Rep. Phyllis Ponds announcement that shell leave her Indiana House District 85 seat is disappointing on several fronts.
For one, the residents she served will miss her commitment to constituent service and the extensive knowledge she had of Allen County issues. More disappointing, however, is that Ponds resignation once again hands the selection of a public official to a handful of party activists.
Her successor will be chosen Oct. 8 in a GOP caucus, the latest in what has become almost standard operating procedure for the party. Illness precipitated Ponds resignation, but lucrative job offers have been the reason others have resigned mid-term, abandoning their commitments to constituents and giving the party a decided advantage in installing an incumbent before the next election.
Sixty-seven precinct committeemen and committeewomen will choose Ponds successor instead of the nearly 24,000 voters who cast District 85 ballots last November or even the 7,400 Republicans who voted in the 2012 primary.
A lot of good people are seeking this office, Allen County Republican Chairman Steve Shine told The Journal Gazette. A caucus is a clear and distinct political animal than a general election.
Indeed, it is. An open Statehouse or congressional seat often attracts candidates looking to avoid the vetting required in a primary and general election. Candidates dont need to raise much money, relying on precisely targeted mailings and direct contact with a few dozen precinct committee members. Theres little need to share information about themselves or their positions on issues.
In a primary, the top vote-getter wins. In a caucus, the winner must garner more than 50 percent of the votes, meaning the process can consist of a number of rounds, with the lowest vote-getter dropped after each.
Once a caucus victory is secured, all the advantages of incumbency are in place. The caucus winner can build a legislative record, fulfill constituent service, enhance name recognition and raise money. When the May 2014 primary rolls around, most of the interested candidates will have been dissuaded from filing for the District 85 seat. By the time the general election arrives, Ponds successor will have enjoyed plenty of opportunities to become known in the district and among campaign contributors, who prefer to back incumbents over unknown candidates.
We know this because it has been repeated again and again. Marlin Stutzman won a GOP caucus in 2010 to fill Indianas 3rd District seat in Congress. He sought the position as a member of the Indiana Senate, a post he won after securing the GOP nomination in a 2008 caucus. Sen. Robert Meeks announced his intent to step down from his District 13 seat just weeks after the May primary.
In 2005, Matt Bell won a GOP caucus to fill Rep. Bob Aldermans unexpired term. Bell held the seat for five years and resigned – weeks after the primary – to become a lobbyist. Rep. Kathy Heuer won the caucus to replace him.
In District 84, Randy Borror was chosen in a 2001 caucus to fill the unexpired term of Rep. Gloria Goeglein, who died unexpectedly. Borror resigned mid-term in 2010 to become a lobbyist. GOP committeemen selected Bob Morris to replace him.
Even after Morris outraged some of his own GOP colleagues with an attack on the Girl Scouts, the advantage of his incumbency was so strong that he scared off a potential candidate weighing a bid to challenge him as an independent last November. Morris will face GOP challengers next spring, but his contested primary is the exception, not the rule.
Pond was first elected to the Indiana House in 1978. The retired kindergarten teacher upset 10-year incumbent Arthur C. Hayes in the GOP primary to win. After the election, Hayes said Pond deserved to win because she worked harder. After 35 years in office, its unfortunate that shes left the work to a handful of party officials and left Allen County voters with no choice.