La PORTE — La Porte County Democrats recruited a trio of heavy hitters to rally the party faithful Friday during the organization’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Celebration.
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky and state House Minority Leader Scott Pelath all talked about the importance of winning elections — not just to gain political power, but to provide just and caring leadership, save health care and preserve the rule of law.
“I think we all learned in the last six months that this noble experiment, American democracy, is a lot more fragile than we thought,” Pelath said. “We find ourselves fighting for the right to fight at all.”
Although party leaders drew laughs and jeers as they took jabs at Republicans — from Donald Trump and Mike Pence on the national stage to even those on the local level — they also sought to convey the gravity of their remarks.
“It’s time to talk serious business now,” Pelath said. “We have to look ahead with some humility about what we face and what we have to do to turn things around.”
Pelath urged party members to “hang on to that feeling” they had after Trump was elected and use it to fuel positive action. He urged fellow Democrats to speak gently with relatives, friends and neighbors who voted for Trump.
“Don’t preach,” he said. “Many of them probably feel some regret. Give them a little space. Don’t try to fix this all at once.”
The Veterans of Foreigns Wars post on McClung Road hosted the event. More than 220 tickets, at $25 each, were sold out four weeks ago, according to county chairman Jim Kimmel.
“2018 is going to be a big year for Democrats, and it’s going to start with the people in this room,” Kimmel said.
Winning back and retaining seats in county government and the state legislature in 2018 will be an important priority, Kimmel said, but returning Donnelly to Congress is vital.
Donnelly said the backing he has received from La Porte County has allowed him to support health care reform and help save General Motors and Chrysler. He said that support also allows him to be one reason Republicans have only a slim majority in the Senate preventing them from easily pursuing an ill-advised agenda.
“It’s a breathtaking responsibility and an unbelievable challenge, and I appreciate the opportunity,” he said.
Donnelly and his wife, Jill, who live in Granger, marked their 38th wedding anniversary Friday. They hadn’t seen each other until Donnelly arrived late to the event after flying in from Washington, D.C.
Suspecting the celebration may have gotten lost in the political effort, organizers presented the couple with a large bouquet of red roses.
Republicans are already lining up to defeat Donnelly, who won the Senate seat in 2012 by beating tea party favorite Richard Mourdock.
Mourdock had defeated 36-year incumbent Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, opening the door for Donnelly to became the first Democrat to hold the seat since 1977.
Three protesters outside the VFW sought to focus attention on news reports that Donnelly, a longtime critic of outsourcing jobs to foreign countries, had profited as a stockholder in his brother’s company, which used Mexican workers to produce dye for ink pads.
Donnelly last week said he had not been active in the company in 20 years and sold the stock recently to prevent the issue from becoming a distraction.
His supporters on Friday were unapologetic and said they were fully united behind him. They said Donnelly’s voting record showed he was a tireless champion for American workers.
“We all have your back,” former county party chairman Shaw Friedman said.
Donnelly said he would continue to focus on the issues he believes can improve lives and was eager to talk with constituents across the state about where he stands on any issue.
“Putting people first, and country first, has always been the best strategy, and it always will be,” Donnelly said.
The longest serving of the three speakers Friday was Visclosky. First elected to Congress in 1984, he said his father, the former mayor of Gary, taught him an important lesson years ago when he asked young Pete what he thought was the most important thing in politics.
Visclosky said he started rambling about democracy, helping others and making the world a better place when his father stopped him.
“Getting elected is the most important thing,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you can’t do anything.”