The 2012 Democratic gubernatorial (mine)field

But for the party out of power for five years – Indiana Democrats – it’s sorting out time. And if the past several months are any indication, the prospects of regaining power after the Mitch Daniels era passes are unsettled at best.

In the modern era, the Democrats have had obvious heir apparents, as witnessed in 1968 when Lt. Gov. Robert Rock was in the wings, 1972 when former Gov. Matt Welsh tried to regain the office, 1976 when Secretary of State Larry Conrad was a consensus candidate, 1984 when State Sen. “Go Get ‘Em” Wayne Townsend ascended, 1988 when Secretary of State Evan Bayh was seen as the party’s savior, and 1996 when it became Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s turn.

The two cycles when it wasn’t obvious came in 1980 when Townsend and Batesville industrialist John Hillenbrand III battled for the nomination, with Hillenbrand winning, and 2008. That was the cycle when first tier candidates like Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and former Speaker John Gregg saw a Daniels re-elect likely, and gave way to the mostly unknown architect Jim Schellinger and former congresswoman Jill Long Thompson, who won and then went on to run one of the worst gubernatorial campaigns in Indiana history.

The 2012 cycle is also one with no heir apparent. The closest to that standard at the beginning of the year were Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel and U.S. Rep. Baron Hill. Others include Lake County Sheriff Rogelio “Roy” Dominguez and Hammond Mayor/Lake County Democratic Chairman Thomas McDermott Jr. There’s been some speculation about U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth.

At the Democrats Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner last spring, it was Weinzapfel who seemed to generate the most buzz. But several weeks later, his star took a crippling hit when it was revealed that in a closed-door meeting with Vanderburgh County officials, he signed off on a termination of the county’s homestead credits, resulting in a $10 million tax increase. While Weinzapfel has taken steps to reinstate the credits, the situation has many powerful Democrats, including several predisposed to support him, shaking their heads.

The good news for Weinzapfel is … it’s way, waaaaaaay early. 

This past week, a new spectacle emerged up north. McDermott, who seized control of the Lake County Democratic Party in audacious form last March, made a phone call that will haunt his gubernatorial aspirations. It came after one of his political captains – David Woerpel, his wife and two city employee sons – were busted for growing pot in their back yard.

McDermott became so incensed that he called Sheriff Dominguez and committed the kind of political sin that pales only to a pol beating his girlfriend at a public concert wearing a parrot head shirt: He left an angry recorded phone message:

“Roy, this is completely, completely uncalled for. Dave Woerpel is the captain of the 5th District, captain in the city of Hammond … very, very powerful, very, very political, and you guys arrested him and he had nothing to do with it. Nothing. Roy, that’s the dirtiest trick I’ve ever seen. Have a nice day.”

“The mayor’s message was so outrageous, so disrespectful,” Dominguez told the Times of Northwest Indiana’s Bill Dolan. “I wouldn’t let silence become acquiescence.” The arresting officer noted that when Woerpel’s wife was confronted, she said her husband “was golfing with McDermott.” Ouch.

Then there’s Rep. Hill’s YouTube hit coming from his Bloomington town hall last month when he admonished an IU student attempting to film the session. “This is my town hall meeting and I set the rules,” Hill told the student. “Now the reason I don’t allow filming is because usually the films end up on YouTube in a compromising position.”

Which is exactly what happened. The Bloomington Herald-Times caught the whole exchange and posted it on its website. It has logged 140,000 hits on YouTube.

So, Weinzapfel, Hill and McDermott have problems – though not insurmountable – but it’s not the kind of scenario that gives a candidate that initial thrust for statewide office. 

Who’s left? Well, there’s Dominguez, who’s been criss-crossing the state in a listening tour. There may be other Democrats in the wings. Peterson now works for Eli Lilly and hasn’t issued a Gen. Sherman statement. Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, who ran briefly in 2003, is signaling to friends she’ll take a look at the race after her 2010 re-elect. 

There’s plenty of time for Democrats to find a nominee, but the early going has been a minefield of their own making.

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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