As local Democrats prepare to select a new party chair tonight, hand wringing over the relationship between progressives and the Ds has reached near-epidemic proportions.
Stung by bogus charges that they beat Bill Hayden in his bid for County Council in last year's election, the Green Party - should we say green party - has apparently decided to sit the 2003 city elections out. Independent green Mike Englert has withdrawn from the at-large City Council race, announcing his intentions to run as a Democrat in next year's county election instead.
And some leftie opponents of I-69 have gone damned near catatonic over the realization that their only possible gubernatorial savior in 2004 is a card-carrying, George W. Republican.
It's enough to make progressive heads spin and hands wring.
Fretting over Democrats at the local level is a justifiable exercise. The stakes are high. The calls are not easy.
As last year's county elections demonstrated, huge numbers of Monroe County voters are mad as hell about the direction the ruling plutocracy of developer-friendly Ds and Rs have taken our community. Election returns reported in the Herald-Times last November showed that 54 percent of voters in three County Council races voted for unapologetic, in-your-face progressive reformers - Mark Stoops, Lucille Bertuccio, Bill Hayden, and Julie Roberts.
And those votes were cast from the traditionally more conservative countywide electorate, where registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by about 1,500 votes - 6,000 to 4,500. That should bode well for candidates seeking votes from the traditionally more progressive citywide electorate this year.
The question is how best to mobilize this widespread citizen discontent into a potent political force that can effect the true, fundamental reform that is needed in our local political system, which is where the hand wringing comes in. The options are: forge a united front around the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, or build coalitions between Green Ds and independent green parties and candidates.
As the Green Party's electoral slumber and Englert's announcement suggest, the Green Ds' argument for a united front appears to have carried the political day, which is okay. The Green Ds have achieved remarkable political success over the past five years. They've gotten more progressive voices elected to public office than at any time since 1971, when Frank McCloskey and Charlotte Zietlow ushered in Bloomington's first and only true progressive era.
The Green Ds have earned the right to do it their way this year. More power to them.
Still, there are some troubling aspects to their strategy, starting with the underlying myth that Julie Roberts and the Green Party were responsible for Hayden's loss. If that were true, wouldn't the lesson be that Hayden wasn't progressive enough?
Of course, it's not true. Developer-friendly Business Democrats, who ran a landlord against Hayden in the 2002 Primary, sabotaged his campaign in the General Election by crossing over and voting for Roberts. Had she not provided a conscionable third option for the Business Ds, they would have voted for Hayden's Republican opponent or not voted at all, like they did against Brian O'Neill and Lucille Bertuccio in two other county races last year.
And only a fool believes that the Business Ds won't employ the same stealth tactics against Hayden, Andy Ruff, and Dave Rollo this fall. There is a case to be made that the united-front strategy effectively leaves these three progressives at the Business Ds' mercy.
The alternative would be for Green Ds to form strategic alliances with independents in selected races, like Mayor and at-large Council, in an effort to draw in otherwise disaffected progressive voters to the polls.
It's really hard to believe that Andy Ruff would not have benefited from Mike Englert's presence on the at-large council ballot and participation in the campaign, or that Ruff, Hayden, and Rollo wouldn't have gained votes if Isabel Piedmont ran for mayor. It's equally hard to believe that our local democracy will benefit from having fewer voices participate in it.
Here's hoping that the united-front strategy is a sound one. If not, there's always next year, and the year after that. This is a long-term movement, not a popularity contest.
Fretting over Democrats at the state level is not a justifiable exercise. The party of Evan Bayh and Frank O'Bannon has far more in common with George W. Bush and the Blue Dogs of Georgia than it has with the Green Donkeys of Bloomington. They are simply not worth fretting over.
As Indiana's great environmental wars of the past half century clearly show, Indiana Democrats' hands are every bit as toxic as Republicans'. They were equally culpable for devastating schemes to industrialize the Indiana Dunes in the 1950s and '60s and channelize the Wabash River into a barge canal in the '60s and '70s. They shoulder sole responsibility for the Bloomington PCB incinerator in the '80s and '90s and new-terrain I-69 in the '90s and beyond.
And as the fate of one pro-environment, pro-consumer energy bill in the 2003 Legislative session shows, these high-profile environmental sellouts by Indiana Democrats are the rule, not the exception.
"Power plant junkies. That's the only way to characterize the O'Bannon administration's energy policy," Grant Smith, Utility Program Director for the Citizens Action Coalition, writes in an upcoming issue of Citizens Power, the CAC newsletter.
The headline on his story: "Indiana Senate champions pro-consumer merchant plant legislation." Republicans control the Indiana Senate.
In a nutshell, merchant power plants are relatively small, natural-gas-fired power plants - jet engines, essentially - that utilities use to produce electricity during peak demand times, like hot summer days. They pollute. And they are noisy.
There are myriad other problems with merchant plants, as well, Smith notes.
The electricity they produce is not used to heat Hoosier homes or power Indiana factories. It is sold on the wholesale market to the highest bidders, for unregulated profit. In other words, Indiana communities and their environment suffer the noise and pollution from merchant plants, yet their citizens receive none of the power the plants produce, while utilities and speculators reap handsome profits.
The preference for merchant plants over energy efficiency and renewable energy in Indiana energy policy represents governmental capitulation to giant, polluting utilities and Enron-style energy speculators.
Among the issues raised by a grassroots citizens’ movement that erupted in response to state policy on merchant plants is uncertainty over the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission’s (IURC) authority to regulate them. Senate Bill 209, sponsored this year by Republican Senator Bev Gard, would have addressed that problem.
"The rationale for the legislation is that although the IURC has assumed jurisdiction over merchant power plants, the law was unclear," Smith writes. "There may exist a loophole that would preclude IURC jurisdiction, unless clarified by statute."
SB 209, designed to close that loophole, unanimously passed the Republican Senate, Smith says. But it hit a wall in the Democratic House. Democrat Dan Stevenson from Highland, chair of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, did not even give SB 209 a hearing.
"The reasons given to CAC for Stevenson not hearing the bill were that the Chairman of the IURC, Bill McCarty, didn't want it and said it wasn't necessary at this time," Smith says. McCarty is a former Democratic State Senator from Anderson whose role is to implement the O'Bannon administration's power-plant-junky energy policy.
None of this is to say that State Democrats are worse than Republicans when it comes to the environment. In 2001 and 2002, Republicans Tom Weatherwax from Logansport and Greg Server from Evansville blocked SB 209.
It's to say that Democrats are no better, and I-69 opponents should stop worrying about them and do whatever it takes to stop the billion-dollar-boondoggle, even if it means voting for a Bushie.
Mitch Daniels couldn't possibly be any worse for Indiana's environment than Frank O'Bannon has been. He might even try a little harder to overcome the myth that Democrats are better for the environment than Republicans.
Who knows, he might actually hire environmental professionals to staff environmental agencies like IDEM and DNR instead of jack-of-all-trade political hacks.
Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative.