SOUTH BEND – The quarrelsome contest for St. Joseph County Democratic chair, with a swirl of contentious statements, involvement by the mayor of South Bend, the return of Butch Morgan and a bitter aftermath, was like something from the past.
 
Back when county chairs were really important, always in the news, with powerful precinct organizations slating nominees. Back when, if the governor was of the same party, chairs could manage license bureaus as their own private enterprise, operating in shabby low-cost facilities, legally pocketing profits from fees paid by motorists. Back when chairs wielded patronage power, with applicants for fire and police departments and even for summer internships in the parks requiring party blessing.
 
In citing how things have changed, with less patronage, less power and less public recognition, I’m not seeking to belittle the big win of Stan Wruble as Democratic chair.
 
Wruble retained the post impressively in the vote of Democratic precinct committee members, the people who select the chair. He had a lot more clout with them than South Bend Mayor James Mueller, who endorsed challenger Dave Nufer. Wruble’s victory also dispelled any myth that former chair Morgan still held the power in the party. Morgan also endorsed Nufer, his right after paying the terrible price, prison, for illegal shenanigans with petitions.
 
It means Wruble emerges with more power, though not like the power of old. And whether he uses it to unite the party or to pursue revenge against Democrats who dared to oppose him is now the question. Peace wasn’t restored. After winning, Wruble sent an email to the precinct people citing accusations that the mayor had tried “an unwarranted and naked attempt at a power grab” and engaged in “divisive involvement in the (party) reorganization when you showed little interest in the party after your election in 2019.”
 
Wruble also is suggesting illegal conduct by city council members – Democrats who opposed him. Much has changed from the past, with less significant roles for chairs and for the precinct people who once were themselves involved in election battles for their roles. Now it’s hard to find people willing to serve.

But history does repeat. Jason Critchlow, a former chair who backed Wruble, called me two days before the vote to ask if I knew about a past time he had heard of when a former mayor, Pete Nemeth, sought to oust a chair and failed. I did, and I found a file with details. It was in 1976, when Nemeth sought to oust Joe Doran, then the chair. Nemeth backed Thomas J. Brunner, the highly regarded and civic-minded lawyer who recently passed away. Brunner then was city attorney. But the precinct people wouldn’t follow the mayor. Doran won, 269 to 122.
 
Critchlow foresaw a similar result. Well, Wruble beat Nufer 178 to 74.
 
Maybe Wruble will bring his promised stronger party. Maybe he will do the opposite, splintering it. Either way, he won’t have the clout of chairs past. License bureau patronage gave power and personal profits to chairs until 1988, when the state took over operation of the license branches. Gov. Bob Orr convinced the legislature to make the change, for good government and for the sake of the Republican Party. Because Orr was a Republican, the patronage was going to Republican county chairs. And scandals and complaints about inefficient, inconvenient branches were hurting GOP candidates.
 
Many chairs, pocketing profits from branch fees after expenses, operated their branches in low-rent dumps, with low-paid help often inefficient and not exactly courteous. But motorists had to go there. A lot of Democratic chairs operated branches on the cheap as well, under Democratic governors. Some of the patronage, perfectly legal then, now would bring criminal charges.
 
So, things have changed. Clout for a chair is diminished. But enough remains for a quarrelsome contest like something from the past. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics for the South Bend Tribune over five decades.