SOUTH BEND - Jason Critchlow was re-elected without opposition as St. Joseph County Democratic chair.
So, why would he want four more years in a job without a salary, where expectations are seemly unrealistically high and where losing candidates often blame the chairman, while winners say they did it all by themselves with their own political skill and personal charm?
Critchlow is coming back for more, even after St. Joseph County, that supposed bastion of Democratic strength, gave the party’s presidential nominee a margin of a mere 288 votes out of nearly 112,000 cast in 2016. He says it’s because of a passionate belief that politics is important. The election of Donald Trump proved that, he says, and gives him more incentive now, not less.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Critchlow says of determination he sees in party ranks and with new volunteers, packed in “elbow to elbow” in meetings at the small Democratic headquarters in downtown South Bend.
He relates that six potential Democratic candidates for Congress came forward quickly after Jackie Walorski, the 2nd District Republican incumbent, won an overwhelming victory last fall, carrying nine of the 10 counties in the district - losing only in St. Joseph County by just 2,511 votes. A bit short of some of those old-time St. Joe Democratic pluralities of 20,000.
Isn’t it unreasonable, even laughable, to claim that big Democratic margins like that can be achieved again soon? Critchlow makes that claim and contends that he will have the last laugh.
He points out that there was a county plurality of over 21,000 for Democrat Brendan Mullen, who nearly defeated Walorski in the Republican-drawn district in 2012.
Also, he sees signs of a strong party base in Democrats still winning the vast majority of offices at stake in the county, despite the Republican tsunami in Indiana, and in South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg winning re-election by a landslide in 2015.
Critchlow, 34, a project manager for a clinical research company, is just a year younger than Buttigieg, but he describes the mayor as his political mentor. Indeed, they work together on political causes, and Critchlow uses many of the same fund-raising tools and stress on transparency as Buttigieg.
For example, at the party reorganization meeting at which Critchlow was re-elected as chair, he distributed a brochure detailing party revenue and expenditures _ details seldom publicized by county chairs.
“It’s different than back rooms, smoke filled and bourbon glasses,” Critchlow says.
But will any of this sway Democrats who defected to Trump and then voted for many other Republicans as well?
What will get them back, Critchlow says, is a better message about what Democrats will do for them in contrast with what a President Trump will do to them.
“They didn’t get that message,” Critchlow admits. “That’s our fault.”
He said he was “giddy” last fall when seeing a high return of absentee ballots from Democrats. But vote totals showed that a lot of those voters didn’t get a persuasive Democratic message.
“We were turning out our voters but they were voting for the other guy,” Critchlow says.
Another serious problem for Democrats was not with voters but with those who didn’t vote.
At the Women’s March in South Bend, Critchlow asked one of the many participating young women about whether she had voted. Her response: “I’m so embarrassed to say this, but I did not vote.”
And there are sometimes unrealistic expectations, Critchlow acknowledges. He tells of being chastised because Democrats did not prevent the death in the Indiana General Assembly of a redistricting bill to curb gerrymandering.
“Republicans control the legislature. Republicans killed the bill,” he says. “The only thing we can do is win an election.”
Winning is what Critchlow enjoys. Losing, not so much, except that losing to Donald Trump has enabled him to stress that passionate belief that politics is important, that elections matter.
Colwell covers politics for the South Bend Tribune.