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Part Three: No Interview Required
The following is the third part of a multi-part series chronicling Donovan Wheeler’s conversation with two men running for local offices in Greencastle, Indiana. They are Democrats in that Midwestern swath of red which often and easily goes to the other team. So easily that, this year, the other team didn’t even show up for the debates. In part three, Russell Harvey (running for Greencastle Township Trustee) and Matt Cummings (running for Putnam County’s 3rd District seat on the county council) lament their Republican opponents' group decision to sit out the debates...and much of the campaign for that matter.
It has come to this. Photo after photo told the story. Tom Chiarella debating an empty podium. Tobi Beck standing beside an empty podium. Kim Fidler discussing policy next to an empty podium. And the two men before me? The night I sat down to talk about Matt Cummings’ and Russell Harvey’s respective campaigns for local offices, they were a week away from their scheduled night on stage—their chance to stand alongside the unused microphones which would serve as metaphors representing both the hubris of their Republican counterparts as well as the current state of politics across the country.
“We have to be honest,” Cummings says to me. “We live in districts that are heavily gerrymandered. They’re also heavily conservative. So I think there are some calculations within some people’s minds that say, one: ‘We don’t have to show up in order to win because we have a majority of voters anyway.”
“And I think the second [reason they didn’t show up] is that maybe some people already had plans,” Cummings adds. “Which I’m a little skeptical about because we were given two months’ notice with regard to the debate dates. But I think a third [factor] is the lack of real care by some candidates to be present for the community. And I think you see that. You don’t see Republican candidates at the public events in the community. You don’t see them at [our local] First Friday [celebrations], you don’t see them at the farmers market…with [one exception, who has] been at pretty much everything I’ve been at.”
We live in a nationalized political environment, where people step up to the voting machine and literally say "no" to better roads and internet access, because Tucker Carlson stirred them into a fit of anger about 7,000 Central American refugees.
For those keeping score at home: that exception, Putnam County Commissioner Rick Woodall, won my vote—the only contested Republican I voted for. I can say with confidence that I punched Woodall’s name because of his track-record. Because in meeting after meeting, among all those contentious issues and debates the commissioners faced, Woodall approached each decision with reason and analysis. I didn’t agree with every vote he cast on that council, but only fools demand fealty from those they vote for. I probably voted for him as well because I taught his kids, and knew him as a parent first—a much, much harder job than any elected position and a job where he performed admirably. But I know that the most visceral reason I punched Woodall’s name was because he at least has the wherewithal to show up for the debates and “interview” for the job.
Some GOP defenders flocked to social media, claiming the Republicans were within their rights to bow out because the League of Women Voters’ (the local debates’ host entity) took public positions on national issues, such as their stance against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But these deflections ignore the fact that the GOP’s “submarine strategy” is happening state wide. And Cummings is having none of it for more basic reasons.
“If [the GOP] wants a more ‘conservative’ moderator…I don’t care,” he says. “Russell will go. I will go. Kim will go. We’ll sit before the National Right Life and let them grill us about those issues. That doesn’t bother us. We’ll sit and talk with anybody. The biggest thing for me is: if you’re going to be paid by citizens then you have a duty to be in front of citizens. If you’re going to run why would you not show up?”
“Even if you feel there’s some sort of disadvantage,” Harvey adds, “as an elected official you’re going to face a lot of tough questions and situations. So you’ve got to be ready for that. You’ve got be ready to give the answers. And even if they’re tough answers, which people don’t want to hear, you’ve got to be able to stand by your decision and take criticism. Take what comes at you.
[This refusal to participate] is an example of people who haven’t been held accountable for so long. It’s another example of somebody realizing that they don’t have to answer for themselves.”
“Trust me on this,” Cummings replies. “I don’t think the Republicans are asking, ‘am I qualified?’ And that’s the first thing I think Democrats are asking.”
Some among the GOP might argue that the ‘am I qualified?’ question was addressed with the primary ballot last May. But if that’s really the thinking, then—rather than settle the matter—it underscores how screwed up everything has become. We live in a nationalized political environment, where people step up to the voting machine and literally say ‘no’ to better roads and internet access, because Tucker Carlson stirred them into a fit of anger about 7,000 Central American refugees—none of whom will likely reach this part of the country.
When Cummings and Harvey spoke to me, I heard a message and a vision unlike anything I had heard from the Democratic Party. Certainly not the national folks, definitely not from the barely-existent state people, nor for that matter from key people at the local level. Consequently, when the election is over, when the majority of people in this county have decided that “interviewing for the job” really isn’t that important. The onus for change will lie not with the victors. As long as there’s no resistance… As long as the status quo holds… There’s no reason to for them to change.
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications.