Indiana’s 50th House District includes all of Huntington County, parts of western and northwestern Wells County and a swath of southwestern Allen County that reaches into older prewar and mid-century residential areas of southwestern Fort Wayne. As is the case in most of northeast Indiana, manufacturing is the top source of employment in the district. Industrial operations range from small toolmakers in Huntington to the General Motors Assembly Plant that builds pickup trucks in southwestern Allen County. Huntington County, the core of the district, contains more than half its population, but it’s a declining core. Huntington County’s population has dropped about 5% since 2000. The city of Huntington has lost around 2% of its residents in that time, despite some ambitious housing and renovation projects downtown.
Huntington County is a strongly Republican base for incumbent Rep. Daniel Leonard, who sold furniture there for almost 50 years. He established his community standing through decades of civic involvement — as a Scouting leader, a Mason, Chamber of Commerce president and board member in the Salvation Army — before he was elected to the General Assembly. In the state legislature, Leonard has led in detail-dense topics, such as unemployment insurance and local-government finance, that don’t generate explosive culture-war headlines.
In 2020, three of the five bills he wrote were enacted. The topics of the bills are representative of the work he does in the General Assembly: a new schedule of rates for unemployment insurance, myriad adjustments in local-government finance and a change in rules governing grants for skills enhancement.
As unemployment skyrocketed along with the spread of COVID-19, Leonard gained some fresh recognition for his work on unemployment insurance. The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne praised him in March 2020 for his years of work in shoring up the state’s unemployment insurance fund, which quickly dived into the red during the 2008-2009 Great Recession.
The same editorial board that praised him endorsed John Stoffel, his primary opponent this year, weeks later. Education was the key to that endorsement, and that subject was a motivator for his opponents in both the primary and general elections. Stoffel, who’s been a teacher for more than 20 years, criticized Leonard’s support for charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools that he said have caused funding crises and school closings in Huntington County. Stoffel had an exceptionally strong showing for a primary opponent against an incumbent, winning about 46% of the vote. Leonard’s Democratic opponent, Fort Wayne teacher Jorge Fernandez, managed just 28% in the general election. – Bob Caylor