Dave Kitchell: Democrats no longer have a left bower
Monday, July 30, 2012 4:32 AM
LAFAYETTE – Former Notre Dame basketball Coach Richard “Digger” Phelps was known for saying he didn’t want to schedule in-state rival Purdue for college basketball games because there were no good roads between South Bend and Lafayette.
Phelps’ Notre Dame teams never did play Purdue during Phelps’ many years in South Bend, a tenure that was not as long as outgoing Indiana House Minority Leader Pat Bauer has had in the Indiana General Assembly. The roads between South Bend and Lafayette have improved markedly since Phelps and Bauer became household names in South Bend. Phelps retired without winning a national championship, though he did make it to the Final Four once. Bauer is apparently headed to retirement after being in the Indiana government version of the Final Four – governor, lieutenant governor, House Speaker or Senate President.
But after a majority of the Indiana House Democratic Caucus gathered here Thursday in a rare meeting outside of Indianapolis when the legislature is not in session, it’s apparent that Bauer’s time as a key Indiana leader is over. Whether or not he will run again in 2014 is the only real question remaining for him to answer.
Democrats have been loyal to Bauer, and some would say loyal to a fault. His best times were probably 10 years ago when he had former St. Joseph County party boss Butch Morgan behind him and former South Bend Mayor Joe Kernan ahead of him in the lieutenant governor’s office. But that leadership trio from South Bend – what may be the most noted political trio in one party in South Bend ever to reach the summit of Indiana politics – that couldn’t capitalize on its position. Had Kernan not indicated he wouldn’t seek the governorship initially, then decided to run after he assumed office when the late Frank O’Bannon died, it might have been a different story. The same could be said if Republicans had not fielded Mitch Daniels.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
The best Democrats could do was to play to their strength – Bauer. As tough-minded as he was and is, Bauer was dealt a hand in 2010 that sealed his fate. With Republicans controlling both houses of the legislature, redistricting eliminated many seats that allowed Democrats to eek out a majority in the 1980s and 1990s. When the dust settled, only 40 Democrats remained, with the prospect of even fewer if 2012 elections in new districts produce an even greater Republican majority. With the drought of 2012 serving as a metaphor for Indiana House Democrats as the low water point for the party in the past quarter century, the time for change finally came.
In euchre, the card game Hoosiers are known to play often at summer lake cottages and kitchen tables, the left bower is the second highest card in the game. Democrats in Indiana have trumped their own left Bauer with a new leader, Linda Lawson, who has virtually no baggage and no name recognition. What she does represent is a new direction for the party as it attempts to regain an Indiana House majority. It will be difficult with names such as Dembowski and Grubb no longer around, but it may be the change Democrats needed to focus on new districts with fresh candidates. Given the possibility that Barack Obama could carry the state a second time in November and open seats for the U.S. Senate and the governor’s office, the Democrats are on the most level playing field they’ve had in a long time on the ballot. They’ll need it to overcome a legislative map that has estranged many voters from their legislators, giving them shotgun marriages with incumbents they know little or nothing about.
The deck has been shuffled. The 2012 euchre hand is being played and the left Bauer is buried in the widow. Now it’s up to Lawson to call the trump or euchre Republicans at their own game. If she and Democrats succeed in creating a new majority out of this situation, they could create a new generation of party leadership for the next decade.
Kitchell is an award-winning columnist based in Logansport.