Monday, November 23, 2009

How Greg Bowes Is Right and Why It Won't Save Him (My Opus in Response to His Opus)

Marion County Assessor and prosecutorial candidate, Greg Bowes (D), dropped a four-paged, single-spaced letter that was the the campaign equivalent of War and Peace into D precinct committeeperson mailboxes this week. Bowes should expect to feel more war and less peace.

The letter's main points are:

(1) Bowes is qualified to be prosecutor based on his 25 jury trials and 85 criminal appeals in attempted murder, rape, child molest, and battery cases;

(2) Bowes is the most viable candidate because he won county-wide, managed a large office, and "successfully navigated the intense scrutiny that came with the property tax crisis" (as an aside, he did?); and

(3) The D's new slating agreement is unfair, so he won't sign it.

For the newbies, let's do a quick "slating 101."

Before the primary election lets self-identified D's, R's, or L's to decide who are "their" parties' candidates, the parties' hold "primary conventions" during which only precinct committee people get to choose who "the party" endorses. Why, you might ask, would parties host what is essentially a mini-primary before an actual primary?

Precinct committeepersons register voters, put up yard signs, staff the polls, and get out the vote. PCs do this for free (except in Lake County where precinct organizations routinely seek "walking around money" from statewide candidates). Slating is the one PC perk (if you discount getting invited to State Representative Greg Porter's annual barbecue. Tasty!)

Parties want to reward hard work, but when patronage got snuffed, this was what was left - the right to participate in a non-smoke-filled room with people who really are the party.

I understand the appeal. It's not right (or productive) that two DINOS (Democrats in name only) who never donate to, work for, or advocate for, the party's candidates might trump a PC's primary vote. It's like letting people who never show up for church but who call themselves Catholic have a vote equal to the members of the church board. This is why I support the general idea of slating.

But here's the problem. It's easily rigged.

The voting pool consists of all elected precinct committeepersons and their appointed vice-committeepersons, but Democrats never have enough elected PCs (those who run as candidates in the precincts they actually reside) to fill all the slots. According to Bowes, the current number of elected folk is only 260.

One might think, "Well, that's your voting pool. Go to it." Oh, no, my friends. State party rules gives county chairs the right to fill vacant slots, and the appointed PC need not reside in the vacant precinct. This appointment right is a commonly employed perquisite in Marion County politics. To illustrate how abuse might occur, here's a conversation I had within the last eighteen months:

Me: (Ring, Ring). Hello?
Caller: Would you like to be a precinct committee person?
Me: Sure. What do I need to do?
Caller: Do you like (insert candidate's name)?
Me: Yeah.
Caller: You're good.
Me: Is this in my precinct?
Caller: No, it's (insert township ward and precinct).
Me: It doesn't matter I live downtown?
Caller: No.

Shortly after slating, Marion County consolidated its precincts, and I lost my "home precinct."

Nobody can dispute Greg Bowes is putting it in Ed Treacy's eye when he writes "one might also think that the MCDP county chair might want to wait until PCs and VPCs have made their decision before he takes any action in support of one candidate or another." But Bowes is right that appointing PCs (or removing them) before slating is the best way to "stack a slating field."

Bowes is also right that this system can circumvent geographic representation, as some townships can gain a disproportionate share of influence by having its members spread throughout the vacant PC slots county-wide. This is completely counter-intuitive because a D PC working the "hard areas," such as Franklin Township, shouldn't see his or her vote diluted. There is little incentive to work for candidates hoisted upon you by perceived (or actual) political manipulation.

Admittedly, if the county chair likes your person or cause, you'd love the current system. By the way, guess who gets to elect the county chair? PCs! But my rule of thumb for how anything should be fairly structured is, "How would we set it up without regard to how it works for us right now?"

Unfortunately, that's not how we operate, and as a result, few candidates have confidence in the slating process, which makes slate challenges all the more likely. And this is the value of the new agreement.

One might think that the best way for the party to fend off slate challenges is to just destroy the unslated candidates in the primaries, right? Great idea. Except the MCDP gets beat often, in particular by African-American candidates (in particular women) with names at the top of the alphabet.

Bowes notes that people who have run against the slate include such party stalwarts as Julia Carson, Rozelle Boyd, Bill Crawford, and Billie Breaux (and I'll add both Linda and Kim Brown).

Normally, you "freeze out" or punish your political opponents, but if the MCDP loses a slating fight, the second the election results are certified, those opponents are the MCDP's candidates with whom it has to play kissy-face. Moreover, if a slate buster is part of a key D constituency group (such as African-Americans, labor, GLBT), the county chair can't even bash him or her publicly for fear of alienating the larger constituency, which might sit it out and damage the remaining slate.

That's got to be pretty frustrating for a county chair.

What to do, what to do.

So Ed Treacy put forth an idea in consultation with elected county Democrats. Here's how it works. You pay the slating fee, which is 10% of the salary of the office you seek. Normally, all but 25% of this would be refundable to unslated candidates.

Under the revised plan, you sign an agreement that says if you are not slated, you may not run in the primary. If you do, you forfeit your slating fee in total, and you cannot participate in slating for six years. The agreement also says that, if you are slated, you must be listed on promotional materials with the slate, the whole slate, and nothing but the slate. If you are an elected official, you must back all future slates during your term. If you do not comply on either count, you get the six-year ban.

I like this idea on the surface. If you swim in our pool, you don't get to pee in it with impunity. The idea that elected officials must back their fellow Democrats is appropriate. But will we actually enforce it equally? It would have been really amusing seeing Linda Brown not support her own sister, Kim, had this agreement been in place earlier.

But herein lies Ed's genius. He didn't get this approved by precinct folks. He got it approved by elected officials. This agreement is theoretically iron-clad, incumbent protection. It says "us and only us." Where can a candidate who isn't slated turn for comfort? Not to the party apparatus!

Now Ed just has to hold it all together. I'm told he approached some affinity groups about committing to only backing the slated candidates, too, but it was rough going. That's not surprising. Can anybody see labor standing with somebody who is lukewarm on their issues, or the Stonewall Democrats backing a homophobe, just because they were slated?

In sum, Ed Treacy has a good idea. And Greg Bowes knows how to make it better. But I don't see this peanut butter to coming together with this chocolate anytime soon. I'm pretty sure only one of these guys is still viable in Marion County Democratic politics.



Eclecticvibe said...

Open up ballot access to more parties and that will provide more competition and less cronyism.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Electicvibe, that won't change the fact that for the time being the Ds and Rs are doing to dominate.

Excellent analysis of slating. By the way, in the Marion County GOP, ward chairman can vote at slating. It's not just limited to precinct committeement. VPCs can't vote unless the PC isn't there and they've been givne a proxy.

In its pure form slating seems like a good idea. But you had an apt and accurate quote:

"But here's the problem. It's easily rigged."

Yep it sure is. And that's the problem. I get the impression you are holding out hope that the system can be fixed and they'll start having fair slatings. It will never happen. The next fair slating contest I see will be the first one in nearly a quarter century of local politics.

Bottom line is slating is all about party leadership controlling the endorsement process. It is certainly not about the little party worker having a say in the process.

Chris Worden said...

I do think slating can be reformed, though there is undoubtedly a Sisyphean feel to the task. Stay tuned! I'll be writing on this shortly.

Oh, I do think any party's ward chairs should be allowed to vote if they aren't also PCs.

mike oles said...

Personally, I think the MCDP is a joke. The 2007 elections prove that.

You write "Precinct committeepersons register voters, put up yard signs, staff the polls, and get out the vote." Yeah right, I have never seen a precinct person in Indy leading a legitimate GOTV operation.

I have seen at slating conventions precinct committee persons who have no connection to the precinct that they represent. I remember talking to one young committee person (Im all for youth being precinct leaders) who was a committee person because her aunt worked for one of the judge canidiates.) She had no clue about the canidiates or issues.

Lets just bury the the whole slating convention thing and let the best canidiates and operations on primary day do the job of selecting the best canidiates.

I could keep going but thanks for the blog post!

Anonymous said...

Slating is, in fact, a joke. As an elected PC, no one from the party has ever reached out to me. If I ever decided to run for office, I would not slate. Suck it.