A vote in Carmel to not vacate one political seat led to another one becoming empty.
After joining three other Carmel city councilors May 16 in blocking a resolution that would have begun the process of vacating the Central District seat of ailing councilor Bruce Kimball, who hasn’t attended a meeting since late 2020, at-large councilor Jeff Worrell said he began hearing that Hamilton County Republican Party leadership wasn’t happy with his justification for his vote.
During a phone call the following day with Hamilton County Republican Party Chair Mario Massillamany to discuss the matter, Worrell asked Massillamany if he’d like him to resign from his appointed position as a precinct committeeman, and – to Worrell’s surprise – Massillamany said it would be a good idea. Worrell had served as a PC for more than 10 years.
At the council meeting, Worrell had said he didn’t want to vacate Kimball’s seat, which would trigger a Republican Party caucus to select his replacement, so close to the next election cycle. Campaigning for city council is expected to begin this fall, with the primary to be held in May 2023 and the general election in November 2023. The elected councilor would take office in January 2024.
“I am unwilling to take away the right for everyone from the Central District to choose their representative and instead give it to just a handful of precinct committeepeople to decide behind closed doors,” Worrell, a Republican, said at the May 16 meeting, adding that he fully supports the caucus process when circumstances are appropriate.
Massillamany said he didn’t take issue with Worrell’s vote but that his reasoning for it seemed to bolster already simmering distrust in the process for filling vacant seats.
“It wasn’t his comment he made at that meeting but the misinformation that was being spread prior to those meetings that this was a closed-door process,” Massillamany said, adding that he doesn’t accuse Worrell directly of spreading misinformation. “A lot of these caucuses are open to the public. Some are livestreamed.”
Massillamany said he and Worrell are still on good terms and that he is open to considering Worrell for a PC position again in the future.
Caucus system ‘quite logical’
Massillamany, who became party chair in January but was involved in several caucuses before taking the role, said he had never heard any pushback on the caucus process in Hamilton County before the potential vacancy of Kimball’s seat.
But in the days leading up to the council vote, it became a point of discussion in the community. Many Central District residents advocated for a caucus so they wouldn’t have to wait until a new councilor takes office for direct representation, while others said they’d prefer to let voters select their next representative.
In Indiana, both the Republican and Democratic parties use a caucus to fill most elected seats that become vacant between elections. At the caucus, precinct committeepeople who represent the area with the vacancy cast ballots to select a replacement.
“It’s quite logical, and it is sort of Hoosier in its inception, because of its support for the two major political parties and not wanting to spend too much money (to hold a special election) but still having some form of representation involved in the process itself makes a lot of sense for Indiana to go this route,” said Andrew Downs, a political analyst and associate professor in the department of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
PCs do not have to live in the area they represent, although local party leaders would prefer they do or at least live nearby. In addition to voting in caucuses, which many PCs never have the opportunity to do, their responsibilities include scouting voting locations within their precinct, finding inspectors and judges to work on Election Day and promoting voter engagement.
Many PC positions are filled through elections, including the primary that occurred earlier this month. Open positions that remain are appointed by the party chairs. Dayna Colbert, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said more than half of her party’s PCs are appointed, in part a result of a winter storm at the end of the filing period for an elected position making it difficult for some interested candidates to register in time to get on the ballot.
Although the names of elected PCs are publicly available through election results, the chairs of both local parties said they don’t typically provide full lists of PCs.
Colbert said keeping the full list private has been a longstanding policy in the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
“(For elected PCs), we feel like that is something the electorate can know, since they put their name on the ballot,” Colbert said. “There are some PCs we learn about after the election. They should be out and informing everybody in their precincts, so that’s why we do that, to have more of a presence in front of people instead of getting inundated with emails.”
Massillamany said he will provide to those who ask the names of PCs who will be eligible to vote in a scheduled or potential caucus, but in general the full list is not distributed “for security reasons.”
Downs said interest in becoming a PC has declined over time, resulting in fewer of them being elected and more receiving their position through appointment.
“The problem right now is that an awful lot of PC positions go uncontested in the primary, and, in some instances, go vacant in the primary,” Downs said. “Usually, the chair of that party gets to name the person to that position, and when that happens, you get folks who are beholden to the party chair.”
Power of incumbency
Although the caucus system has many benefits, Downs said, it can also be used for political advantages.
“Although I cannot say definitively that elected officials have done this before, because none would admit it, there have certainly been instances when elected officials choose to vacate their office so their party could caucus in their replacement,” he said. “Their replacement would not only be a party insider, because PCs are making the decision, but would go into the (next) election with incumbency at their back.”
Although this was not the reason for the potential council vacancy in Carmel, the advantages of being an incumbent factored into Worrell’s vote – and possibly others – to not remove Kimball from his seat.
“If there were to be a caucus, then in the next election there would certainly be the power of incumbency,” said Worrell, who intends to run for reelection as an at-large councilor. “Would all the people who want to run decide to go ahead and run if there is already someone (on the council) the party had chosen?”
Massillamany said several people had reached out to the Hamilton County Republican Party to express interest in becoming a candidate for Kimball’s seat if it became vacant, including four women he described as “phenomenal and well-qualified.”