News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Max Jones

February 29, 2008

Max Jones: New twist in covering Vigo County politics

TERRE HAUTE — “I don’t belong to any organized party: I am a Democrat.”

— Will Rogers




That piece of cowboy wisdom was not, of course, inspired by the current state of affairs in Vigo County’s Democratic Party. But it could have been.

One need not be an astute observer of local politics to know that the Democratic Party infrastructure here is cracked and fragmented. It’s been that way for a long time. What has happened in the past 18 months, however, makes traditional partisan wars between Democrats and Republicans pale in terms of overt tension and hostility.

The fundamental split has little to do with political philosophy and much to do with loyalties and allegiances to party factions and figureheads. The main factions of the party today center around two individuals — Bob Wright and Joe Anderson. Both are longtime attorneys and have enjoyed varying degrees of political success. Wright has been prosecutor. Anderson was a judge. Both have served as chairmen of the county’s Democratic Central Committee.

There have even been times when these men and their factions were allies, although that has certainly not been the case in recent election cycles.

Mostly, these rival factions have done battle only during party primaries. That all changed in 2006 when Wright stepped aside as prosecutor and he gave his support to deputy prosecutor Sarah Mullican. She won the hotly contested primary over several candidates. But this time the party did not close ranks behind her. Instead, some of the defeated Democrat candidates and their supporters publicly backed Republican Terry Modessit, who ultimately won in the general election.

The public split emerged again last year in the Terre Haute mayoral race. Incumbent Mayor Kevin Burke, who was seen as aligned with the Wright faction, won handily in the primary over Jim Horrall, the Anderson faction’s candidate. Rather than heal the rift for the general election, the Anderson faction joined with other anti-Burke forces in the community to openly back Republican Duke Bennett, who rode the unlikely coalition to a narrow victory in the general election.

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