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Stafford earned his influence through knowledge and honesty, politicians say

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Winning their trust

John Stafford offers these principles for working with politicians of both parties:

*Remember that you're not an elected official; you're there to provide information.

*Respect people who have the courage to go on the ballot.

*This is local government; generally speaking, there aren't huge philosophical differences in how to do local government.

*The one thing you have in your favor unless you lose it is your credibility. Just be upfront with them. (He credits this insight to state Sen. Tom Wyss, who told him it was the key to being an effective lobbyist.)

*Know what you're talking about. If you don't know, say you don't know, and go find out.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - 9:30 am

In the decade that he has led the Community Research Institute at IPFW, John Stafford has expanded the breadth of economic tracking and analysis it provides to business and government here and raised its profile in the region's media.

Beyond that, in his nearly 40-year career in this region, Stafford, 63, has built an unmatched reputation as a policy authority who is trusted by elected officials of both parties. He's been a city planner, the head of economic development for Fort Wayne and Allen County, a lobbyist and a top member of the cabinet of Republican and Democratic mayors.

The key to his influence on officials is simple, said former Mayor Paul Helmke, a Republican who made Stafford his director of strategic planning. “They always knew he knew what he was talking about. If John said it, he had the chart, he had the file, he had the document to prove it. It was true.

“This was before the internet, but he was faster than the internet,” Helmke said, laughing. Stafford would go on to serve former Mayor Graham Richard, a Democrat, as his administration's top strategic planner, too.

Those administrations had something in common that made Stafford a good fit for them, said Karen Goldner, a Democrat, a former member of Fort Wayne City Council and a veteran of the Helmke and Richard administrations. She worked with Stafford on economic-development issues in those years.

“He's very smart, very hard-working, very reasonable and very non- ideological, and he worked for two administrations much more focused on practical governing than ideology,” Goldner said.

Stafford said he worked best for elected officials who drew clear lines between their administrative and political operations.

"Paul (Helmke) did a nice job of separating his political role and his public-administration team," Stafford recalled. "I'd not be a very good political operative."

“He was the hardest-working person ever," Goldner said of Stafford. "You could tell he was on vacation because when you saw him in the office, he wasn't wearing a suit,” she remembered.

“I can think of no one better at local-government finance,” Goldner said. “He understands the role of government and the role of elected officials.”

Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters, a Republican, said he learned so much about local-government finance from Stafford that he calls Stafford a “mentor.” All he's heard from Stafford over the years hasn't revealed the man's personal politics.

“As long as I've known John, I still can't tell you whether he's a Republican or a Democrat,” Peters said. “He goes right down the factual line and doesn't play the political games.”