Carmen Darland was sitting in a tavern across the street from her local Democratic headquarters in 2010 when she realized her party had a serious problem.
Darland, who at 25 was the party’s youngest county leader, had just left a meeting of activists and office-holders and couldn’t help but notice how few were her age.
Sharing her table were Pete Buttigieg, then 28 and a candidate for state treasurer, and Jeff Harris, his 34-year-old campaign manager.
Darland and Harris came to two realizations.
One, in an increasingly Republican state, Democrats needed a sustainable pool of young talent from which to pull candidates.
Two, given resistance from the party’s leadership, they probably had to build that pool themselves.
From that table at Paul’s Pub in the small town of Kendallville came the idea for the Emerging Leaders Project, a yearlong program designed for Democrats younger than 40 with the interest and potential to run or win campaigns.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” is how Darland explains their desire for a fresh face for the state’s Democrats.
In its first full year, 800 people applied for 40 slots in the program. Organizers since have had the enviable problem of turning away more applicants than they can accept.
The next class plans to meet again.
Among its members are idealists such as Julian Winborn, 22, an Indiana State University political science graduate whose heroes include President Barack Obama and progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
“As young people looking in, we just want to see if there’s a place of us,” said Winborn.
The sentiment was echoed by Krystina Jarboe, 25, who moved back to her hometown of New Albany from a job in Ohio.
“It was time to come home to see if I can make a difference here,” she said.
In its short life, the leadership program has seen success. Several dozen graduates have run for office at the local level, where the party’s bench-building begins, and some have won. Some alumni are now on the ballot in state legislative races.
Darland went on to become the party’s youngest district director at age 30. Buttigieg is now mayor of South Bend, and Harris is spokesman for John Gregg’s gubernatorial campaign.
Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, says the program makes sense for a party that’s lost some footing.
A Democrat hasn’t held the governor’s office since 2004. Republicans have super-majority control of the Legislature, and all but one statewide office is held by a Republican.
Of 168 state and federal elected officeholders in Indiana, 43 are Democrats.
“You’re never going to have electoral success,” said Downs, “until you start grooming young people and cultivating them as candidates.”
This year’s U.S. Senate race offers a telling example of the party’s need for youthful energy.
When Democrats went looking for a candidate, they initially settled on a familiar face — former Congressman Baron Hill, 63, who was turned out of office in 2010.
He was replaced on the ballot this summer by former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, who once represented the fresh face of the party when he was elected the nation’s youngest governor.
But that was 26 years ago.
The Emerging Leaders Project has since been sanctioned by the state Democratic Party, though it’s still run by volunteers who Harris said are committed to returning some partisan balance to Indiana politics.
“You have people whose hearts are really in it,” said Harris. “They see it as good for the party but also good for democracy.”
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers.