News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Max Jones

October 3, 2011

MAX JONES: Angry emotion yet to rear its head in mayoral race

TERRE HAUTE — October has arrived. Five weeks remain before Election Day, and a staple ingredient seems to be missing from Terre Haute’s mayoral campaign season.

Emotion.

If past mayoral races have anything in common, it is that they were flooded with intense emotion and that incumbents eventually lost to their opponents, either in primary or general elections.

Historically, Terre Haute politics has been dominated by Democrats. But a Republican, Duke Bennett, won a hotly contested mayor’s race in 2007. That makes the absence of emotion particularly noteworthy in 2011. No Republican has held the mayor’s office since Leland Larrison in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so one might assume the Democratic Party would be intent on recapturing the most powerful elective position in the county.

There’s plenty of time for tensions to rise, and Bennett’s Democratic opponent, Fred Nation, is trying to raise the heat. So far, nothing seems to have caught fire. This year’s mayoral race may actually be destined to become an election devoid of typical Terre Haute political passions.

Why such a low-key campaign so far? There are a few key reasons.

Both candidates are gentlemen and conduct themselves with professionalism and civility. More importantly, their supporters (or detractors) haven’t triggered any outbursts — at least not yet. Candidates can’t always control what those around them do on their behalf, and sometimes they don’t even try to.

It’s also clear that Bennett has not made many enemies during his first term. To be sure, not everyone agrees with everything he’s doing or his approach on every issue, but disagreements haven’t produced angry or motivated constituencies bent on defeating him at the polls.

Nor has Bennett done anything to arouse the ire of the city government workforce, specifically the police or fire unions. That could be the most signifcant factor of all in the lack of emotion so far.

While no one apparently is mad at Bennett, it’s not as if his candidacy has inspired the masses either. People in general tend to think he’s done a pretty good job tending to the affairs of the city.

This dynamic leaves the door open for Nation to catch fire. He’s well-known, well-respected and well-liked. He’s probably about the best candidate the Democratic Party could present. Like his opponent, nothing about him or his candidacy is likely to spark any backlash.

I had the opportunity to moderate last week’s Bennett-Nation debate, a private event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, and was impressed at each candidate’s grasp of the issues. Both made credible cases to the audience of business professionals and media. The debate’s format even allowed them to engage in sharp exchanges that exposed fundamental differences in style and philosophy. Sitting between them on the stage, I could feel the intensity of their disagreements. Still, neither man was disagreeable.

There’s plenty of time for the campaign to deteriorate into the kind of nastiness and hostility the city has experienced in the past. But I doubt it will. This year seems different. Perhaps there are no burning issues to fuel a surge of incivility, or maybe the community is just ready for a break.

Whatever the reason, the raw emotion is missing. But I don’t miss it.

Max Jones can be reached at (812) 231-4336, or by e-mail at max.jones@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter, @TribStarMax.

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