News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 29, 2008

Max Jones: New twist in covering Vigo County politics

By Max Jones

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.

Then things got really interesting.

One of the visible Democrats opposing Burke — and supporting Bennett — was attorney Mike Ellis, an Anderson ally. When the Democratic Central Committee took action to remove Mike Ellis as its secretary because of his perceived party disloyalty, he resigned his post and formed a new club, the FDR Democrat Club, to act as chief rival to the official Democratic Party.

And that brings us to a new primary season in which voters not only must size up candidates based on experience and qualifications, but also assess their alliances to political factions.

As a news organization with the responsibility of covering local politics and trying to make sense out of this on behalf of our readers, the ongoing battle for control of the Democratic Party presents unique reporting challenges. How best to approach the issue is something yet to be determined, and feedback from readers would be a valuable tool for us.

A fundamental question is, do you as readers and potential voters want to know the faction with which a candidate is aligned, if any? Or does any of this “political insider” stuff really matter to you?

Some political alliances will be obvious. Others will be less so. And there will be candidates who try to walk a fine line between the factions so as not to be seen as aligning themselves either way. How should the newspaper best explain this complex political landscape so that it is relevant to readers?

Bottom line, readers should be able to get what they want and need from our news coverage of local politics and elections. And they should get it delivered to them in a manner they view as accurate, complete, fair and in proper context.

I invite your comments.

Jones can be reached at (812) 231-4336, or by e-mail at max.jones@tribstar.com.