Amid leadership issues, Indiana Dems fight over future

December 26, 2011

Next year was supposed to be the start of the Indiana Democrats' Bayh-gone era.

For close to a quarter century, former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh shaped Democratic Party politics in roles as secretary of state, governor and senator. And even after Bayh decided against seeking re-election last year, his former aide, Dan Parker, continued to run the state party.

Having a strong figure running the show has helped hold together disparate factions of a party that include conservative Butternut Democrats in the south and Chicagoland liberals from up north. It has also given the party enough cohesion to fight a much stronger Republican Party in contests for governor.

But that top-down decision-making also built tension among the rank and file. That tension snapped earlier this month during a meeting just days after Parker submitted his resignation, saying it was time for someone else to lead the party.

Parker's decision to step down was seen by many as an opportunity to find fresh blood to lead Democrats through fights to win back the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat next year.

"They finally said, 'Well, wait a minute. There's no Evan Bayh to tell us what to do, there's no governor to tell us what to do. We want to pick,'" said Kip Tew, a former state Democratic Party chairman.

Instead, Parker pulled his resignation at the last minute and narrowly won a vote to keep his job, and many Democrats walked out feeling sore that they would not get a say about who runs the show.

The showdown was also an early test of leadership for Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg, who had picked former chief of staff Tim Jeffers to take control of the party. But Democrats at the meeting say Gregg and Jeffers never collected enough votes to win the chairmanship, which left them scrambling to keep Parker in the job.

The meeting exposed longstanding rifts in the party and tensions that could stall fundraising and dampen voter turnout next year, Tew said.

Indiana Democrats lost their only U.S. Senate seat last year and have not held the governor's office since 2004. They are also outnumbered 6-3 in the congressional delegation, 37-13 in the state Senate and 60-40 in the Indiana House of Representatives. They'll also be fighting to hold the state for President Barack Obama, who in 2008 became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Parker isn't flustered by the flap and contends his resignation was genuine and that his goal was to give whoever took over enough time learn the ropes.

"Electing a new chairman is a nasty thing, it's a messy thing and it's an internal family debate," Parker said.

Parker said he urged former Rep. Baron Hill's daughter to take over, but she didn't want the burden of running the party while trying to raise a family. Ironically, that's the same reason Parker cited when he tried to leave the job: to spend more time with his family.

Former Indiana Republican Party Chairman Mike McDaniel understands Parker's pain, as well as that of party members looking for new leadership. Party members who take orders — whether from the Evan Bayhs or Mitch Danielses of the political world — without seeing election wins tend to get frustrated, he said.

"After an extended period of time, if there aren't winning results that go along with that kind of leadership, then you see people on the committee become very anxious and frustrated and want a voice of their own," he said.

McDaniel guided the Republicans from 1995-2002 while they fought to regain control of the governor's office and lost a Senate seat — a relatively dark time compared to their fortunes now.

It's easier for any party when they have a governor in office calling the shots, because nobody's going to question the governor's choice for party chairman, McDaniel said. The natural divisions within any party are overcome by the power of the office. Likewise, without a clear statewide leader, those fractures reappear, he said.

Those fractures in the Democratic Party now appear obvious.

Marion County and northwest Indiana Democrats have long felt "taken for granted" by southern Democrats and Bayh supporters, said Lake County Democratic Chairman Tom McDermott, who attended a tense, closed-door meeting of state leaders who confronted Parker earlier this month.

"What they're doing is alienating Marion County and northwest Indiana," McDermott said of Parker and Gregg. They "took their ball and went home" rather than let the members elect someone other than their pick for chairman, he said.

Parker and Gregg deny that Parker's resignation was anything other than a voluntary passing of the torch to the next generation of Democratic leadership. And both men say Parker was asked to stick around because he was best positioned to hold the party together.

Gregg believes Democrats will put their differences aside when faced with the prospect of four more years of Republican control. The fighting even has an upside, he said, by breathing some fire into the party base.

"When you hear the cats in the alley fighting and all, what they're really doing is making more cats," Gregg said. "Well, when you hear Democrats fighting, what we're really doing is making more Democrats."


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