HUNTINGTON, Ind. (WANE) — The future of Huntington County’s Republican party was in question Monday night.
The Huntington County Election Board held a special hearing on whether four precinct committeeman candidates would be allowed to stay on the ballot after helping elect current Independent Huntington Mayor Richard Strick in some way or another.
Around 100 Huntington County Republicans packed a room on the second floor of the courthouse to attend what became a heated public meeting at times.
A representative from both the Democrat and Republican parties, along with the Huntington County Clerk made up the board that decided what would happen to Republican candidates Dwight Brautigam, Barbara Fetters, James O’Donnell, and Matthew Wilcox.
After testimony from each candidate and the petitioner, the board deliberated and came to a decision. In the end, the board voted to take Fetters, O’Donnell, and Wilcox off the ballot, but allowed Brautigam to remain.
It was a decision that has left some in the county worried about the integrity of the local Republican party.
“I think we need to be a party that’s more open and inviting and trying to attract new talent and new ideas, and I don’t think that’s what’s been happening,” said Seth Marshall, a Republican At-Large Huntington City Councilman. “I think this put us back a few steps. I don’t think this helps anybody except those that are currently sitting. That’s unfortunate.”
Although Brautigam was allowed to stay on the ballot and remains in good standing with the Republican party, he expressed his own concerns ahead of Monday night’s hearing.
“I think the voters should have the opportunity to have their say,” Brautigam said. “I think anytime someone wants to take choices away from voters, that’s a bad bad thing, and I don’t think the Huntington County Republican party should be involved in taking choices away from voters.”
Back in 2019, two-term incumbent Republican Mayor Brooks Fetters asked for the Republican party’s support to run for another term. However, the party chose to support challenger Larry Buzzard. The Huntington County Chairwoman of the GOP was Rise Buzzard, Larry’s wife.
This was the third election Larry Buzzard and Brooks Fetters ran against each other for mayor and the first time the GOP backed Buzzard.
While some have called the connection between Larry and Rise Buzzard a conflict of interest, Rise defended her actions during the election process and said that she remained an objective member of the GOP.
“I honestly didn’t do anything,” Rise said following Monday night’s hearing. “I didn’t wear a T-shirt, a button, go to a meet-and-greet. I wasn’t on a picture for anything. I totally stayed out of it because I didn’t want that perception at all.”
In May, Larry Buzzard went on to beat Fetters in the primary election. That prompted Richard Strick, a Republican Huntington City Council member at the time, to run for mayor as an Independent.
The decision split the party.
While some stuck to party lines in November and voted for Buzzard, others threw their support behind Strick. Brooks Fetters and his wife Barbara were two of those people.
They actively and openly supported Strick after Brooks lost the primary election. As a result, Rise Buzzard moved to have Brooks ousted from the Huntington County Republican party. Barbara remained in good standing for the time being.
Strick ultimately beat Larry Buzzard in the general election in November and officially became Huntington’s first Independent mayor in January.
On February 7th, the next phase of local politics came into view as the County Precinct Committeemen ballot was finalized for the upcoming election. A precinct committeeman represents voters and has the power to vote for party officials and make endorsements of candidates.
Soon afterwards, Rise Buzzard, along with two other Republicans, filed Challenges to Candidacy with the County Election Board to potentially remove four Republicans from the primary ballot for precinct committeemen spots.
Those four candidates were Dwight Brautigam, James O’Donnell, Matthew Wilcox, and Barbara Fetters, Brooks Fetters’ wife. All four were accused of backing Independent Richard Strick in the election in some form, whether that was giving a donation, displaying a sign, or signing a petition.
Rise Buzzard and the other complainants argued that those actions were grounds to revoke their status as “Republicans in good standing.”
“To be in good standing, you can’t openly and actively be working against the party nominees,” Rise Buzzard explained.
Officials with the election board heard each claim one by one and made their decisions based on information and testimony presented.
While the process to remove candidates is not common, it doesn’t directly violate state code.
Prior to the 1990s, election procedures were written in the Indiana Code. However, over the years, the Indiana Elections Board removed much of the code and now respects the rules set by each party.
Indiana GOP rules state the following about who is eligible to run as a Republican.
“No person shall be eligible for election for the office of precinct committeeman or the appointment to the office of Precinct Committeeman or Vice-Precinct Committeeman unless the individual:
(1) is a Qualified Elector of the precinct (if elected) or a Qualified Elector of the county (if appointed); and
(2) is a Qualified Primary Republican; or
(3) he/she obtains an authorization form signed by the County Chairman and the candidate for committeeman saying the individual pledges full support to the Republican Party and the candidates of the Republican Party. This form (IRSC/CA-1)6 shall be attached to the back of the CAN-37 when the candidate Files his/her declaration with the county clerk, or county election board as appropriate for the county. The County Chairman shall also Communicate a copy of this form to the State Secretary.”Indiana GOP Rule 3-3
Monday night’s meeting was to determine if each of the four candidates were in good standing as Republicans and if they supported Strick, instead of Republican nominee Larry Buzzard.
Three out of the four were found to be in bad standing and were removed.
After the next cycle of elections, those who were removed can run again without Monday’s hearing being used against them, as long as they register and vote as a Republican in the next primary election and follow other predetermined requirements.
They can also appeal Monday night’s decision, which could be reversed if the proper criteria is met.
For a full list of Indiana, Republican rules click here.
Future of Huntington GOP
Now that Fetters, O’Donnell, and Wilcox have been removed from the ballot, the future of the Huntington GOP hangs in the balance.
Because O’Donnell was running unopposed, GOP chairwoman Rise Buzzard will decide who will fill that position.
As for Fetters and Wilcox, those running against them will move on unopposed to the primaries in May.
Regardless of the results of Monday night’s meeting and the appeals that may come in the future, many like Councilman Seth Marshall are setting their sights on the future success of the Republican party in Huntington County, and hoping to move past this phase of local politics.
“Our hope is, I think, to bring the party back together, and let’s start healing and working together,” Marshall said. “I think a lot of people were disappointed in the process, but it is a process, and I think we need to respect that.”