Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Real Story of the Decline of Grass Roots Partisan Politics in Indiana

Today’s Indianapolis Star bemoans the precinct committeemen as an “endangered political species." The piece written by Will Higgins does an excellent job of discussing the duties of PCs, but misses the mark when talking about why the position is no longer as powerful as it once was. He cites to “professionalism of government” as the reason PCs lost their clout. He then quotes former Republican State Chairman Rex Early who points, rightfully so, to the emphasis on TV, radio and direct mail, rather than the work of PCs as a reason for the decline in influence of the grass roots workers.

All are good points, but they are not the major reason why the PCs lost power. Rather it was a change the General Assembly made to the law in the middle 1980s that effectively stripped power the power from precinct committeemen in favor of county chairman.

Prior to the middle 1980s, PCs were elected every two years as were county chairmen. PCs were elected in May, and then assembled at a county convention the next month to elect the county chairman and other county party officials. If a faction in the party wanted to dump a county chairman, you simply ran a slate of committeemen at the primary. It was a very democratic system that while endangering county chairman’s jobs, infused the grass roots with energy. Further, real PCs who worked the trenches were the ones who voted at the candidate slating conventions used in Marion County to endorse candidates. PCs held real power.

Two bills pushed through during the middle 1980s changed all that and greatly undermined grass roots party politics. The term for PCs and county chairman was changed from two to four years. he election for county chairman then was moved to March in an off year, three years into the election cycle.

Under Indiana law, vacancies in PCs position are appointed by the county chairman. Vacancies in those positions and turnover among PCs are quite high. So by the time the 3rd year of the cycle rolls around most PCs voting at the county convention are not elected to their positions but are appointees of the county chairman. In other words, the county chairman gets to pick most of the very people who will be voting for the county chairman.

The changes also had an effect on Marion County candidate slating and the clout the PCs once had in that process. Rather than being major players in slating as they once were, the elected PCs get their vote canceled out by cores and scores of “mummy dummies”, committeemen who are appointed by the county chairman solely for the purpose of attending the slating convention and casting a vote for a certain candidate. Those committeemen often do none of the grassroots work that the elected PCs do. In fact, Indiana law does not even require them to live in the precinct they are supposed to represent. Not only have I seen “mummy dummies” appointed to vote at slating who did not live in the same township, I’ve seen people from other states attending Marion County slatings and participate.

To sum up, the changes in the law in the 1980s gave the Marion County Chairmen, both Republican and Democrat, much greater clout in slating contests. It also made it virtually impossible for PCs to get elected and then oust a county chairman. The cost of increasing the power of the county chairman in the middle 1980s, has been to devastate the strength of grass roots partisan politics here in Indiana. If party leaders are serious about revitalizing and strengthening political parties , they might consider reversing those changes.


Anonymous said...

Is there a principled republican party in Marion County? There's a party with that name that "supported" Mayor Ballard, only after last year's election. The republican party in Center Township doesn't resemble the party of Lincoln; but rather a trading scheme, quid pro quo / non aggression pact thang (Marion County seemingly traded to the democrats in exchange for Hamilton County). Those who do not hold degrees from the University of Cyni-Cal, need not apply.

Diana Vice said...

You hit the nail on the head again!