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Call for party loyalty for Evansville attorney job falls flat

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EVANSVILLE, Ind. — A tribal call to strict party loyalty urges Democratic City Council members to oust their Republican lawyer — but Evansville isn’t Washington, several of them said.

At least three members of the new 7-2 Democratic majority council want to re-up with Josh Claybourn, who has been the body’s lead attorney since early 2015. Two others say they are undecided in a contest that also includes former Democratic Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel and Rep. Ryan Hatfield, a Democrat who represents Evansville.

That’s out of step with local Democratic Party chair Edie Hardcastle, who has called for Claybourn’s ouster in favor of a Democrat. One Democratic council member also reports receiving a call from John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party. Another reports being called by Chuck Whobrey, president of Teamsters Local 215.

The City Council is expected to appoint its attorney at its Jan. 13 meeting. Whoever is named should be a Democrat, Hardcastle declared.

More: Weinzapfel among those vying be the new Evansville City Council’s lead attorney

More: Weinzapfel confirms rumors: He’s exploring another campaign

Some of the time, the Democrats need to be on opposing sides of the Republican mayor (Lloyd Winnecke),” she said. “And the City Council (attorney) would need to be somebody that the Democrats could reasonably make sure was operating in the best interests of what the Democrats have in mind for their policy positions.”

Claybourn, who once called himself an informal advisor to Winnecke’s early campaigns, likely would “be a direct line to the mayor,” Hardcastle charged.

Hardcastle sent a letter to “Democratic Party friends and donors” Thursday providing cell phone numbers and email addresses for four City Council Democrats — Jonathan Weaver, Jim Brinkmeyer, Missy Mosby and Kaitlin Moore Morley — and asking them to lobby the four to appoint a Democrat.

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Delivery: Varies

“The importance of a Democratic attorney has been clearly demonstrated at the County government level where now half of all County employees have been organized into the Teamsters Union,” Hardcastle wrote. “In addition, Vanderburgh County hired a Compliance Officer who now assures serious efforts are made to hire minority and women-owned businesses.

“Accomplishments like these happen when we hire attorneys who are Democrats.”

Employees of county departments vote to unionize with the approval of their elected department heads and the Democratic-controlled Board of Commissioners, which signs county government contracts. Most of the several departments that voted this year to unionize are headed by Republicans.

“It literally has nothing to do with the party affiliation of the commissioners’ attorney,” said Republican Commissioner Cheryl Musgrave, who voted to approve the contracts.

Musgrave said — and Democratic Commissioner Jeff Hatfield agreed — that the compliance officer was hired at Hatfield’s suggestion. Asked if he was prompted to act by an attorney, Hatfield said he was not.

More: Election 2019: Democrats claim seven of nine Evansville City Council seats

More: 2019 Evansville election: Winnecke rolls to re-election, GOP suffers stunning setback

‘Evansville is too small’

Weaver, who supports Claybourn, said rigidly partisan politics and ‘R’ vs. ‘D’ intrigue are not the way forward.

“Evansville is too small. We’ve got to get along with both sides to get stuff done,” said Weaver, an at-large council member who has been elected citywide three times now.

Weaver pointed to the Democratic majority that ran the City Council from 2012 until 2016. That group included several fiercely partisan critics of Winnecke who accused other council Democrats, including Weaver, of being too close to the Republican mayor.

“The past four years has been a godsend compared to my first four years,” Weaver said.

Hiring an attorney who has a relationship with Winnecke might actually help, Weaver said, because it could ensure the mayor would “maybe hear our side of the story better.”

Brinkmeyer, the City Council’s president, said naming a Democrat isn’t of paramount importance to him. Brinkmeyer supports Claybourn, as does Mosby.

“What’s important to me is hiring an attorney that I believe in and can totally trust,” Brinkmeyer said.

Two other Democrats — Ben Trockman and Moore Morley, who were elected last month — said they are uncommitted. Each said qualifications and ability to work with council matter more than party affiliation.

Zac Heronemus, a Democrat elected last month, did not return text and phone messages. Alex Burton, also newly elected, said he does want a Democrat and someone who lives in Evansville. Claybourn has lived in Newburgh as Evansville’s city attorney.

More: What went wrong for Republicans in Evansville’s city election?

Behind the scenes campaign

The campaign to become the City Council’s next lead attorney has been waged behind the scenes, with members reporting they have been courted by all three candidates.

And others.

Mosby said she got a call from state Democratic chief Zody asking her to back a Democrat for the legal post. Zody did not return a phone message from the Courier & Press. Moore Morley confirmed she received a call from Whobrey, who declined to comment.

Hardcastle sent an email to the Democratic Central Committee last week scolding Claybourn for contacting Democrats “representing himself as an ‘active and prominent Dem/leader.'”

“Mr. Claybourn is a donor to Republican candidates as well as the Republican PAC (political action committee) which was used to fight against our Democratic candidates,” Hardcastle wrote. “In addition, his voting (record) is uniformly Republican.”

Hardcastle’s email called Claybourn “an opportunist, playing both sides.”

Claybourn said Hardcastle’s charges are easy to knockdown.

“When I said ‘Democratic Party leader,’ I was referring to the recipients of the text, not myself,” he said of a text message that he said went to three Democrats.

“I have done stuff for candidates of both parties, including Democrats,” Claybourn said. “I’ve always taken the position when I represent City Council that, if you are an incumbent, I will support you, and I will not support the person running against you.'”

Hardcastle said Claybourn made other remarks in the text indicating he should be considered a Democrat, but Claybourn said she is mischaracterizing them. He said he no longer has the text. Hardcastle declined to provide it.

Campaign finance reports for 2019 show that Claybourn made donations to Democratic as well as Republican City Council candidates. He gave $300 in January to Victory Fund, a local political action committee that supports Democratic candidates — and $250 in August to Evansville’s Future, a committee supporting local Republicans.

The local GOP is seeking a recount of Mosby’s 19-vote victory over Republican Natalie Rascher — but Claybourn is helping Mosby, charging her nothing for his services.

Claybourn’s voting record does show he has voted consistently in Republican primary elections since at least 2004. He is also a former treasurer of the local GOP. It has been in more recent years, Claybourn said, that he has recast himself as a bipartisan supporter of City Council incumbents in both parties.

The City Council attorney job pays the attorney’s firm $60,044.50 on a flat rate annual contract. Any special litigation the City Council would need would be compensated at $150 per hour. The attorney is an independent contractor, not a city employee.

Hardcastle makes the point that the job doesn’t come with a lifetime appointment.

“It’s a position that probably should turn over on a regular basis,” she said.

Staff Writer John T. Martin contributed to this report.

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