Is Marion County’s tradition of slating candidates nearing its end?

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For years, endorsements by Marion County’s political parties significantly reduced the chances of a hotly contested primary for each party’s nomination. But not so much these days.

The change is particularly noticeable among county Democrats running in the May 3 primary election.

A heated battle for county clerk is on the ballot between the county’s Democratic Party chair and a former state senator.

And in another rare and crowded primary contest, five Democrats are vying for a new Indianapolis-centered seat in the Indiana Senate, representing District 46. One of the candidates, City-County Councilor Kristin Jones, received the Democratic Party endorsement. But that hasn’t stopped or slowed her opponents, who didn’t even seek the party’s seal of approval.

In past years, candidates would typically drop out if they didn’t receive the party’s slating endorsement. But a backlash against the slating process by dissatisfied wings of both political parties could be diluting the influence of traditional party endorsements.

Part of the backlash arises from a rift within the Marion County Democratic Party that is playing a leading role in the clerk’s race.

Marion County Democratic Party Chair and Recorder Kate Sweeney Bell is facing former state senator and county auditor Billie Breaux for the position of county clerk.

Bell is the party’s endorsed candidate. Breaux, meanwhile, is running her campaign without the party’s endorsement and is among candidates for several offices who didn’t participate in slating or boycotted the party’s pre-primary convention.

Breaux has previously been a slated and non-slated candidate. She her experience with the process has actually been “mostly positive.” But this year, she opted out of consideration for an endorsement.

Breaux is among the Democrats who consider Bell’s dual roles as a candidate and county party chair as a conflict of interest. That’s because party chairs fill vacant precinct committeeperson spots and committeepersons are who vote to endorse a slate of party-recommended candidates. In February, a group of Black Democrats called on Bell to resign. Many boycotted the pre-primary convention.

Bell didn’t respond to IBJ’s request for an interview.

Breaux argued that the circumstances reduced voter choice in Democrat-dominated Marion County.

“The person who wins the [Democratic] primary usually wins the election. So the people [will] have had no choice in who they’re going to elect,” Breaux said. “They’re taking the name of somebody handed to them.”

While acknowledging the advantages Bell enjoys due to the financial and volunteer support of the party apparatus, Breaux maintained that she is “running a strong race. She noted her lengthy record of public service and her campaign efforts on social media, with community leaders and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Bell’s second in command, Chief Deputy Recorder Chris Becker, a Democrat, is running against Democrat Faith James Kimbrough for the role of recorder.

Republicans have had similar rifts with their slating process in recent elections on the south side.

Two years ago, Rep. John Jacob, an Indianapolis Republican known to wear hospital scrubs stained with fake blood at protests against abortion, unexpectedly beat incumbent Republican Dollyne Sherman in the House District 93 race by just 71 votes. And in 2016, Sen. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis, won the nomination for Senate District 36 against the slated candidate, former City-County Councilor Jefferson Shreve.

The party is taking a different approach now. Marion County Republican Party Chair Joe Elsener, who took on that role in March 2021, said his party didn’t hold a pre-party convention this year, and is largely moving away from the practice of slating.

And it’s not, he said, for a lack of candidates.

“A good primary can be healthy, especially if it’s done … respectfully. It doesn’t mean we won’t recruit candidates and work hard in backing them,” Elsener said.

“But I think in terms of slating, I just didn’t necessarily see it as an overly useful tool. From my perspective, it seems to be, at least for Democrats, more of a function of fundraising from candidates,” Elsener said, referring to the hefty fees candidates pay some parties to participate in pre-party conventions.

Though Elsener didn’t rule out the practice of pre-primary party endorsements, he suggested the Indy GOP wouldn’t slate candidates “up and down the ballot,” and might instead be more selective about the races it got involved in early on.

Laura Wilson, political science professor at the University of Indianapolis, said the primary results this year could be the deciding factor in how the political parties in Marion County move forward to remain connected with their voters.

“You get a sense of that disconnect by the fact that you do have multiple races that will be contested within the primary,” Wilson said. “Where are those party voters going to throw their support? Is it behind the slate or is it behind the candidate?”

Democrat Rep. Cherrish Pryor, of Indianapolis, despite not having a primary challenger, is among the dozen of Indianapolis-area elected officials who did not participate in the slating process this year. She is also part of the group calling for the resignation of Sweeney Bell.

Pryor, who has gone through slating for more than a decade as a state lawmaker and former city-county councilor, said the process is due for a revamp.

Not only is it a barrier to non-establishment Democrats, she said, but cost is also a hurdle. Those going through slating have to pay 10% of what the salary of the elected office they are seeking would be. For a Statehouse seat, where lawmakers on average make around a $28,000 base salary, a candidate would have to pay $2,800 to go through slating.

“We need to revamp it. Because this, you know, whereas when I first started, it was a way to be inclusive, it has now made it more difficult for people who want to be a part of the process,” Pryor said.

She also noted the number of slated candidates facing challengers has become more and more prevalent in recent years and especially this year.

Slating historically falls under what political science literature calls “the responsible party model,” when it works as intended, Wilson said. A political party is supposed to be the “best vehicle” to vet and recruit the best candidates to ideally best represent voters, she said.

The model becomes less effective if slated candidates are not winning, and when there are rifts and barriers created.

“You want to make sure that it’s ultimately serving your end goal,” Wilson said. “If you’re supporting candidates that ultimately can’t even win the primary, perhaps you would want to revisit that process.”

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One thought on “Is Marion County’s tradition of slating candidates nearing its end?

  1. Slating is a joke! I was involved in Marion County democratic politics for almost 25 years. Fools like Ed Treacy Used slating to keep control of the party. For a party that makes claims to be progressive slating is as “old world” as it gets. I am happy that the younger candidates are ditching this corrupt process.