Saturday night I attended a fundraiser for a local LGBT organization that was held at the home of former Indianapolis Councilor Scott Keller. Scott has done these fundraisers for the past three years and each time the list of prominent elected officials attending has grown. While there are, of course, many Democrats in that room, the ranks of gay friendly Republican officials has also jumped.
Something happened that evening though that I wanted to share with you. I lost respect for a fellow Democrat that night and I wanted to point out how a few snide remarks and candidate worship can cause a divide in our own party. It's a lesson that can be applied nationally.
Republican Congressional candidate Jon Elrod was in attendance as was David Orentlicher, a state representative who has filed to challenge Andre Carson for the Democratic primary. Carson, Elrod's opponent in the election to replace deceased Rep Julia Carson (Andre's grandmother), was nowhere in sight. Instead, Orentlicher and Elrod faced off during the Q&A about issues like a woman's right to choose, the environment, gay rights, and the war in Iraq.
While the two men were standing up and civilly answering questions, a prominent Democrat that I consider a friend made snide and rather snotty remarks about Dr. Orentlicher's primary challenge of Andre Carson. I wasn't the only person to notice or be offended by the petty backbiting either, others came up to me afterwards to talk about the incident - including some elected officials.
The problem lies with concerns about Andre Carson's ability to serve competently instead of winning office via nepotism. The county party is split over Carson's nomination. A large portion of the African-American community demands that Julia Carson's replacement should also be black while white and Latino Democrats are left feeling disenfranchised and stuck fielding a candidate that isn't as popular, well-known, or intelligent as Dr. Orentlicher.
The county party has long been dominated by what's been termed "the Carson machine." Any candidate who doesn't seek the group's blessing tends to be denied access. This is a common complaint among non-African-American local Democratic politicians. To be able to be on the ballot, sometimes you have to buck the official party slating as Dr. Orentlicher is doing.
Throughout the mini-debate though, my friend made comments like, "I'd ask who he thinks he is." or "I'd ask why he's decided to buck the party. Doesn't he know who gave him that seat?"
Excuse me? I think Dr. Orentlicher spent days and nights campaigning. I think he knocked on doors, phoned donors, worked with constituents and did a darn good job in his office as a state representative. I don't think anyone "gave" him anything. He worked for it. I'd posit that if anyone is being given a political position, it would be Carson who was handed a City-County Council seat a few short months ago before being anointed his grandmother's successor.
But what can we learn from my experience? My friend's actions and words left a bad taste in my mouth for local politics. I'm as politically motivated as the next activist, but even I felt like dropping out and just saying, "Obviously my wishes as a party member or a voter isn't important. The chosen few have decided for me." and not voting. I also considered voting for Elrod just to teach the party insiders a lesson. After all, if Carson loses the special election, it would make Dr. Orentlicher's job easier in the primary. Who's going to vote for someone who just lost the election a couple of months before? I'm angry and I want to punish my own party for one person's snotty attitude.
What did that gain Carson? What did it gain the party?
As Democrats are faced with a stiff competition between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidency, I can't help but think of this local situation. I'm on way too many political mailing lists and most of them have backers for both candidates on them espousing why their chosen candidate is better than the other. Most of the time these don't end up being positive e-mails about their candidate, but negative diatribes about the primary opponent.
Going into the general election it'll be important for a unified party to move forward. Our ability to shoot ourselves in the foot has spawned the line, "Democrats can snatch defeat from the arms of victory." When Hillary supporters spend all their time badmouthing Obama instead of lifting up Hillary (or vice versa), does anyone "win" or does it leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth?
What does it gain either candidate? What does it gain the party?
I think I'm going to invest in some Listerine.