Tyrion Lannister

Carson City? Carson County.

Filed By Tyrion Lannister | March 16, 2008 4:01 PM | comments

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Friday's Indianapolis Star has some fairly interesting information about the recent Special Election in IN-07. In case you missed it, the Star reported that Andre Carson's victory over Jon Elrod could be directly attributed to his extremely effective GOTV effort in Center Township, where he won almost 25,000 votes. This information is crucial to not just understanding how and why Andre Carson prevailed last Tuesday, but also understanding why his continued presence may be essential to Democrats carrying county-wide offices in the foreseeable future. I'll explain after the jump.

The Star writes:

On Tuesday, Carson's grandson Andre received nearly two-thirds of the votes cast in Center Township to overcome losses to Republican Jon Elrod in a majority of precincts and in five out of nine townships, according to an Indianapolis Star analysis of preliminary voting data.

Turnout was key for Carson. Overall turnout for the election was 18.2 percent but was usually higher wherever Carson won.

Julia Carson began her political career as the Center Township trustee and steadily built a reputation as the only Democrat in contemporary times capable of delivering massive turnout in the city's black urban core.

That pattern seemed to hold true Tuesday, with Center Township delivering a 12,000-vote margin in a race that Andre Carson won by 9,000 votes.

"This shows the machine is still here," said Carl Drummer, the current Center trustee, who campaigned for the candidate. "It was extremely important to show that Center Township can still deliver, that we're still a force to be reckoned with."

He was alluding to the November election, in which Republican Greg Ballard upset the incumbent mayor, Democrat Bart Peterson, despite being vastly outspent.

Carson had a lesser margin of victory (64 percent) than Peterson (68 percent) in Center Township, but the important factor was turnout.

Carson received 24,929 of the votes cast in that district Tuesday, compared with 13,651 for Peterson in November.

In other words, more than 11,000 Democrats in Center Township who stayed home for Peterson came out for Carson.

The article and Carl Drummer are correct: Julia Carson's political organization is fully mobilized behind Andre Carson. Julia's grassroots GOTV ground game was legendary. It allowed her to run substantially to the left of the district she represented but to still carve out consistent double-digit victories. Republicans note that she underperformed state-wide and national democrats in her district. This is true. But Julia had perhaps one of the most liberal voting records in the House of Representatives. She could win despite occasionally alienating moderate swing voters who Frank O'Bannon and Bart Peterson attracted.

Democrats have been in ascendancy in Marion County for the last two decades. Part of this is due to favorable demographic shifts, as reliable white Republican voters have moved to the ring counties. In 1990, 77% of Marion County residents were white. In 2000, they only accounted for 70% of the total population. The black population grew from 21% to 25% over the same time period. In the wake of late blooming "white flight"--a process delayed in Marion County for almost three decades by the political innovations of Unigov--Democratic core constituencies--working-class and union voters, African Americans, and young professionals-- have incrementally crept into a majority. In 1999, Democrat Bart Peterson wrested the Mayor's office from Republicans for the first time since John Barton held the office in the late 1960s. Similarly, Democrats took control of the City-County Council in 2003 and expanded their majority in 2005. Democrats have taken control of nearly all county-wide offices, from Clerk to Coroner. Moderate, pro-business Democrats seemed especially well suited for the political terrain. Peterson, for example, won over 92,000 votes--62% of the vote--in his 2003 election campaign by stitching together a formidable coalition of core Democrats from Center Township and swing voters from around the County.

Then came the 2007 general election. Bart Peterson lost to Greg Ballard. Democrats lost 3 out of 4 of the City-County Council At-Large seats and, with them, control of the council. After making consistent progress in Marion County in every municipal election for the last decade, Democrats found themselves back in the 90s. What was happening?

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats were swept up in a perfect storm of political inconvenience. The property tax revolt and an inopportune crime wave fractured Peterson's support in the northern townships. Greg Ballard capitalized on both issues and rode popular discontent to a stunning upset.

There is, however, an important unexamined factor at play here: Julia Carson. Indeed, the earlier political successes of the decade weren't just built on favorable demographic shifts; they were built on steady, high turnout from core Democratic voters who came out in droves every two years to defy polling models and keep Julia in the House by safe margins. In municipal elections, Julia campaigned vigorously for County Democrats and key Carson supporters helped to coordinate GOTV operations with the County Party. But, in 2007, Julia was sidelined by her terminal illness. Absent Julia and the her political capital, the Center Township Democratic organization grossly underperformed. Crime may have played a role in dampening Center Township turnout, but the property tax revolt is a poor explanation. While Center Township as a whole had a rough tax bill, poorer areas were much less effected. But it was in those precincts that Core Democrats stayed home.

If every person in Center Township who voted for Andre Carson in Tuesday's Special Election had cast a ballot for Bart Peterson and the council Democrats in November, the political terrain of Indianapolis would be radically different. Bart Peterson's margin of defeat was just over 5,000 votes in November and two additional at-large candidates--the margin of Republican control--could have seized victory with only an additional 7,000 votes. In other words, the 11,000 additional votes Andre captured on March 11 would have catapulted Bart Peterson, Rozelle Boyd, and Ron Gibson to victory. Democrats would control the Mayor's office and the Council.

Democrats interested in regaining control of the City-County Council in 2009 and returning a Democrat to the Mayor's office in 2011 have a serious question to ask themselves: can David Orentlicher, Woody Myers, or Carolene Mays mobilize Core Democrats in the numbers that will be required to win county-wide in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011? Or, will those candidates fracture the winning coalition, produce voter turn-out numbers similar to 2007, and doom county-wide Democrats in the near future?

Say what you will about Andre Carson, you can't deny that his ability to mobilize the passion of Core Democrats is unparalleled in the County and is an incredibly valuable political asset. The cynics and scoffers will characterize it as "machine" politics and as the exploitation of ignorant voters. People with faith in democratic processes should hardly be so dismissive of the voters, even when they disagree with the outcomes. Perhaps the outcomes they find so loathsome are less the result of a foolish electorate and more the result of a leadership style deeply connected to the concerns and wishes of average voters--leadership that should be praised by anyone with an egalitarian sensibility. Regardless, no matter why Core Democrats vote for Andre Carson, they do vote. Observers would be wise to remember that the vote is the absolute and final judge of political qualification.

Monday Edit: As anonymous kindly pointed out in comments over at The Point. There are no elections for the council until 2011. My apologies for the error. Upon review, I also realize Democrats did not extend their majority in 2005. I do not, however, think either of these errors reflects on the argument I'm making. Nevertheless, this is what comes from writing too quickly. Thanks to anonymous for keeping me honest. What an embarrassing brain fart.


Crossposted at Tyrion's Point and BlueIndiana.


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I think your analysis of the effect Carson had on the mayoral and CCC races is too narrow. Peterson has been the only Dem mayor since Unigov. In 1999, Gilroy imploded in the stretch, and in 2003, Peterson faced token opposition. I don't recall Carson doing much for Peterson during either of those campaigns.

In 2003, when the CCC finally went Democratic for the first time, it was Peterson's coattails, not Carson's, that flipped the majority. The CCC had been tightening up the past few election cycles, and the at-large seats tended to go with the winning mayor's party, unless the candidate had signifigant crossover appeal (like Sanders did last year).

You also forget that many Dems or people who leaned Dem were turned off by blunders of the CCC that year, led by Monroe Gray. It wasn't so much the property tax revolt-it was the Democrats "let them eat cake" attitude that hurt. It was very hard to get people to care enough to keep Peterson in office when they had been treated that way. Trust me, I knocked on plenty of doors and heard it in the four townships I visited.

And Julia's percentage of the vote started to drop halfway through her tenure. Were her candidates getting stronger or was her support ebbing? A little of both I would suspect. I know several people who were becoming less enthusiastic each cycle voting for Julia as her health problems became more evident.

I too am likewise interested if the Carson machine will hold together for May. How many "anyone but Carson" Repubs will show up? How many of those obsessed with Obama will punch the Carson ticket? How much money will be spent and what effect will this have on the race? Can Carson get beyond the sound bites? Can Orentlicher make his points more effectively and sound less like the professor he is? Will Myers siphon votes from David or Andre? Will anyone even care about Mays?

It will be an interesting 6 weeks.