News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 18, 2007

Tribune-Star editorial: Questioning Bennett eligibility wrong strategy for Burke

One of the few things the collective community can agree on right when it comes to the unofficial results and fallout of the recent mayoral race is that emotions remain high and hot.

Unfortunately, Democrat Mayor Kevin Burke and his campaign advisors have made things even worse with their decision to question the legality of Republican Duke Bennett’s candidacy based on the Hatch Act, which prevents workers in certain government agencies that receive federal funds from competing for political office in partisan elections.

Burke this week enlisted the services of an Indianapolis law firm with strong ties to the Indiana Democratic Party to probe Bennett’s eligibility. Bennett is operations director at Hamilton Center, a private, not-for-profit mental health facility funded by a variety of public and private sources.

Burke, who also has filed for a recount in his apparent 107-vote loss to Bennett on Election Day, certainly is well within his rights to pursue any legal remedy he deems appropriate. We have no problem with that. But we do have an overriding question about his Hatch Act strategy: Why now?

We fear there is no good answer. If there is, we’d like to hear it. But Burke’s not talking, at least not yet.

The fact is, Bennett held the same job when he won the Republican mayoral primary and lost the general election to Burke in 2003. He held the same job when he won the Republican primary last spring. He held the same job last summer when general election campaigns were being organized and planned.

If Burke had questions about Bennett’s eligibility, he had ample opportunity to seek answers or challenge the candidacy before now. Waiting until after Bennett actually won the election strikes us as poor judgment and not in the best interests of the community.

The election defeat was undoubtedly a bitter pill for Burke to swallow, given the closeness of the race and overall nastiness exhibited in the waning days of the campaign by some diverse segments of the community supporting his opponent.

Still, pulling out the Hatch Act and waving it at Bennett now does absolutely nothing to change that. It is unlikely a recount will change the outcome, but what if a lawsuit challenging Bennett’s eligibility were to succeed? What if Burke were declared the winner by default? Where would that leave us?

Terre Haute is a split community, but an ever-so-slight majority appears to have elected Burke’s opponent as mayor. If Burke was to somehow retain the job due to a legal technicality, we suspect he would always be perceived as having seized the office illegitimately.

Such an outcome for the 2007 mayoral race is undignified and unhealthy for the community.

We urge Burke to reconsider his Hatch Act strategy and accept the results of the pending recount as final.