EYE ON THE PIE: Democrats’ rebirth depends on Lake County

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It may not have been a major headline in your local newspaper, but Stephen “Bob” Stiglich died last week at age 70. He was the Lake County auditor and a longtime major figure among Lake County Democrats. His passing may be an important part of the necessary regeneration of the Democratic Party in Indiana.

Robert Pasterick has been deposed as mayor of East Chicago. Scott King, mayor of Gary, has separated himself from the Democratic Party and now calls himself an independent. The current Lake County Democratic chairman, County Commissioner Rudy Clay, was the choice of the state committee, not the local party.

All this has implications for the ability of Democrats to sustain a significant number of seats in the General Assembly and to field strong candidates for statewide offices. Otherwise, Indiana may be well on its way to being a one-party state.

Traditionally, Democrats have to carry Lake County by a big margin to win statewide elections. For example, in 2000, George Bush carried Indiana, but Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon won re-election, with 58 percent of the votes, a margin of 324,000 over Republican David McIntosh. Lake County provided 23 percent of that winning margin, even though it represented just 7 percent of the total vote. Why? Lake County went for O’Bannon by 72 percent. Can you say Stiglich Pasterick & Co.?

But that old force was deteriorating by 2004. The GOP in Lake County picked up 13,900 votes for governor that year. Since 9,800 new gubernatorial votes were cast, that means the Democrats lost 4,100. Can you say tired and out of step?

Many columnists contend the national Democratic Party needs to revamp itself, find its voice, and enunciate a new message. The split in the union movement is seen as a blow to Democrats, but it may be a blessing, allowing them to reposition themselves on issues that have been touchstones with labor.

The decline of the Democrats in Lake County gives Hoosier Democrats a similar opportunity. Lake County may be Indiana’s greatest underdeveloped economic area. Every Hoosier citizen has a stake in the success or failure of Lake County. Past corruption and an inbred attitude of defiance toward reform have made it an area not attractive to new businesses. The cost of doing business there is just too high. Now, perhaps, something can be done.

But for success to be realized, the Democrats of Lake County must lead the reform.

Not that one can tell much of a difference between most Hoosier Democrats and Republicans. Partisans of each party try to identify differences, but often they are ideological-not practical-differences. Neither party is willing to take responsibility for reshaping Indiana’s government or its tax system.

“Wait up,” you say. “Hasn’t Mitch Daniels done a great deal to shake the cobwebs out of state government?”

Yes, and he has supported a Regional Development Authority for Northwest Indiana that may build a new vision and a new standard of behavior for the region. But the Democrats of the region are in control and they must change the culture of cronyism that dominates today.

What must the Democrats do? First, find someone of real competence and beyond reproach to replace Stiglich as Lake County auditor. Now is not the time to play musical chairs replacing one oldline political figure with another.

Second, lead the way in increasing government efficiency in the many local government units of the area. From the schools to the libraries, from the townships to the cities, Lake County is a sea of inadequate management with a few islands of competence.

Third, Democrats statewide should press for competitive election districts everywhere that are independent of party lines. If the GOP controls redistricting in the future, the Democrats are doomed to a minority role for another generation.

Indiana needs two strong parties in every part of the state, just as it needs strong economies everywhere. Lake County should be the poster child for this effort.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mmarcus@ibj.com.

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