Rebuilding one voter at a time

Written on 05/16/2024
Patrick Munsey

Local Democrats turn to issues, access, and the marginalized as catalysts for change

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On Election Night, the Howard County Republicans enjoyed another evening of excitement. A local judge’s race, a U.S. Congressional race, and a gubernatorial primary had their voters mildly engaged. There were things to cheer about; a continuation of a trend that has lasted eight years.

Life is good for a Republican in Howard County.

On Election Night, the Howard County Democrats gathered in a half-lit ballroom that once belonged to an order of Oddfellows. The dozen or so faithful progressives sifted through the ashes of the day’s voting, looking for trends in the absence of a primary race. There wasn’t much to cheer about; a continuation of a trend that has lasted eight years.

Life is simply surviving for a Democrat in Howard County.

But it wasn’t so long ago that the roles were somewhat reversed. City elections were dominated by a Democrat Party that held all but two offices. There were competitive races in the spring and the fall. The Republicans were looking for ways to shift the momentum to their camp, hoping not to fade into irrelevance.

With the Democrats facing that same existential crisis today, former Kokomo mayor Steve Daily holds more than hope in his heart. He sees a path ahead, a shift in the trend, a potential restoration to political glory. But he and the small cadre of fellow progressives have a lot of work to do.

“We have a rebuilding job, and we're working at it,” said Daily. “But all the experience and knowledge in the world isn't going to make it go faster. We have to do it one voter at a time. I'm proud of the candidates we've put forward. They all work hard, and they're learning a lot.

“We're doing it the best way we can. We're going out and recruiting the best candidates that we can. They are rookies, but if you sit down and talk to them, you're going to get more substance out of them than you are people who've been in office for 12 years, 14 years. They care about the community, and they represent constituencies in the community that are totally being ignored.”

The Howard County Democrats aren’t alone in the fight. Democratic parties across Indiana are facing similar uphill climbs. The advent of Donald Trump nationally reshaped the political landscape in the Hoosier State. In all but the most urban areas, Democrats are throwing punches from their heels.

But Daily is convinced it won’t take another Trump to swing the pendulum left. He believes the fight can be won on issues, and among the youngest voters. It’s just a matter of reaching out and being heard, one voter at a time.

“We’re looking for anybody who has an open mind,” said Daily. “We’re looking at people who are minorities, women, young people. Once these families experience what has been done to their rights -- their daughter's rights, their wife’s rights -- once they see it from personal experience, then you're going to see change.

“We've got a college Democrat club started out at IUK. We think we can get a foothold there. And we're going do some outreach east and west. Our Democrats out in the county are pretty lonely.”

As for the issues, Daily doesn’t see much coming from the distinguished competition. He is confident the Democrats can win the fight in the ideological trenches.

“You'll notice that (the Republicans) have no platform,” said Daily. “They’ve bowed down to Donald Trump and have no program, no policies. We're excited that we’re building a roster, and they all came to us with issues already in mind.

“We have the only (Howard County Commissioner) candidate who is going to fight for our health and safety and our environment (Sherry Roe). We have candidates who came with the idea they would get out and talk to people and find out what the people want.

“They want to hear people’s concerns about solar farms, about protecting our water, and about handling our homeless problem. What people are getting from the Republican Party is three minutes to talk if they're lucky enough to be called to speak. They get to submit questions at a private forum where the Republicans select which questions get answered. This is not democracy.”

These concerns are echoed by Lisa Washington, the current chair of the local Democratic party. For her, political involvement – or the lack thereof – is a cautionary tale: If you don’t get involved, things will happen that hurt the community in the absence of your voice.

“The homeless ordinance is what happens when it’s all one-sided,” said Washington, referring to a recent ordinance passed by the Kokomo Common Council against the protests of those serving the homeless population daily. “We need more Democrats in office. If we don't do that, things like the homeless ordinance will happen, and we won't know about it until it's too late.”

Washington joined the dozens of nonprofit leaders and advocates in opposition to the homeless ordinance. She is confident the future of the Democratic party was sitting in the crowd at the council meeting in April where the council ignored their pleas.

Like Daily, she is convinced the issues will make a difference in the vote totals.

“I sent thank-you cards out to a lot of the people who responded (in opposition) to the homeless ordinance,” said Washington. “We have to get supporters. We have to let them know how much we appreciate them.

“We want to make changes for them. We want to speak for them and give them a voice. When they see something they think they can make a positive impact on, we want to help them. Change is what we all want.”

“This is what people need,” added Daily. “How many times in the last few years have those in office made huge decisions that cost taxpayers millions and millions of dollars, but they are totally oblivious to the people who are paying the bill. They won't listen to them. They won't discuss with them. They will not even tell them their plans.

“Who made the decisions? Why isn't the public involved? When will people decide they’ve had enough of being left out of the process? All of us wish we had better people representing us. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big issue when things are going well. It’s a big issue now. It’s time to be heard.”