ELKHART — Republicans lost their 7-2 majority on the Elkhart City Council in Tuesday's municipal election, which some said was a sort of referendum on this council's Tolson Center decisions.
Three Republicans, all of whom voted in favor of defunding and thereby closing the center in 2018, lost their seats. That means Democrats will hold a 5-4 majority come January.
Only one council member who voted to close the community center kept his seat. That was David Henke, R-3, who was unopposed in both the primary and general elections. Earlier this year, he came up with the plan to move the Parks & Recreation Department to the Tolson Center, leading to the center's recent reopening.
Elkhart County Democratic Party chairman Chad Crabtree was in a good mood on Wednesday.
"We're very pleased that the City of Elkhart has decided to go to a new direction of comprehensive leadership," Crabtree said. "It was noted that those who voted against Tolson on the City Council are no longer on the City Council."
Council President Brian Dickerson, R-at-large, was the most prominent council member to lose on Tuesday. Dickerson raised $45,000 by the mid-October campaign finance report filing deadline, beating the runner-up, Democrat Arvis Dawson, by $16,000. No other candidate for City Council was close to those two.
Still, Dickerson lost his seat, which Dawson will take. Re-elected at-large were 24-year Republican council veteran Mary Olson and Republican Kevin Bullard, who was chosen by his party to replace former Councilman Adam Bujalski in late 2018.
Olson received 3,013 votes. Bullard, 2,939. Dawson, 2,935.
Losing were Democrat Alex Holtz, with 2,905, Dickerson with 2,725, and Democrat Thomas Butler with 2,490.
According to Dawson, the at-large results largely came down to name-recognition. Both he and Olson have served more than two decades on the council, and Dawson was executive assistant to former Democratic Mayor Dick Moore.
Bullard, who may be best known for owning Bullard’s Farm Market, did not agree with Dawson's assessment that the election came down to name-recognition. He said his experience of listening to people on a daily basis and providing a service means that people have faith in him.
"Having someone who has been in business for over 30 years is what is needed in government," he said.
Dickerson, as council president, has been a leading political figure in Elkhart, but that was not enough to keep him in.
"He's the next-to-last place vote-getter after being president of the council," Dawson said. "Just says that the people didn't like the direction that he was leading the council in."
Dickerson said Wednesday morning that he was still processing the result.
"Obviously, the City of Elkhart decided they wanted to make a change," he said, wishing good luck for those who won on Tuesday.
He did not see the election as a referendum on the Tolson Center decisions.
"There was a lack of enthusiasm from the Republican base here, and I think that had more to do with it yesterday than not," he said. "Over the next few months, we will dissect what went down there."
Dickerson, the current council's youngest member at age 30, said he is keeping his options open for what might happen next in his political career, but that he does not currently have any plans. He said in December that he was seriously considering a run for mayor.
In District 1, an attorney and political newcomer Gerry Roberts, Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Richard Shively by 54% to 46%, or 527 votes to 440.
During the campaign, Roberts criticized Shively for being out of touch with voters, especially Latinos and African Americans, following comments that the Republican made on the City Council and during a debate.
District 2 incumbent Republican Brian Thomas defeated Democratic challenger Andrew Strycker by 53% to 47%, or 443 votes to 396.
Thomas campaigned on his experience, offering to keep his 16 years of City Council experience at City Hall. He also touted a recent decision to create a new Public Safety Complex, joining police, fire and dispatch, at the old Bayer property in District 2.
David Henke, R-3; Dwight Fish, D-4; and Brent Curry, D-5, were unopposed and will serve another term.
In District 6, which had the same candidates as in 2015, the winner changed, as former Democratic Councilwoman Tonda Hines defeated Republican incumbent Pam Kurpgeweit by 58% to 42%, or 410 votes to 294 votes. In 2015, Kurpgeweit ousted Hines by 307 to 301.
Hines said the close defeat last time around caused her to work harder this time. She criticized Kurpgeweit for voting to close the Tolson Center. She also campaigned on adding more crossing guards near schools in the city.
Elkhart County Republican Party chairman Dan Holtz said the results were tied to Republicans making decisions that were not always popular, even if they may have been right.
"You've made some hard decisions on the council, and that often involves offending people," he said.
The results were disappointing, he said, and they were likely tied to what he called a contentious relationship between the council and Republican Mayor Tim Neese.
"That didn't help them. Some of the decisions that were made at the council were consequently somewhat fractious," he said.
As for the mayoral election, in which Democratic former City Councilman Rod Roberson beat Republican former Mayor Dave Miller 56% to 44%, or 3,599 votes to 2,773, Holtz said Republicans were hurt by incumbent Tim Neese waiting until December to announce he would not seek re-election.
"We tried to aggressively catch up, but it was clear on the results, that wasn't successful," Holtz said.
Miller announced his bid in January, as did Roberson, but Holtz argued that Roberson had more time to create an organization and a plan before doing so.
Among possible reasons for Neese not running again was a police scandal that broke out in November 2018, when it was revealed that two officers had beaten a handcuffed suspect. That led to their suspension and criminal cases against them, and Neese asked for then-Police Chief Ed Windbigler's resignation. Neese's son, an Elkhart police officer, was in the room when the beating happened but did not interfere.
But that case, according to Holtz, is unlikely to have affected Miller's campaign. Miller was not involved in the running of any city departments at the time and, Holtz said, the case received less attention in the last half of 2019 after initially making national news.
Both candidates received criticism for their financial histories — Roberson for having his home foreclosed upon during the Great Recession, with several lawsuits to follow, and Miller for several state audits of the city during his administration.
Roberson and Miller, both 61, have had health issues, though Miller's were more recent, as he fainted during two mayoral debates in the fall due to a heart condition. Roberson said he had a life-threatening bout with pneumonia shortly after his house foreclosure.
Crabtree said that, though candidates prefer to be unopposed in primaries, it may have helped Roberson that he ran against Ashley Boling Molyneaux in the Democratic primary in the spring. Miller was unopposed then.
"I think that's what people kind of cut their teeth on, because, yes you have to spend money, but you get your base out. You find out where your supporters are, and it makes you work," Crabtree said.
He also said that both the Roberson campaign and the Elkhart City Democratic Committee had "a very good ground game."
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus