WAGNER: Indiana Dems need branding makeover

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Jennifer WagnerI spent a large chunk of the last eight years as the spokeswoman for the Indiana Democratic Party.

It was the best of times (big wins in 2006, 2008 and 2012), it was the worst of times (it sure would be nice to forget about 2010 and some stinging losses at the local level).

I’m proud to be an Indiana Democrat, and I have high hopes for the future of the party. But I’m also a realist. Republicans hold the Governor’s Office, supermajorities in the Indiana House and Senate, and seven of our nine congressional seats.

It was a great moment on election night last year when I got to watch Joe Donnelly, a candidate I first met when I started working for the party in 2005, win his U.S. Senate race.

Anyone who’s ever met him knows that “just Joe” isn’t some political act he puts on for the cameras. He’s genuine, down-to-earth and honest, and I’m glad he’s at the helm of the party as it moves forward.

We couldn’t ask for a better standard-bearer for our brand.

But I’ll be honest: We’ve got a little work in the branding department.

Political parties serve three main purposes: recruiting candidates, providing resources to campaigns, and communicating a message.

That last item involves keeping the other side in check. It’s the part of politics voters say they hate, but when it’s done right, it’s persuasive at the polls.

Ideally, you balance that partisan push for accountability with a positive agenda conveyed by candidates and elected officials.

Indiana Democrats have fought tough fights for working Hoosiers at the Statehouse, and we’ve promoted policies that would provide opportunity for our middle class. But we’ve lost ground in a number of areas.

We let Republicans steal the issue of education from us. (Full disclosure: I help Indiana Democrats for Education Reform with their messaging.)

After all, it was former Gov. Frank O’Bannon who pushed to create accountability standards for our public schools to give parents a more transparent look inside the classroom.

And it was former Mayor Bart Peterson who became a national education superstar for establishing locally sponsored charter schools in Indianapolis.

When Republicans talk about fiscal conservatism and economic development, I think of former Gov. Evan Bayh, who went eight years without raising taxes, created more than 350,000 jobs, and implemented one of the largest tax cuts in Indiana history while maintaining a huge budget surplus.

The good news for Indiana Democrats: We can get back to those days when voters equated the party with strong leadership and big ideas.

The bad news: It isn’t going to happen overnight.

Donnelly’s guidance and continued common sense approach in Washington get us off on the right foot, but at the end of the day, we have to have more elected officials to burnish the brand.

Next year, I believe, Indiana House Democrats can pick up half a dozen seats, which will require Republicans in that chamber to play nicely or risk losing a quorum to do business.

In 2015, we have to focus our efforts on municipal races in the metropolitan areas that have become the new base of the party.

And in 2016, we have to field strong candidates for U.S. Senate and governor who can help those running down the ticket.

More than anything, we have to figure out what we stand for, not just what we’re against. It’s a challenge I willingly accept and look forward to overcoming.•


Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and founding principal of Mass Ave Public Relations, a local public relations and publicity firm. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


  • Now talk about being a Blind Partisan
    When Republicans talk about fiscal conservatism and economic development, I think of former Gov. Evan Bayh, who went eight years without raising taxes, created more than 350,000 jobs, and implemented one of the largest tax cuts in Indiana history while maintaining a huge budget surplus First ill start off with this. Evan Bayh was in office well the whole US economy was booming in the 90s with the new Internet age and whatnot. To say he is solely responsible for 350,000 jobs is just being a blind ignorant Partisan. When a politician Republican or Democrat can wave a magic wand and create 350,000 jobs let me know. Otherwise he himself shouldn't be given all the credit. 2nd The largest tax cuts in Indiana were passed under Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence. cutting one tax and raising another is NOT a tax cut. Mitch Daniels raised sales taxes to 7% however the property tax cap of 1% was a net gain to a majority of Hoosiers with the non-homeowners and poorest losing out the most like always. And it was former Mayor Bart Peterson who became a national education superstar for establishing locally sponsored charter schools in Indianapolis. Funny we mention that. Greg Ballard is still pushing for charter schools. Does he not deserve any credit at all because he has that R next to his name? oh and where is Bart Peterson today? guess Indianapolis's smart independent voters didn't agree with him and choose a political unknown newcomer Ballard over an incumbent democrat in a DEMOCRAT tilting city with 30X the campaign funds. Best advice I can offer to democrats is stop following the Obama koolaid train. States that aren't relying on the welfare checks for votes like New York and Illinois will become more and more Republican as long as Democrats jump onto this new Obama bandwagon. Hence why the Evan Bayh kind of democrats are a fast dying breed. If Democrats want to become competitive again they need to step away from Obama and be independent of him.

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