Shaw Friedman: Tom Sugar's spice not so nice
Thursday, September 24, 2015 10:24 AM
LaPORTE – Like many Hoosier Democrats who are pleased that a unifying consensus has emerged behind our state ticket nearly a year before the 2016 elections, I rolled my eyes when a former staffer to Sen. Evan Bayh, Tom Sugar, announced about a month ago he was seriously considering running for governor.
Knowing that Tom had served at the feet of Evan Bayh, Indiana’s political zen master and a man who is considered the father of the modern Indiana Democratic Party, many of us figured that he would take the soundings from his former boss and act accordingly. We thought he’d quickly realize that there was no visible means of support to a challenge to our likely nominee, former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, and that Sugar would make a graceful exit while making a spirited push for his pet project, redistricting reform.
We could not have imagined that in choosing not to run on Monday that he would unleash a bitter diatribe against not only the Indiana Democratic Party, but against all elected officials currently serving in the Statehouse. Sugar showed with his statement why he certainly doesn’t have the temperament or demeanor to serve as an elected official and why he’s probably also done incalculable damage to his worthy pet cause, redistricting reform.
Sugar’s statement that rejection by fellow Democrats of his prospective candidacy was “wrongheaded” and that he hoped to “live long enough to see the day when Hoosier Democrats begin to behave like winners” exudes an arrogance and sense of entitlement that other successful former Bayh staffers have never projected. For a guy who said he was setting up a consulting firm, I’m not sure how the statement was a winning formula to make friends, influence people or even land new clients.
Rather than follow the tried and tested formula of other former chiefs of staffs to elected Democratic leaders who often seek office themselves and maintain relationships and undertake party building during their time as staffers or as former staffers, Sugar tended to take a different approach. After Evan Bayh left the U.S. Senate,Tom Sugar went off on a not-for-profit educational venture and there’s no record of his ever fundraising for fellow Democrats or helping organize campaigns. As a member of the board of the Indiana Democratic Victory Committee, I know which of my fellow Democrats have been out there raising funds and helping other Democrats organize campaigns, and candidly, Tom Sugar has been MIA for years.
Take a look at successful elected Democrats who were able to leverage their relationships and their time as the right hand to popular elected officials into public office in their own right: Congressman Pete Visclosky, who served as chief of staff to the late Adam Benjamin, built a network of friends and acquaintances who were personally committed to him so that by the time he decided to run for Congress himself he had an organization ready to go. Plus, he went out and worked his tail off knocking on 30,000 doors in the 1st Congressional District in that memorable three-way primary of 1984.
The same could be said of former Bayh chiefs of staff Bart Peterson and Joe Hogsett, who both understood the need to help their boss, Evan Bayh, build party and make linkages throughout the state so that by the time they each ran for political office themselves, there was a built-in network of friends, colleagues, and fellow staff they could count on to help advise, fundraise and organize. By contrast, Sugar had no former Bayh staff or key donors at his side or anyone willing to put their name on the line saying they were for him.
Sugar’s statement blasting elected leaders of both parties in the Statehouse with grotesque generalizations about all of them acting “more like Washington insiders than citizen legislators” or “Indiana politicians out of touch with their values” shows someone so completely consumed with his own self-importance that he’s not able to distinguish that in any elected body, there are good and bad and some significant differences in motives or commitment to various issues. Rather than paint all of Indiana government as “badly broken” and “dysfunctional,” he couldn’t even muster a kind word for Democratic legislators or elected officials who are doing their best to help advance good government? What about Sen. Tim Lanane, who appointed Sugar to the bi-partisan redistricting study panel. Doesn’t he deserve a shout out? (Personal to Tim: How about we give you a do-over on your appointment to that panel?)
Tom Sugar did not do the hard, slogging work ever to be considered as a credible statewide candidate, much less a candidate for the legislature. Neither rank and file nor party leadership ever took to his candidacy and that’s why it went nowhere. Contrary to Sugar’s absurd claim that he hopes to live long enough to see Hoosier Democrats behave like winners, I wish he had come to last week’s St. Joseph County Democratic Party dinner and witnessed 450 Democrats (from across the spectrum from conservative to liberal) rise in unison and give our likely nominee John Gregg a standing ovation, partly in tribute to his successful winning of the “pre-primary,” where he skillfully and assiduously pulled together party leaders, city and county officials and labor leadership together behind his campaign.
Frankly, as I said in a recent column, I have rarely seen Hoosier Democrats more committed and united to making a change in the governorship than I’ve seen in the last few months. And as for “Democrats behaving like winners,” how about Tom Sugar stops bloviating long enough to appreciate the successes of committed public servants like Joe Donnelly and Glenda Ritz, who have shown recently that Democrats can run and win statewide?
Simply put, Tom Sugar hasn’t earned the right to critique this party or our nominee. A favorite saying of Texas politicos would apply to Sugar’s ill-fated candidacy, “He’s all hat. No cattle.”
I only wish Tom Sugar had someone near him to urge him not to hit “send” when that slash-and-burn press release went out on Monday. Just like Jerry McGuire made the mistake of distributing his “mission statement” after a sleepless night without consulting anyone ahead of time, it’s a shame Sugar didn’t consult with his longtime mentor before he sent out that diatribe. I guarantee you that Evan Bayh would have advised Sugar that “mission statement” was better left tucked away in a desk drawer, than printed on the front pages of the Indianapolis Star.
Shaw R. Friedman is former legal counsel to the Indiana Democratic Party and a longtime HPI columnist.