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Buttigieg campaign manager announces bid for state party chair

Importantville, Adam Wren’s newsletter on the intersection of politics, business, and power in Indiana, appears weekly in The Indiana Citizen.

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Mike Schmuhl—the South Bend operative who ran the most well-funded political campaign in Indiana history for his childhood friend Pete Buttigieg— announced a bid for Indiana Democratic Party chair on Wednesday.

“We are at a turning point for both our party and our state,” Schmuhl said in a statement Wednesday. “The Indiana Democratic Party needs a fresh vision and a strategic plan to start winning again to improve the lives of Hoosiers in every part and corner of our state.”

Schmuhl will be running on a ticket with Marion County Clerk Myla Eldridge.

From his announcement:

Cordelia Lewis-Burks, a longtime Indiana Democratic Party and AFSCME leader, voiced her support for Schmuhl and Eldridge.

“As the Party’s outgoing Vice Chair and a long-time DNC member, I have had the pleasure of working with Mike Schmuhl as he’s organized to elect Democrats at every level,” Lewis-Burks said. “Those experiences, including his work on the Pete for America campaign, are proof that he can bring our big tent together and win races up and down the ballot. I am proud to support Mike and Clerk Eldridge in this year’s reorganization and I’m confident they will help move the Indiana Democratic Party forward in the years to come.”

Arielle Brandy, the president of Indiana Young Democrats, also endorsed Schmuhl and Eldridge.

“The Indiana Democratic Party is in need of bold leadership that is ready to take on challenges, bring an innovative mindset that not only just elects Democrats into office, but is willing to make intentional investments into communities across the state that are eager for change and seat at the table,” Brandy commented. “I know that with the leadership of Mike and Myla, our party will be able to leverage the talent, skills and organizing ability of Young Hoosiers and marginalized communities that are tired of sitting and waiting their turn in Party politics.”

Schmuhl—a former aide to Joe Donnelly, Mel Hall, and Shelli Yoder—first took himself out of the running in 2020 but reversed course after party leaders spent weeks urging him to reconsider. He is currently a director at Heartland Ventures, a Midwestern venture capital firm, where he works on brand development and investor relations. IMPORTANTVILLE first reported his renewed interest in the position on Jan. 26.

If elected, Schmuhl faces several candidate recruitment hurdles ahead of the 2022 campaign cycle, including finding a candidate to run into what is likely to be a buzzsaw of a re-election campaign mounted by Sen. Todd Young, who is sitting on a warchest of nearly $2.7 million.

Schmuhl brings a deep national fundraising network from a presidential campaign that raised nearly $100 million and employed nearly 600, and seek to resuscitate a Hoosier Democratic donor base that has relied on a few key powerhouse donors in recent cycles. He ran the Buttigieg campaign like a startup and would take a similar entrepreneurial approach to the Indiana Democratic Party.

Schmuhl is said to have the blessing of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, who, along with Rep. André D. Carson, are the putative leaders of the party and will have an outsize influence on the selection of the next state party chair.

Current chairman John Zody, who has been chair since 2013, announced he would not seek re-election after November’s election. His final term ends in March.

Schmuhl has been in touch with members of the State Central Committee, who will ultimately choose Zody’s successor.

There are technically no official candidates for state party chair at present because no one has filed, but party activist Trish Whitcomb, a longtime Hoosier Democratic campaign hand, has also said she is running. The filing process is on the agenda for the next State Central Committee meeting on Feb. 13.

3 TAKEAWAYS FROM BUTTIGIEG’S FIRST WEEK IN D.C.

Hoosiers took star turns in the first week of the Biden era, with Transportation Secretary-designate Pete Buttigieg sailing through his Senate confirmation hearing, Sen. Todd Young introducing him, and former Vice President Mike Pence fulfilling the traditional function of the exiting president at the inaugural ceremonies.

We learned more this week about the future of each Hoosier politico.

Former Vice President Mike Pence will be moving back home again this summer, he told supporters in his hometown of Columbus, Ind., Wednesday afternoon, after jetting back here following the inauguration, as James F. Hanley’s “Back Home Again in Indiana” wafted over about five dozen gathered. “There’s no place like home,” said Pence, who spent the majority of his four years as Indiana governor searching for a way to get to Washington. What he’ll do next could include returning to the airwaves, helming a think tank, stumping for 2022 Republican candidates, and writing a book.

Sen. Todd Young will position himself in the Biden era—and ahead of his 2022 re-election campaign—as a tonal bipartisan with conservative bonafides. Punchbowl News includes Young among their “Sweet 16,” a list of bipartisan legislators who will be a “power base” in the Senate.

“I stand ready to work with the new administration to find common ground wherever possible, and to ensure every American has a fair shot at success,” Young said in a statement Wednesday. He spent the rest of the week making good on that promise: On Thursday, he introduced Butttigieg to the Senate Commerce Committee. On Saturday, he spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris, his former Senate colleague, about virus relief.

But more than any Hoosier pol, we learned about Pete Buttigieg and the role he’ll be playing in the Biden administration. Here are three takeaways from his first week in Washington.

  1. Buttigieg is going to be doing a lot of bipartisan events across the country ahead of 2024 and 2028

By my count, Buttigieg received far more bipartisan invitations to visit Senators’ respective states than he did hostile questions. Sen. Rick Scott (R.-Fla.) peppered Buttigieg with questions about the ailing Highway Trust Fund (more on that below). And Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Texas) interrogated Buttigieg about the Biden administration’s nixing of the Keystone Pipeline, over which Buttigieg would have no purview, and how it would harm union jobs. “If you and I can make common cause for labor, then I think that’s great news,” Buttigieg replied.

  1. Buttigieg is still learning the ropes of not being a candidate

When Scott asked whether Buttigieg would support higher gas taxes to shore up the highway fund, Buttigieg briefly slipped back into the role of professorial presidential candidate and policy wonk, offering a textbook analysis of the fund’s predicament—rather than sticking to tightly framed talking points. Buttigieg, speaking without notes, noted that the gas tax hadn’t been raised since 1993, having never been pegged to inflation. “All options needed to be on the table,” Buttigieg said, suggesting a number of models existed for rightsizing the fund but leaving it to Congress to decide. Still, the moment exposed him to criticism that he was already talking about raising taxes in a still nascent Biden administration.

Not long after his hearing closed, a Buttigieg aide sought to clarify his comments: The aide insisted that a “variety of options need to be on the table to ensure we can invest in our highways and create jobs, but increasing the gas tax is not among them.”

  1. Buttigieg will be a key surrogate for the administration—not just at DOT

In his closing remarks, committee chairman Roger Wicker (R.-Miss.), asked Buttigieg: “You were on The Tonight Show last night with Jimmy Fallon, and you were on the Morning Joe show this morning. In terms of thrilling experiences, how does being before this committee compare to those?” Buttigieg, who would also join ABC’s “The View,” on Friday, drolly replied: “I would characterize this as a unique experience,” Buttigieg answered.

It’s clear from his first week in Washington that Buttigieg will be more than just Transportation Secretary; he’ll be one of the Biden administration’s leading surrogates.

And if this week is prologue, he could do so to praise: “Your intellect has preceded you into the room,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) Thursday. “You have put on a clinic on how a nominee should work and act. You haven’t avoided the questions, you’ve been straightforward and you know what the hell you’re talking about, and that’s really pretty damn refreshing.”

HOGSETT DECIDES AGAINST SENATE BID

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett—the state party’s second-best fundraiser, behind only Pete Buttigieg—will take a pass on challenging Sen. Todd Young in 2022, further complicating Indiana Democrats’ path back to statewide relevancy.

The news comes as Hogsett starts 2021 with nearly $1.2 million in the bank, his campaign announced Wednesday, giving $60,000 to candidates and groups last year. To put that into perspective, the party’s 2020 gubernatorial candidate, Dr. Woody Myers, couldn’t raise $500,000 in the third quarter last year.

Would Hogsett use that war chest to launch a bid against Young? I asked Thomas Cook, Hogsett’s chief political aide, and his former chief deputy mayor and chief of staff, last week. Hogsett hadn’t yet publicly closed the door on a run, but his announcement this week of his fundraising numbers were conspicuous.

“No,” Cook said, offering a Shermanesque statement. “Mayor Hogsett has spent the last year working with state and federal leaders to craft bipartisan solutions to the problems posed by COVID-19, and that’s where his focus will remain during this critical time. With hundreds of millions in pandemic relief distributed to families and small businesses in recent months, and the capital city poised to host March Madness on the global stage, it’s clear that Indianapolis is on the move under Mayor Hogsett’s leadership.”

Hogsett would’ve been a leading candidate for Democrats, who haven’t won statewide office since 2012. Current possible contenders now include tech executive Josh Owens, who briefly ran for governor and is said to be fifty-fifty at launching a Senate bid, as well as State Senator J.D. Ford, who insiders say may be leaning toward a Secretary of State bid in 2022. Ford wasn’t immediately available for comment. Earlier last summer, Ford told IMPORTANTVILLE: “I am not ruling out any opportunity to make a difference for our state.”

STILL NO LEADING CONTENDER FOR INDIANA DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIR

Democratic insiders say recruiting for a Young challenger and a 2020 Secretary of State candidate will be hampered until the state central committee consolidates around a state chair candidate. Former state lawmaker Karlee Macer has declared her candidacy, and others interested include former South Bend mayoral candidate Jason Critchlow, founder of the Indiana Federation of Democratic Women Trish Whitcomb, and 9th District Democratic Chairman Adam Dickey.

Privately, a number of Indiana Democrats continue to urge former Buttigieg campaign manager Mike Schmuhl, who ruled out a bid late last year, to consider the position.

Hogsett and Rep. André D. Carson, putative leaders of the party, will have an outsized influence on who the next chair will be.

Meanwhile, Indiana Young Democrat Vice President James Wells announced his candidacy to run for vice chair at this year’s party reorganization meeting. “I come into this race knowing that while things look bleak now, I see this enthusiasm and energy in the state that’s ready to be organized and mobilized to campaign up and down the ballot for better policies that lead towards better government and better communities for all us in Indiana,” Wells said.

Wells’ candidacy raised eyebrows in Hogsett world: He’s a mayor’s neighborhood advocate, but announced his bid without his boss’s endorsement.

Wells’ bid also highlights a fissure in the party between a generation of young Hoosier Democrats who are eager to advance the party through digital organizing and more progressive messaging and an older guard who stresses the nuts and bolts of traditional Democratic constituency building.

“Over the last few years we have seen Indiana Young Democrats step into leadership roles, run for office, manage campaigns and mobilize Hoosiers in ways that have not only helped flip key seats but have led the Democratic Party in a direction of inclusivity,” Arielle Brandy, president of the Indiana Young Democrats, said in a statement announcing Wells’ candidacy. “We need more young people in Party leadership, utilizing the skills they have to help shape and demonstrate what it means to have bold, sustainable, and transparent leadership.”

Some of these young Democrats registered a new political action committee with the Indiana Election Division recently: Hoosiers Organized People Energized PAC, run by Brandon Evans, the co-founder at Wide Awake Digital, and Heather K. Sager, who ran comms for the U.S. House member from Illinois who ran the House Democratic Campaign Committee.

IMPORTANTVILLE SOUNDBITE

  • “Serving as your vice president was the greatest honor of our life, but now that that season of service has come to an end, we just had to come home. We’ll always be grateful for the opportunity that they gave us to serve and the way that they allowed us to make a difference in the life of this nation.”

—Former vice president Mike Pence, in Columbus on Wednesday.

IMPORTANTVILLE READS

Trevor Foughty, Capitol & Washington: “Hoosiers in the Cabinet: Where do Pence, Azar, Buttigieg, and Klain fit into state history?”

Given the influence of Hoosiers on both sides of this transition, it raises the question: which other Hoosiers have held such prestigious positions? As it turns out, there isn’t a great source for finding a historical list of Presidential Cabinet members by state, and the offices considered Cabinet-level have fluctuated over time. In order to better account for the history of Hoosiers in the life of our nation, I’ve taken the time to build such a list by combing through the annals of American history, making a list of which offices were considered Cabinet-level at various points in time, and then researching the backgrounds on those who were appointed to the relevant offices. Let’s look first at the offices which are considered Cabinet posts.

Susan Salaz, Indianapolis Monthly: “The Constitution According To Birch Bayh

Imagine a world where the Bayhs got their way: only one Republican since 1988 would have won the White House without the Electoral College, George W. Bush in 2004. Imagine Al Gore steering America’s response to the 9/11 attacks and climate change, or the election of Hillary Clinton as the first female President in 2016. (I know, I know, her emails.) Imagine a life without the constant noise of the Trump presidency, a world where the attack on the Capitol this month most likely never would have occurred. We came much closer than most Americans realize.

Tanya Snyder, POLITICO: “Mayor Pete soon Secretary Pete? Bipartisan senators say yes

Buttigieg’s maiden outing in the Senate can be seen as the kickoff to a potential future run at the presidency, which will play out in the background of virtually everything he does as a member of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet. And though most Americans would view DOT as a sleepy agency, it will enjoy a higher profile under Biden, who has promised to elevate climate concerns among every arm of government.