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December 31, 2010

HOWEY: Gubernatorial options for Indiana Democrats

INDIANAPOLIS — In the coming week or so, all eyes will be on Republican Rep. Mike Pence and whether he decides to run for governor of Indiana in 2012, or seek the presidency. There’s a wide open field for Democrats with Evan Bayh’s decision not to run. So here is my take on that potential field, complete with a 1 (weak) to 5 (strong) viability scale:

• U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth: The earliest money appears to be flocking to Ellsworth. Hammond Mayor and Lake County Democratic Chair Thomas McDermott is encouraging him to run.

“I think he’d be the candidate who makes the most sense,” McDermott explained. “He’s invested four or five million dollars into the Ellsworth name statewide. I’m trying to talk him into it.” Going into 2010, he was “Landslide Ellsworth,” winning two Vanderburgh County sheriff races (one unopposed) and two 8th Congressional District races with no one coming within 30,000 votes.

Ellsworth lost in November to Sen. Dan Coats by a 55-40 percent margin in what was a late-starting campaign (beginning last Feb. 19) in the teeth of a GOP tsunami. Ellsworth gets strong party accolades for not only stepping up into the Bayh breach, but for voting for the Obama health reforms, which will be an issue he will have to defend should he re-enter politics.

However, his Senate campaign rested on one huge issue — Dan Coats as a lobbyist — and it failed. Ellsworth can run as a pro-life, fiscal Blue Dog, strong on crime and national security. Without a congressional seat to defend, he could borrow a page from Gov. Daniels, rent an RV and traverse the state over the next year to build support. Viability Scale: 5

• U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly: St. Joseph County Democratic Chair Butch Morgan says the new Congressional maps could determine whether Donnelly seeks a fourth term in 2012 or runs for governor. Morgan said that Donnelly “loves” serving in Congress and would probably lean toward staying there unless his district changes dramatically.

Donnelly is highly regarded by Democrats, having gutted out a tough win last month. He is well respected among independent and even Republican voters, and gets grudging respect from business interests.

Donnelly is a Blue Dog fiscal Democrat, pro-life and is the kind of Democrat who can potentially appeal to demographics the party lost this past cycle: white women, independents and Reagan Democrats. He was an ardent defender of the Obama administration’s auto restructuring, but drew the line on the controversial Cap-and-Trade legislation. Viability Scale: 4

• Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel: The two-term mayor and former state representative entered the 2012 gubernatorial cycle as the hottest personality. His 2009 appearance before the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner set off an unmistakable buzz.

But within a month, his mojo went careening into a ditch when it was revealed he secretly conspired with Vanderburgh County officials to scrap the homestead tax exemption. As Vanderburgh County Treasurer Rick Davis — who has already announced for the Democratic mayoral primary — put it, “$5.1 million was taken from 46,000 homeowners in 2009. That was a big error on the part of the mayor’s administration.”

While the credit was reinstated, Weinzapfel will almost certainly be on the defensive for that mistake either in a Democratic primary or in the general election. While we don’t view it as a “fatal error,” it’s not the kind of thrust a candidate needs heading into a gubernatorial campaign. It will be critical for Weinzapfel to figure a way to defuse it and to define his mayoral tenure. Viability Scale: 3.5

• Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight: He is a true rising star in the Democratic Party. He took the helm of Kokomo just as the Great Recession and the property tax caps began, then watched as GM, Chrysler and Delphi teetered on the brink of liquidation. Goodnight was a key local voice during the Obama auto restructuring and an important figure in developing a new relationship with Fiat, and is one of Indiana’s most innovative mayors. He started the K-Fuel program — turning restaurant grease into city fleet diesel fuel — merged 911 dispatch centers, started a city bus service, trimmed fire department and ambulance service costs through attrition and privatization, reduced the city payroll and ignited the debate on Kokomo/Howard County consolidation. For a party mired in defending the status quo with a void of ideas, there is a beacon mayor working in the City of Firsts. Viability Scale: 4

• Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez: The outgoing sheriff conducted a gubernatorial campaign listening tour in 2009, but I just don’t see being Lake County sheriff as a very viable base to run for the state’s highest executive office. Viability Scale: 1

• State Sen. Vi Simpson: She was a gubernatorial candidate in 2003 after Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan withdrew from the race and before Gov. Frank O’Bannon died. She crossed swords with the UAW, which backed the Joe Andrew campaign, and then withdrew after O’Bannon’s death and the re-emergence of Gov. Kernan. Leading the tiny Democratic Senate caucus, she might find a gubernatorial run a better way to revive the party. Viability Scale: 2.5

The next six months will be crucial for this process. Once the new maps are drawn, the mayoral fields for 2011 are set, Hoosier Democrats will sort all of this out and try to come to a consensus nominee early next summer.

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