A signature of Democratic politics that is as iconic as donkeys and blue banners may be headed toward retirement as the state party renames its signature fundraising dinner to avoid the stigma attached to slavery.

Indiana Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, long a big-money raiser and morale-booster for the party faithful, will be called the Hoosier Hospitality Dinner when Democrats meet in Indianapolis this June, in a nod toward inclusiveness.

Democrats elsewhere are making similar moves to distance themselves from party founders Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, former presidents and slave-owners.

Indiana’s Democrats say their move isn’t directly linked to that trend. Instead, they said the new name, which they won’t say is permanent, is intended to illustrate the difference between them and the Republican Party under the leadership of socially conservative Gov. Mike Pence.

“We knew, when we were thinking about this dinner, that we’d been pushing to restore Hoosier hospitality,” said Democratic Party spokesman Drew Anderson. “We want to reclaim it as the image for our state, especially after what Mike Pence has done.”

The allusion is to Pence’s much-criticized handling of a religious freedom law that brought threats of a boycott from critics who saw it as license to discriminate against lesbians and gays.

This being politics, changing the Democratic dinner’s name coincides with an election year that finds Pence campaigning to keep his job against a challenge from Democrat John Gregg, who he defeated in 2012.

Democrats hope the renamed event will remind voters of actions by Pence that led to bruises on the state’s reputation.

Eight years ago, Indiana’s Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner took on national prominence. Then candidate-Barack Obama spoke at the 2008 fundraiser, firing up party loyalists who helped him win the traditionally Republican state in that November’s election.

And party leaders here downplay the connection to rename their dinner to the national trend that sees Democrats dumping the Jefferson-Jackson label. At least four states — Connecticut, Georgia, Missouri and Iowa – have gotten rid of the reference, and others are contemplating it.

“When Democrats come together, that is the name of their event, and it’s been that way for decades,” said University of Evansville political scientist Robert Dion. “To change the name of their signature event, across the country as the party is doing, can’t go without notice.”

Some party leaders in Indiana hope the change is permanent.

“It’s time to drop the label,” said St. Joseph County Democratic Chairman Jason Critchlow, who dumped the Jefferson-Jackson moniker from his county-level fundraising dinner a year ago. He renamed it simply the Democratic Gala.

Critchlow said Jefferson’s ideals of opportunity for all and Jackson’s appeal as a populist helped shape and grow the party. But both men — the third and seventh presidents of the United States, respectively — come with complicated legacies.

Jefferson, who wrote “all men are created equal” in the Colonies’ Declaration of Independence, owned 600 slaves during his lifetime.

Jackson, a fellow slave-owner, forced thousands of Native Americans from their homelands in the eastern United States and toward their deaths.

Having Jackson in the namesake dinner was particularly problematic in his county, Critchlow said, where members of the Pokagon are more politically active.

“For them, Jackson represents the enslavement and massacre of Indian tribes, many right here in our area,” he said.

Critchlow said he got little pushback for the decision.

“Most of what I heard was overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “I got maybe one or two complaints.”

The state party’s decision to rename its dinner won’t force county leaders to follow suit.

But some seem willing.

“I’m not afraid of change,” said Steve Gore, treasurer of the Brown County Democratic Party, who is hosting a local Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner this week. “But there will always be some traditionalists who will object.”

Ball State University political scientist Joe Losco said the permanent name change may be inevitable — given the demographics of the party.

“It’s now a more diverse party than ever,” he said. “Democrats are trying to show their tent is very board. So broad, they’re even willing to rethink their past.”

 

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at mhayden@cnhi.com.

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