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Fort Wayne Mayor Sharon Tucker reflects on first 30 days in office

Sharon Tucker gives inauguration speech after being sworn in as Fort Wayne mayor.
Ella Abbott
89.1 WBOI
Sharon Tucker gives inauguration speech after being sworn in as Fort Wayne mayor.

Fort Wayne Mayor Sharon Tucker recently finished her first month in office after being caucused in to fill the term of long-time Mayor Tom Henry was elected to in November. Henry died after a brief battle with late-stage stomach cancer earlier this year.

Tucker sat down with WBOI's Tony Sandleben to share her thoughts on her first month as mayor and what challenges that has brought and what she has learned along the way:

Tony: We are right around the time of a month into your tenure as Fort Wayne. Mayor, obviously the circumstances that brought you into the office, we're less than desirable. But now we are roughly 30 days into it. What's it been like for you?

Tucker: We tease and joke and say I'm drinking from a fire hose and I jokingly say, actually, I'm drinking from two fire hoses, but it's been great. It's been great. Some administrations have a 45 day runway before they get right into doing the work. I was sworn in on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday, I showed up for work. And the deputy mayor kind of said, Here you go, here are your things. So it's been both surreal and overwhelming, all at the same time. It's been welcoming.

Tony: Obviously, going into this, you probably had a certain expectation of what you thought it was going to be like to be mayor of Fort Wayne, has that expectation been met or exceeded? What's it been like?

Tucker: You know, when you're running for office, you really don't think much about the work afterwards, you know, what we see publicly, you see the smiles and you see the shaking of the hands and Mayor Tom Henry made it seem so effortless.

But there are a lot of decisions that have to be made. After the ribbon has cut or the swearing in is done, you go right to work at making really hard and tough decisions.

And so that's a lot of what I've had to deal with in the last 30 days is whether we are looking at reviving the Comp Committee policy or whether we're looking at cutting the ribbon on a new park, it's just been right at decision making and moving forward for progress for the city.

Tony: The spirit of the Democratic caucus was to continue the work of Mayor Henry, but obviously anybody that takes the office also wants to put their own marks on their own legacy. So has there been any period of “we’ve got to accept the fact Tom Henry is not here anymore. It's Sharon Tucker now."?

Tucker: I think the reality of when that hit a lot of us is, when I came in on Thursday, day two of showing up for work.

My team said, "Mayor, all the letterhead says Mayor Tom Henry." And I said, "Well, you know, let's go ahead and change the letterhead. But let's use out all of the business cards so that we don't have that expense on our budget. And once people are done with using the 'Mayor Tom Henry' business cards, then we can look at changing the logos on the business card to read 'Mayor Sharon Tucker.' "

So those small things like that that we had not contemplated with the change that we have going forward are things that we're looking at as a collective team inside the city hall.

But in terms of has anyone said what drastic changes do you want to make, I've made it a point and the team has agreed with me to, let's keep things flowing the way that they've been flowing. We've seen great successes in the staff that Mayor Henry has built, there has been no reason to do a drastic change. They're all professionals doing their jobs helping us look good as mayors.

And so why make a change? Right? Why make that change?

We've had to look at some internal things that are a lot different because of course, I'm Mayor Tucker. I do things or look at things a little bit different. The way that I speak is different than the way that Mayor Henry spoke. So that has been a change internally for staff. But in terms of drastic changes to the set up of the functioning of governing? No.

Tony: I think one of the first things you talked about in your interview immediately after winning the caucus and also after your swearing in, was that you wanted to establish a mayoral council on mental health. Has there been movement there?

Tucker: There has. Actually, I have a meeting scheduled for coming up tomorrow actually, so that we can start exploring what I want in that council and on that commission. I have a mental health expert coming in to have a sit down with me tomorrow so that we can start working through what I would like to impact, how I would like to create this commission and move forward with an outside source’s help.

Tony: What role do you see that council playing? Do you see it as the council finding mental health resources in the city that may not be as highlighted and lets people know that they exist or bringing awareness to the importance of mental health upkeep or what's the role that you see it playing?

Tucker: Both and all. So, what I do know is that a lot of times we find individuals that are unhoused are also suffering from mental health challenges. We're addressing some of it with the social service team that we have on the police force. But from a non for profit standpoint, what are the gaps that are there that we may be able to identify and close with this council, whether it's a funding gap, whether it's a skill gap, what can we do to be able to put those services on the streets for individuals that are in the care of our Fort Wayne police department. So that we can provide a service to not only the nonprofit teams, but to the individuals that are on the street.

In order to be able to identify or to address the problem, we have to first identify causes and our concerns that we have from those problems. So, pulling together that council, I'm hoping to be able to identify those challenges, and then come up with solutions from a collective team on how we can address them, thereby being able to also partner with our community housing team to be able to get individuals properly housed.

Tony: And how would that coincide with the Everyone Home endeavor?

Tucker: They're going to be partnered together. Once we get my council established, we're going to look at how they can work together in a pair as a team because Everyone Home’s first initiative is making sure that everyone is in a home, or the HUD calls it the Housing First Initiative.

What we want to look at is the root causes that are causing individuals to not be housed in the respects of mental health. And then let's figure out what the proper housing is for that individual. We want everyone to have a place to call home, but there are barriers that we are sometimes not aware of that prevent individuals from being housed. So, the Council on Mental Health will help to identify, look at those barriers, and then look at ways that we can address them with our partners.

And while I realized that we as a government don't have the answer to all of those, and we need to start taking a realistic look at the challenges that are there. So, we can start addressing some of those.

Tony: We may not quite be to this period yet, but I'll go ahead and ask the question. Coming up on the horizon is going to be your first budget process as mayor. Obviously, you've been on the other side of it as a council member voting for it. What direction do you see that going?

Tucker: You know, it's funny, I was talking to some mayors like Mayor Rod (Roberson) out of Elkhart. And I jokingly said, ‘you know, Mayor, I've been on the side of not spending money for so long, it's probably going to be hard for me to make the mental adjustment to spend money.’

But what I do know is that government has to function and what makes sense in order to be able to help government function. There is a thing that you can spend. So, you can save so tight that you cost yourself more money, or you can spend so loosely that you cost yourself more money. Finding that sweet spot in the middle is where I think my skills will play a vital role because I do have a pretty conservative fiscal mindset.

And I also know that we need to make sure that we're being able to function and each department can work without having the restraint around them to not be able to function. So looking at that with a common sense mindset is where I think I bring value to the table. But again, we have had years of professionals that have been serving in this role. I think it would be a disadvantage to them. To come in and think that I have all the answers. I don't. It's going to take a collective team to be able to pull that budget together.

The controller, Garry Morr has been doing this for a very long time. I'm going to let him take the lead and help educate me from the different side.

Tony: Obviously, one of the last projects you were part of on council was the Google data center on the southeast side of the city. What other economic development investments do you see coming up on the horizon in Fort Wayne like that?

Tucker: We have had the opportunity to have another project come to us that was similar to what Google offered to our community. They took a hard pass because there was going to be some delays in getting utilities corrected in time for that project to come forward.

But what I would say is, while we see Google as the lead project, I'd like to draw attention to all of the things that could happen because of Google. For example, to bring Google to Fort Wayne, we had to have the water supply and the electrical utility supply. We're now running lines for water into an area that had not had those lines run before. So, that gives us the ability to welcome other industries and businesses in that area. Because the lines and infrastructure will now be in the ground. That opens up a whole new area of development for the city, which also means financial growth, economic growth, and additional housing because people have to have places to live when they come into our community as well in an area that had not seen economic development.

So, when we talk about Google coming to Fort Wayne, yes, the project is huge, but the thing that we had not connected the dots on, and of course our team had is all the things that come alongside of Google being there. Now that we have that infrastructure in place. It's an open field to welcoming new and additional industry job market rate jobs to the community.

Tony: Your replacement on council was just caucused in over the weekend. What are your thoughts there?

Tucker: You know, I think (new Sixth District City Councilwoman) Rohli (Booker) will serve the community well. She is a listener. She is an advocate for southeast Fort Wayne, which is tremendously important. When you sit at the council table. Each person, each district council representative has been elected to represent their sole district.

The one piece of advice that I had given to Rohli is to make sure to listen to the council members because they have a district that they're electing. But always speak up for your district. Somewhere there is an intersection of synergy. When you come in with a listening mind, you can find that intersection, and you are able to work well together.

I think Rohli will bring a refreshing voice of listening for Southeast Fort Wayne, to represent them at the council table. And so I'm glad that she'll be there. I've mentored her in different ways. I've held events for her in different capacities when she was working for the school board. So, I think that she will be a welcome breath of fresh air for the council.

Tony: I know you were asked this several times when you won the caucus and then at your inauguration. And each time it was ‘it hasn't really sunk in yet. I'm looking more toward getting started and getting to work.’ I see you smiling, and you know where I'm going with this, but we're a month in. Has it sunk in yet that you're the first African American woman to run the city of Fort Wayne?

Tucker: It still is not quite there. There are moments when I hear someone say ‘Mayor, Mayor,’ and I look around, and I'm like, ‘Oh, they're talking about me.’ But I can tell you, Tony, I am extremely honored to be the first African American woman to lead the second-largest city in the state, but I am very cognizant to the fact that I don't want to be the last.

So, it matters to me what I do, how I represent the city, both inside our city limits and outside of our city limits. It matters to me that I am open and that I am reachable and that I connect with our community so that they understand that I recognize that while many are very happy, there are some that are concerned.
‘What does this mean for our community?’

I want them to understand and hear the heart of me. My heart is for people. I love people, I believe that we need each other to be able to be successful, and while we may not always agree on the path to an outcome, it's the outcome that we're trying to attain.

And at the end of the day, when I've gone out whether it was for other elections that I’ve run or talking to people, everyone wants the same thing. They want a safe community to live in. They want to be able to have a job that they can supply for their family and meet the needs of their family. And they want to be able to have a place to call home.

Those things don't have a party on them. Those things have people for them, and that's where my heart is at, and that's the way that I want to govern. That's how I want people to see me. So yes, I am the first African American female to be able to lead but I lead with a heart of love for people.

Tony: You mentioned Mayor Roberson of Elkhart. Are there any other mayors in the state of Indiana you've consulted with to say ‘look, I'm new here. How do I do this?’ That sort of thing?

Tucker: Well, yes, I have had the honor and privilege to sit at a couple of meetings that we've had. Mayor from Auburn, we've talked. Angola. I've talked with the mayor in Evansville. Michigan City. Of course, Mayor Hogsett in Indianapolis, we've had conversations.

What's really been interesting is that the day that I was sworn in, and days following, almost every mayor in the state, in some form, has reached out, congratulating and offering support in any form that I would need it. I usually reply with, 'I don't even know how to answer that question, yet."

When they say, "How can I help you?" I will usually say, "I don't know yet. But as soon as I figure it out, I will tell you."

That's even just being able to know that I can call and have friends that are there. Instantly, I’ve become a part of a network of a few. So that has been very, very heartwarming to know that they're there. They’re allies, and it's been both Democrat and Republican.

Tony: You mentioned that Democrats and Republicans have reached out. What's that like for you? I mean, obviously, we talked before about reaching across the aisle and having to do that both in your time on county council and city council and now as mayor, to have both Democrats and Republicans reach out to you congratulating you, offering you advice, assistance, whatever. What does that mean to you?

Tucker: It means that we all recognize that we're all human. I mean, we all carry our political beliefs. Most of the time, our political beliefs are not that far apart most of the time.

There is a great divide. Let's move past that. Let's just leave that one alone. We're going to agree to disagree.

But what we do recognize is that, or let me say this, what they recognize that I am learning is that we all have a responsibility.

That's hard to explain, hard to verbalize, hard to put into words, but they're allies because they understand. And while Michigan City may be dealing with solid waste. We've had those challenges here. I know how trash is and how it impacted us as a city. So, I can give her some advice, and she can give me advice in a different way.

So, just knowing like in 30 days, building those relationships, it's been key, it's been vital. Having that come from both Republican friends and Democrat friends. What I do know is that no one person or party has all the answer, but when we work as a collective group, and we're bold enough and strong enough to listen to each side, to listen to the argument from each perspective, that's when we can come up with realistic solutions to the challenges that we've had.

I know it works, because we've seen it with Mayor Henry. We've seen it with the work that we've done on City Council or the work I've done on city council, and on county council, that whenever you take a hard stand against one initiative, you're probably not going to be real successful. But when you're willing to listen to both sides, even when you disagree, your likelihood of success is greater. And the likelihood of getting good things done for the community is definitely stronger.

Tony: One more thing I wanted to ask you about your time on council, and how it relates to you now as mayor. The concept of collective bargaining in the city's workforce was discussed, mainly as it pertains to city workers, city employees having representation to talk about workplace grievances with department heads or even up to the very top at the mayor's office.

It passed in a way that almost opened the door to collective bargaining in the city workforce, but didn't outright say that's the direction we're going. Do you see that as a possibility here in Fort Wayne?

Tucker: Well, you know, I like to set the right expectation and council would be the one that would have to vote collective bargaining back into existence.

And at the same time, I am not going to shy away from the fact that I've been a huge union advocate. I'm still a huge union advocate. I believe in employee's rights to collectively bargain. We know that it works on both police and fire in our safety field.

So do I support collective bargaining rights? Yes.

Do I know where the votes have to be for council to be able to do that? And do I think that it will happen this term? I'm not holding my breath on that one.

But what I would say is that there is still another responsibility that I have. And that responsibility is to make sure that we are setting the right expectation on morale within the city. So, if we know that we're having challenges, then we need to be bold and brave and courageous enough to address those challenges. If we don't have collective bargaining in place, there needs to be a place where people can express their concerns or their grievances without fear of retaliation.

I've always managed with an open door policy. It's never been for more than 2,000 staff, but it's always been an open door policy. I think that once my team and leadership fully grasp and understand who I am, then we'll start to morph into a little bit of a different perspective on how we address concerns.

I say that to say that it doesn't take a whole lot to be kind, doesn't take a whole lot to be kind. It doesn’t take a whole lot to hold people accountable. I've never been afraid of accountability. That's one of the things that we worked with in my prior role. And accountability just looks like saying, "What's the policy?" and "Let's address the policy. Let's work on the policy."

So being clear is kind. It's always been my perspective, being clear as kind. So, I will lead that way to be clear, and I will have that same expectation from my team. Let's just be clear, being clear is kind, and that costs us nothing.

When we set the right expectation, we are usually able to make sure that people aren't disappointed because they think something different happens.

Tony: I want to go back to the broad look at your administration. What has stood out to you the most in your time now being mayor?

Tucker: What has stood out to me the most in my time of being mayor? Being open? It has been very hard for me to accept help. It has been extremely hard.

I didn't realize just how independent I am. I am driving them crazy. Because I want to do my own calendar, things like that have been very outstanding. It was a real self-awareness moment there, waking up to see just how independent I had been and realizing that I need the help, that I can't do all the things that the mayor's role requires me to do by myself.

So, I'm glad that I have a solid team. I'm glad that someone is helping me with my calendar and taking time because we've had stacks and stacks of requests coming in, and if I had to respond to all of those requests, it would take me till the end of the year to get it done, and that wouldn't be well or wouldn't be good. There is a lot of information that's shared out that we've had to do from the mayor's office. We have a solid team that's helping.

I've even had to eat some of my own words from the council perspective. And I'll share this with you. John is smiling here because he knows what I'm going to say. When I was on council, there was a budget that I had looked at cutting the PIO’s (Public Information Officers’) roles, because I didn't fully understand.

And I had to admit that I was wrong. I was wrong. The work that our public information officers do behind the scenes.

Amazing, amazing.

So, I'm learning myself and not afraid to admit that I was wrong. And glad that I pulled that back because the work that this team does to help make my life easier and to help make the administration share information and be transparent is amazing.

So, it's been learning about me, learning about me and how I can do better and be better. And I'm thankful.

Tony: Is there anything else you want people to know about your first month in office or just about the future? What they can expect from a Mayor Tucker administration from here on out?

Tucker: What they can expect is continued success for our city. They can expect a mayor that's going to continue fighting, and one that's going to have a few laughs and smiles in between the time. So, I hope that I see people out.

Don't be afraid to come up and say hello, because I want to have an opportunity to meet, smile and shoot a picture with someone.

Tony: All right. Fort Wayne Mayor Sharon Tucker, Mayor Tucker, thank you so much for your time.

Tucker: Thank you.

Tony Sandleben joined the WBOI News team in September of 2022.