campaign to work with social media. That relationship ended on Aug. 20, according to Miller.
The Kiwanis debate was held at noon in front of about 150 people.
Minutes after the debate concluded, while candidates were mingling with voters, Miller appeared to faint and fall into one of the podiums. He was immediately helped up and said the fall was likely a consequence of not having eaten all day. He said something like that had not happened to him before, and that he wasn’t hurt. Miller and Roberson jokingly talked about the importance of getting food and water before debating. Miller is 61. Roberson turns 61 next week.
Both campaigns have scheduled upcoming events, and the candidates will meet in at least two other debates.
From 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 26, Greater Elkhart Young Professionals will host a candidate forum at the Elkhart Health & Aquatics Center. Tickets can be purchased at www.elkhart.org.
At 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Lerner Theatre’s Crystal Ballroom, a debate will be hosted by the American Democracy Project of IU South Bend and the League of Women Voters of Elkhart County.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus