Vigo County Democrats expect to have a “strong candidate” on the ballot this year to face incumbent Republican Mayor Duke Bennett, a top party official said last week.

Joe Etling, chairman of the Vigo County Democratic Party, told the Tribune-Star a “number” of people have been in contact with him about a mayoral run.

“We anticipate a strong candidate on the ticket,” Etling said.

But there’s no word, as of late Friday, who that candidate might be and Etling said he is not at liberty to mention any names. By this time four years ago, Democrat Fred Nation’s mayoral campaign was well under way. And last November, the Democrats, long the dominant party in Vigo County, had no candidate on the ballot for county prosecutor, a top county-wide post. 

All this has left some people wondering about the strength of the party that has almost seamlessly elected candidates to every office from township advisory board members to sheriff for as long as most people can remember. 

Before Bennett, the last Republican Mayor was Leland Larrison, who served from 1968 through 1971. Before Modesitt, the last Republican prosecutor was Eric Abel in the 1980s.

News of death exaggerated

Despite the loss of City Hall and the prosecutor’s office, Democrats still occupy the vast majority of elected offices in the county. The city judge, the city clerk, the Harrison Township Assessor, the county assessor, auditor, treasurer, recorder and two of the three county commissioners are Democrats. Democrats also hold all but one of the county council seats, the coroner’s office, the sheriff’s office and all of the superior court judge’s posts. The nine-person Terre Haute City Council has just one Republican member. 

But the prosecutor’s and mayor’s offices are high-profile posts and, until recently, it was hard to imagine people in those posts who were not Democrats. For the Democrats not to even run a candidate for prosecutor was a surprise to some.

“I sure as hell was,” said former Democratic Party chairman Joe Anderson when asked whether he was surprised by the lack of a Democratic candidate on the ballot for prosecutor last November. It seems Modesitt has “cut into” the Democratic Party’s support, he said. 

Etling was also a little surprised by the lack of a candidate in November, he said. 

“I was surprised given the fact that I had been contacted by individuals who expressed an interest in running,” Etling said, adding that candidates for prosecutor must be attorneys, which limits the field. 

Etling also said that Modesitt is not closely associated with the Republican Party. In fact, Etling said, Modesitt’s voting records show he normally took a Democratic ballot in the county’s primary elections before becoming prosecutor.

That’s true, Modesitt acknowledged Friday, saying he often took a Democratic ballot because Republican primaries had no contested races. He also had friends running for office as Democrats and wanted to support them, he said. Because he had not recently voted in a Republican primary, Modesitt had to have a waiver signed by the GOP party chairman to run as a Republican in 2006, he said. 

“I’ve always been fairly apolitical,” Modesitt said. “I try to do my job with as little politics as possible.”

A popular mayor

In 2003, the Howey Political Report, a state-wide political newsletter, wrote of then-first-time candidate Duke Bennett in his challenge to future-Democratic-mayor Kevin Burke:

“The odds seem stacked against [Bennett]. It’s a Democrat-dominated town with only a handful of Republicans in elected office county-wide.” True to form, Burke won that election by a nearly two-to-one margin, 64 percent to 34 percent. 

Fast forward seven years and Democrats seem almost wary of challenging Bennett, who defeated incumbent Burke in 2007 by a razor-thin margin. Bennett was re-elected in 2011 by a 7 to 3 margin over Nation, a former official with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with close ties to Evan Bayh, a former U.S. Senator and Indiana governor. The gaping margin of victory surprised even Bennett, he said at the time.

It’s possible some potential Democratic candidates are waiting to see how the mayor’s controversial sludge-to-diesel agreements work out, said former Democratic Party leader Anderson. He said the agreements, which Bennett has said will produce millions of dollars annually for city coffers, appear to be “pie in the sky” and have not been subject to enough public scrutiny. He also noted the city’s finances appear to be in serious trouble. 

So why aren’t Democrats lining up to run? Anderson said he’s not sure. But he admits Bennett seems to have broad, bi-partisan support.

“I just think they [voters] like Duke,” Anderson said.

Margaret Taylor, a long-time Democratic Party activist and former precinct vice chairman, is a strong supporter of Mayor Bennett.

“I think Mayor Bennett has done a beautiful job,” said Taylor, who is widely seen as a mobilizer of many Vigo County black voters. “I’m a born Democrat,” she said. “But I believe in voting for the honest person.”

Mike Ellis, who was expelled from the Democratic Party central committee in 2006 for endorsing Bennett and Modesitt, also thinks Bennett has done a good job as mayor.

“I think Duke’s done a great job and I think most Democrats feel that way,” Ellis said.

Party leadership questioned

Some Democrats suggest the party’s woes — insofar as they exist — are traceable to the party leadership.

“As with any entity, it always comes down to leadership and followership,” said Kevin Burke, a one-term Democratic mayor who lost to Bennett in 2007. The party seemed split into two camps that year with a group forming called “Democrats for Duke,” supporting Bennett over their incumbent office holder.

A leader must bring together different factions, create vision, direction and purpose, Burke said. 

Burke said he failed as mayor to bring all factions together. “I moved too fast,” he said. Election returns show he lost because Democrats didn’t support him, he said. “The Democrats voted against me,” Burke said.

Asked whether he might run again for mayor this year, Burke said that’s not in the cards, although some people have mentioned the idea to him. He discussed it with his wife and her response was “not printable,” the former mayor said. Those who have suggested he run for mayor “have forgotten how mad I made them,” Burke said laughing.

Chris Gambill, a former Democratic party precinct committeeman and active party member, said the Democratic Party hasn’t done all it could to attract younger members. He noted the Democrat-controlled City Council in 2014 rejected a resolution opposing a same-sex marriage amendment to the state Constitution, taking a position at odds with the majority of young people, he said. The message the council delivered “was wrong for them,” Gambill said. 

Gambill also noted the party has been weakened by a lack of patronage in city and county jobs. In the old days, nearly everyone working under an elected official paid 2 percent of his or her salary to the party, he recalled. They were also expected to volunteer for campaigns, he noted.

Right or wrong, that helped keep the party strong in Vigo County, Gambill said. Now, “clearly there is a vacuum.” 

Burke also said a lack of patronage hurt him as mayor. He established a human resources department for hiring, he said, adding that when people asked him for a job, he told them to put in an application. “That’s what pissed people off,” Burke said.

Young Democrats have also questioned the support available from the party leadership.

Curtis DeBaun IV, 33, who has sought office several times and plans to run for City Council this year, said he felt a lack of support for his candidacies. 

“It just feels like there is a distance between running and being a candidate and the party,” DeBaun said. “I think they need to reach out more.”

Young Democrat Sean Feeney, who ran against incumbent Democratic Commissioner Judy Anderson in the 2012 primary and now lives in another state, said he believes the local party, to an outsider, appears “dead” and doesn’t do enough to welcome new blood. Many key Democrats are retiring, he said, but the party is not reaching out, he said. “Nepotism doesn’t make for an inclusive political party, or good governing,” wrote Feeney in an email to the Tribune-Star. 

Party Chairman Etling said the party conducts monthly events, dinners, meetings and provides many other opportunities for prospective candidates to get involved. He said he meets with and urges promising young candidates to become involved in the community, developing name recognition and experience. Running for office is difficult, he added. The party typically lets primaries play out, although there have been exceptions when the party has supported a candidate in the primaries, he added. 

“We as a party are making a concerted effort to get younger people to get involved,” Etling said. Concerning new ideas, Etling said he is always open to them. The goal of the party is to elect good, dedicated public servants, he said. “If anybody has ideas on how to accomplish that, then so be it.”

Ellis said he believes the party leadership is doing an outstanding job and has used its resources wisely. 

“The party’s actually pretty strong,” Ellis said, stating that in the last local election, no elected incumbent Democrats were defeated in Vigo County. Even Tim Skinner, the Democratic State Senator who lost to Republican Jon Ford, received more votes than Ford in the county, he said. [Editor’s note: Bionca Gambill was an appointed Democratic incumbent in the Indiana House District 45 race and received fewer votes in the county than her Republican opponent, Bruce Borders].

Etling said he is proud of the candidates the party has put forward in recent elections, although they have not always been successful. He praised Fred Nation, Bionca Gambill, Jim Mann and Tim Skinner among other Democrats who have lost races despite being strong candidates, he said.

“They represented all that is good about the Democratic Party,” Etling said. “I don’t think the Democratic Party is dead by any stretch of the imagination.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

Filing dates:

Candidates can file to run in the May 5 primary starting Wednesday in the Absentee Voter Office in the Vigo County Courthouse. The filing deadline is noon Feb. 6. 

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