Can Terre Haute Change?

When people who have lived in Terre Haute all their lives see corruption, their first response is commonly, “that’s just the way it’s always been.” Many have heard Terre Haute called “sin city” or “terrible haute” more times than they can count. If you pair that with what seems to be a nearly total gridlock in national politics, you might be tempted to think that things can’t change. But a small group of people have started a movement, a movement that could not be more grass-roots, and it is poised to turn our local political system upside down. I had a chance to sit down with a few of the people from that group, to listen and tell their story.

From a few accounts, the movement seems to have started in large part with Bionca Gambill hosting political training workshops at the Vigo County public library in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Democrats realized that they needed a major improvement in their ground game in order to face the rising opposition from the alt-right. This included training people how to run for local Precinct Committee positions. Until a few months ago, I had never heard of a Precinct Committee Chairperson, but it turns out that one of the least known political positions in the nation, is also one of the most powerful. In Vigo County each party elects 87 Precinct Committee Chairperson. Those 87 Precinct Committee people appoint their own vice chair, and then those 174 people elect their local Party Chairperson.

The Party Chairperson, although not an officially recognized political position, wields a tremendous amount of influence within each county. The party chairperson oversees party meetings, appoints open Precinct Committee positions, and often dictates local political party strategies. In Vigo County, Joe Etling has served as the Democratic Party Chair for over twenty years and Randy Gentry serves as the Republican Party Chair. Recent news out of Muncie, Indiana shows how influential the Party Chairperson position can be and how that influence can make it prone to corruption. But as mentioned earlier, every four years, the Precinct Committee Chairperson and their Vice Chairperson have the power to change their local political party chair.

Before the 2016 election, only 34 of the 89 Democratic Precinct Committee positions in Vigo County were elected, the rest were appointed, and it should be noted that someone running for a Precinct Committee position must live in that designated precinct, but if no one runs and the Party Chairperson appoints someone, that person does not have to live in the precinct. So, essentially what you had in 2014 was Joe Etling appointing 55 people to the county positions that elect the party chair. However, several of the people who had attended those post 2016 political workshops were upset by the direction of the Democratic party. One point of contention was the fact that several prominent leaders within the Democratic party were willing to support Republicans rather than more progressive members of their own party.

Tribune-Star/Austen Leake Meeting: Vigo County Democratic Party chair Joe Etling talks with former vice chair VCDP Debrah Kirk-Peters at a party meeting on Friday night at VFW #972

In fact, Mike Ellis resigned as secretary of the Democratic party, after members attempted to remove him from his position because of his support for Duke Bennett over then Democratic mayor Kevin Burke. This resistance to more progressive leadership has been a major factor in Democrats losing so many local offices. But, if this grass roots movement of “New Democratic Leaders” succeeds in holding a majority of the Precinct Committee positions in Vigo County, it would be the most significant political change in our community in at least the past half century. So, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, check out the New Democratic Leaders, they’ve been putting out door hangers in their precincts all over town, and consider getting involved, because their efforts have proven that real change is possible in Terre Haute.

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