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The Journal Gazette

Rise in caucuses raises questions about process of filling legislative vacancies

Critics think it lets the savvy do an end run around voters

– Most Indiana legislators had to take their cases to thousands of voters before swearing their first oath of office.

It involved traipsing through neighborhoods to meet people, showing up at community meetings, spending thousands of dollars, walking in parades and campaigning relentlessly for months.

But another group – 28 lawmakers, almost 19 percent of the state’s 150 sitting legislators – arrived at the General Assembly through a much different process: a political caucus.

It involved a few weeks of schmoozing dozens of political insiders, little monetary investment, lots of phone calls and giving one short speech at an oft-crowded, sweaty meeting.

And even though the House and Senate members caucused into the ranks face the voters for re-election, it is rare to lose as an incumbent.

“I’m not offended by folks leaving office early at all,” said Matt Bell, a former Noble County House member who got his seat through a caucus. “Sometimes careers change. Sometimes family needs change.

“The number doesn’t surprise me terribly. I think that as long as the vast majority of the General Assembly has been elected popularly by the will of the people, then it can maintain its representative nature.”

But others see the caucus as a type of political rigging for savvy folks who might have insider knowledge of upcoming vacancies.

“Some of the resignations in recent years, you can draw your own conclusions,” GOP Fort Wayne businessman Ric Runestad said. “Anything that is closer to the will of the people is superior to political insiders picking representatives.”

Whenever a vacancy occurs in a state legislative office, the precinct committee people from that district and from the party of the departing lawmaker meet to tap a replacement.

These precinct folks run for election to the post. Or the county chairman appoints residents to fill a precinct committee slot if it becomes vacant.

Northeast Indiana has had a spate of caucuses in recent years – at least eight, more than other areas of the state.

Overall, the Senate has a larger number of members who came to the legislature by way of caucus – 18 compared with 10 in the House.

Of the 28 current state lawmakers who came in through a caucus, eight filled vacancies caused by death. The vast majority, 20, filled vacancies opened by resignations from office before a term was over.

“The whole caucus thing is interesting because I don’t think it was ever designed to be a routine way of filling vacancies,” said Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, a former county Republican chairwoman. “It was supposed to be what we do when someone dies.

“But what we are finding is because our society is more mobile, … there are more resignations than there used to be. They are in the office and give it up for whatever reason.

“So we have more of the caucuses.”

For instance, Republican Randy Borror of Fort Wayne, who entered office by caucus, left the Indiana House in July 2010 to become a lobbyist. He had a few months left in his term and was on the ballot for the upcoming general election.

In 2007, Democratic House member Robert Kuzman of Crown Point left in the middle of his term to join a lobbying firm.

Connie Lawson left the Senate last year when she was tapped to take over the Indiana secretary of state’s office. And Glick herself took over the Senate seat in a caucus when Marlin Stutzman left for Congress.

And some leave to take positions within the executive branch of state government. For instance, just Friday, Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, a high-ranking House Republican, announced he would leave his legislative post to work for Gov. Mike Pence. A caucus will fill the remainder of his term.

“I had no clue that opportunity would come,” Borror said of his decision to leave months after winning an uncontested primary election. “There was no strategy to the timing at all. The opportunity presented itself, and I had to make a decision.”

He said that by leaving early, he lost the opportunity to stand on the House floor and be feted by colleagues, including taking a moment behind the podium to say goodbye.

“You have the constitutional responsibility to fill the vacancy so people have representation. (A caucus) might not be perfect, but it is a pretty fair way to ensure that people get representation as quickly as possible,” Borror said.

Bell concedes that in years past, lawmakers might have chosen to resign at a specific time in an effort to use a caucus to handpick a successor.

But he doesn’t think that strategy can happen anymore.

“To me, the game has changed so much because of technology,” Bell said. “I’m not sure a sitting legislator has the same bully pulpit to maneuver a caucus like they may have had 20 years ago.”

Sometimes the strategy is not that of the departing legislators but of those who want to take their place.

For instance, it was widely known in political circles that then-Rep. Phyllis Pond of New Haven was considering resigning her post as the session ended in late April.

Rep. Kathy Heuer, R-Columbia City, shared an apartment with Pond during the 2013 session and said they talked about the advantages and disadvantages to resigning or staying in office.

“We would talk about what was more fair to the constituents and what was fair to the party who worked so hard to help us get elected. We never really reached any conclusions, but the questions did fill the air some evenings,” Heuer said.

And during those summer months while Pond considered her options, Allen County Republican Party Chairman Steve Shine continued to appoint local residents to fill vacancies in the caucus precinct posts – some of whom likely had allegiance to future possible candidates.

“Anyone has the opportunity to recommend a precinct committee person,” Shine said. “Everyone has the same opportunity. You have to be familiar with the process. That’s just being politically savvy.”

Pond first announced she would not seek re-election. Then as her health deteriorated, she announced her resignation. She died before the caucus could fill the remainder of her term.

Runestad, who lives in Pond’s district, said that at the very least, only elected precinct people should be able to vote in a caucus, in order to avoid the possible stacking of appointed committee members supporting a specific candidate.

In recent years, more caucuses have occurred in the Senate than in the House.

About 36 percent of the current 50 members of the Senate entered office through a caucus, compared with only 10 percent in the 100-member House. Of those, some of the members arrived by caucus as far back as the 1980s and are still serving.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. “We have had a number of deaths and people changing jobs, moving out of state.

“The Senate usually moves at a glacial pace, but in the last eight years or so, there has been a significant amount of change.”

He added that he doesn’t think there’s any intent to use caucuses to subvert the electoral process.

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said it’s a part-time legislature that is bound to experience change.

“There are practical reasons that result in a legislator moving on, whether for personal reasons in the family or related to a job or health,” he said.

The Senate serves four-year terms instead of two-year terms in the House, increasing the likelihood of life circumstances changing.

Lanane – who was caucused into office in 1997 – acknowledges that once people win in a caucus, they rarely lose in the next election.

“It’s obviously an advantage. You are an incumbent,” Long said.

Borror said the perks are obvious.

Even if in office for a short time, he said, the person gains experience and might have access to state-paid mailings in the district.

The Journal Gazette could find only a few examples in the past decade or so when someone who won a caucus to fill a vacancy lost the next primary. They were both House Democrats.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 states fill state legislative vacancies through appointment. The appointing entity varies greatly, though, from the governor or the board of commissioners to the political party, as it is in Indiana.

The other 25 states use special elections to fill the remainder of a state legislator’s term.

But the caucus is seen here as an inexpensive and fair alternative.

“That’s extremely costly. I can’t even imagine that,” said Glick, referring to special elections. She also prefers a local caucus over appointment by a single elected official.

“At least this way, it’s done at the local level by the party that controls the seat,” Long said. “In the end, you still have to stand for re-election, so the public has the final say.”