- Associated Press - Sunday, March 1, 2015

ELKHART, Ind. (AP) - A new political group taking shape here, the Elkhart Party, aims to shake things up in city politics.

What it means to the established Democratic-Republican order remains to be seen.

The group is hoping to slate at least three candidates in upcoming Elkhart City Council elections.

The leader of the Elkhart County Democratic Party, Shari Mellin, thinks this move could siphon votes from Democrats. The new group could even act as a spoiler, helping shift the balance of power on the nine-member Elkhart City Council from the Democrats, who hold a 5-4 edge, to the Republicans.

Rose Rivera, one of the three would-be Elkhart Party candidates, says it’s not so clear. The party could “excite a lot of new voters” who aren’t necessarily beholden to either one of the major parties, she told The Elkhart Truth (https://bit.ly/1Ly6NrF ).

Either way, Mellin and Dale Stickel, who’s active in the Elkhart County Republican Party, are skeptical the group will score an electoral victory come Election Day, Nov. 3.

“I really doubt they’re going to make a dent,” said Stickel, former head of the Elkhart County Republican Party and a party stalwart here. Third parties, in general, have a pretty tough time competing with the Democratic and Republican parties.

Jason Moreno, the moving force behind the formation of the Elkhart Party, said he’s been approached by Democrats worried the new group would draw votes from Democrats. He, however, looks to the large number of registered voters who typically don’t show up come Election Day. Registering new voters - within the Hispanic community, among other sectors - will also figure big in the effort.

A would-be candidate also wants to vie for mayor of Elkhart under a third-party banner.

Dale Duncan seeks a spot on the ballot as a member of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement. He needs 171 signatures on petitions to secure a place and said he’s got about 20 to 25 thus far.

He has until June 30 to get the signatures and said he’ll probably redouble efforts when the weather warms.

“We’re looking more for the disenfranchised voters. That’s probably going to be a staple for us,” said Moreno, hoping to run at-large for the Elkhart City Council under the Elkhart Party banner, along with Rivera and Tom Butler. “New registrations are a big part of what we’re trying to do right now.”

Whatever the case, it’s early.

Moreno, Butler and Rivera still have to get enough signatures on petitions to get on the ballot, as spelled out in state law for third party hopefuls. They have until June 30, and presuming they get the needed support, they’d appear on the November ballot along with the three Republican and three Democratic hopefuls.

Moreno says he’s typically voted Democratic, which Mellin cites in her contention that the Elkhart Party could siphon votes from Democratic Party hopefuls. He even considered a city council bid as a Democrat, he said.

“I was the party choice as headliner for common council at-large one week before I created the Elkhart Party,” Moreno, a community organizer in Elkhart for La Casa Inc., said in message directed to Democrats on his campaign Facebook page. Moreno and others formally introduced the Elkhart Party at a Feb. 7 press conference.

That said, Moreno sees the group appealing to Republicans as well. The party’s formation stemmed, in part, from the frequent bickering between council Democrats and Republicans, and Moreno maintains that issues at the municipal level aren’t partisan like they are at the state or national levels.

“The reason I’m not on the Democratic ticket is because I actually enjoy and have a track record of working with you and having success in doing so,” Moreno wrote in a Facebook post directed to Republicans.

Rivera, a lawyer at the nonprofit Center for Legal Justice, described herself as independent. She said Butler, who didn’t immediately respond to a query seeking comment, has traditionally identified as Republican. “I think it’s really unclear what’s going to happen,” she said.

The three at-large Republican candidates for city council are incumbents Brian Dickerson and Mary Olson, along with Adam Bujalski. The three Democratic contenders are Norm Anderson, Ted Berkshire and Franklin Breckenridge Sr. Incumbent at-large Councilman Rod Roberson, a Democrat, isn’t seeking re-election.

In November, the three top vote-getters among all at-large candidates win. The potential worry for Mellin is that the Elkhart Party candidates, presuming they get on the ballot, will dilute the votes for the Democratic hopefuls, allowing Republicans to win all three of the at-large spots and potentially gain a majority on the council.

All nine council seats, including six representing geographic districts, are up for grabs in the elections, as is the mayor’s post, held by Democrat Dick Moore.

Stickel, the Republican Party official here, says the Elkhart Party’s arrival on the scene could spur interest in the municipal campaign, spice things up. Turnout in elections last November was low in Elkhart County - 26.6 percent compared to 39 percent four years earlier.

But he doesn’t think the Elkhart Party will lure “committed voters” of either party.

Regardless, Mellin said the task for Democrats will be getting their message out to assure support. Under Democratic city leadership, the city weathered the Great Recession, helped develop the downtown area, kept the streets in shape and more.

“We’ve had the successes. … We’ve been managing the city well,” said Dwight Fish, vice chairman of the Elkhart County Democratic Party and a candidate for the Fourth District Elkhart City Council post.

Moreno wouldn’t delve into specifics of the Elkhart Party’s strategy in overcoming the difficulty third parties typically have in U.S. elections. But even if none of the party’s candidates win, he expects to have an impact - in promoting transparency in the electoral process and promoting engagement among the public.

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Information from: The Elkhart Truth, https://www.elkharttruth.com

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