|Joe Elsener, Chair, Marion County Republican Party|
Friday, March 19, 2021
Article Shows Star Columnist is Clueless About Problems Of the Marion County Republican Party
An alert reader sent me a column written by Indianapolis Star columnist James Briggs titled "Governor" Eric Holcomb won't let Indianapolis Republicans die."
In the article Briggs demonstrates that he doesn't have a clue about local politics and in particular the problems that plague the Marion County Republican Party. With all due respect to Mr. Briggs though he's only the latest clueless Star columnist on the subject. Certainly the political types referenced in the article know better, or at least they should.
Earlier this March, the Marion County Republican Party held a caucus to elect a new county chair. As was typical of such elections in recent years, a slew of precinct committeemen were appointed before the
caucus to ensure the favored candidate, Joe Elsener, won over two aggressive opponents. Things were so rigged that Elsener, who works for the Indiana Republican Party and Holcomb's campaign, did not even bother to attend.
Yet does Briggs mention this at all? Of course not. Nor does Briggs mention the history of how county chairs are elected, a critical part of the story in the decline of the Marion County Republican Party.
Until the middle 1980s, precinct committeemen (PCs) were by statute elected every 2 years, and a month or later those ELECTED committeemen would elect a new county chair. Appointed committeemen, who received their appointment from the county chairman, were not allowed to vote in that election.
In 1986 and 1987, the "John Sweezy Forever" (Sweezy was then the long serving Marion County Republican Chairman, a very lucrative position back then) bills were passed by the Republican-dominated Indiana General Assembly. The legislation made the PC and Chair positions four year terms, and timed things so that the election of the county chairman took place years after the election of the PCs. That gave the incumbent county chairman a lot of time to appoint PCs who would vote the way the county chairman wanted. (In other words, the county chairman could pick his own voters.) Eventually the law was scrapped entirely in favor of party rules which essentially kept the same dynamic.
Until the middle 1980s, whenever the controlling faction of the Marion County Republican Party would grow weak and ineffective, it would commonly be ousted at the next election by a different faction which ran a competing slate of PCs. The result was a local Republican Party that was constantly refreshing itself and was responsive to the GOP electorate and the party workers.
Briggs also doesn't bother to address Marion County "slating," a process by which the grass roots party workers (not really) endorse candidates they intend to work for in at the primary. As many as 90% of the people voting at the slating conventions are PCs (and ward chairs) who have been appointed by the county chairman just to go and vote in that election. (Marion County Democrats also have slating.) As a result, rigging slating contests for candidates favored by the county chair is remarkably easy.
All these changes have had the effect of stripping power from the grass roots of the Marion County GOP and handing that power to the county chairman and other leaders. With the rules and practices as they currently exist, there really is no reason to work in the Marion County GOP doing the grunt work that every party needs to have done. Does Briggs address this? No.
To affirm the narrative of Briggs' piece, he reaches out to exactly the wrong people. Her turns to former Indianapolis councilor Jefferson Shreve who Briggs proudly identifies as "a moderate" who is a "tough critic of the party." (It is unclear why Briggs thinks either of those things are true). Shreve praises the Elsener selection because of his "youth, energy and experience." Briggs completely misses the fact that Shreve, a longtime Bloomington resident, most certainly did not have an Indianapolis residence when he was first elected to the council in a vacancy election that was rigged by party bosses so he could win.
Briggs also talks with Robert Vane, former communications director for Mayor Greg Ballard. Few are better at spinning a narrative than Vane, but his description of the former Mayor is laughable: "I think Ballard personified [the type of Republican who could get elected in urban areas]: tough on crime, good on job creating, blocking and tackling of government." In reality, Ballard was none of those things. The homicide rate soared under Ballard, the streets were filled with pot holes and rarely cleared of snow during the winter. The only jobs Ballard "created" were for politically connected developers, government contractors and the law firms which gave him campaign contributions.
In 2007, Ballard won a surprising upset against incumbent Bart Peterson promising to bring to an end "country club Republican" politics. Then he proceeded to take country club Republicanism to a new level. Mayor Ballard LOVED corporate welfare and he had no problem raising taxes and fees on working men and women to hand out money to any developer or contractor contributing to his campaign. I counted at least 40 taxes and fees he proposed raising during his tenure. Frankly, it's a lot higher. I got tired of counting.
In 2011, Ballard won re-election narrowly despite a weak opponent who didn't engage him on the corporate welfare issues on which he was most vulnerable. Although his re-election positioned him to help rebuild the Marion County Republican Party, Ballard did for the party what he did in his first term: NOTHING. Mayor Ballard bears no small amount of the blame for the current condition of the Marion County GOP.
That Briggs doesn't get what happened to the Marion County Republican Party is highlighted by his focus on State Senator Jim Merritt's "disastrous mayoral campaign." Indeed, Merritt was a horrible, tone-deaf candidate, but his election loss was perfectly in line with the steady decline of the Marion County Republican Party which has been going on for at least 35 years. It was not an aberration.
If Elsener wants to rebuild the Marion County GOP, he can start by giving up some of his power in favor of strengthening the grass roots of the organization. (That includes eliminating slating, which is hopelessly broken.) If you want people to be involved in the party at its lowest levels, you have to give those party workers power, rewards, and recognition. None of that is happening now. The steady transfer of power from PCs to the county chairman has been a disaster for the Marion County Republican Party.
In terms of issues, the Marion County GOP needs to become (non-Trumpian) populist if it wants to be more successful. Currently local politicians in both parties warmly embrace every corporate welfare scheme that is proposed even if it means (and it usually does) higher taxes and fees for Indianapolis voters. That Briggs doesn't get this is evidenced by his comment regarding the Statehouse fight against the Blue Line, an expansion of rapid Indianapolis bus service to the westside. Briggs says that the Republicans can't be viewed as "anti-transit." Briggs needs to leave his office and actually talk to some voters about the Blue Line. It is seen by many as a financial boondoggle that will devastate businesses along Washington Street by leaving only two travel lanes on a popular east-west thoroughfare. It is not popular. Even the more popular Red Line is increasingly viewed negatively by Indianapolis residents who now see it as a waste of tax dollars. The "build it and they will come" approach to mass transit does not work. It's not like they weren't warned.
Currently there is no party standing up for Indianapolis taxpayers against these expenditures which are always about putting money in the pocket of politically connected developers and contractors That creates a huge political opportunity for the Marion County Republican Party. Briggs clearly does not get this. It is not clear that Elsener does either.