Legacy of success

Politics in general and Democrats in particular were very important to Audrey Prosser.

According to family members she once replied “Democrat” when asked about her religion.

And, again according to family members, her last words before her April 19 death in Indianapolis were a comment on the current presidential campaign: “That Trump’s an idiot.”

She had many homes throughout her 91 years of life but one of the more permanent was Columbus where she practiced her “religion” with a zeal that benefited not only her but the Democratic Party of Bartholomew County.

She last lived in Columbus in the 1970s while her husband was working for National Linen. It was a different Columbus then, and a different Democratic Party.

Still, I suspect that she would have recognized the condition of the present day Bartholomew County Democrats who only recently have staged a comeback of sorts in electoral politics. Two Democrats — Tom Dell and Elaine Wagner — won seats on the Columbus City Council in the 2015 municipal election and the party has been able to field a number of promising candidates in the county’s general election coming up in November. She would be even more delighted that the party is now headed — although on a temporary basis — by a protégé, former Columbus Mayor Nancy Ann Brown.

The victories by Dell and Wagner in their respective city council races last year were indeed achievements, but the fortunes of the party had diminished so much that Republican Jim Lienhoop ran unopposed for mayor in 2015.

Other recent elections in Bartholomew County painted the same kind of dismal future for local Democrats. One faithful and popular party member even chose to run as a Republican in a recent county-wide race. She won.

The Democrats’ condition today is not unlike what the party faced in 1971 when Audrey Proser was its city chairman.

That year, every municipal office was held by a Republican and all were seeking re-election in the November general election.

The Democrats however had a couple of good things going for them. One was a highly popular school administrator and football coach named Max Andress. The other was Audrey Prosser who knew the ABCs of local politics by heart. She used that knowledge and Max Andress’ popularity to fashion a victory not only for the football coach but for the entire slate of Democrat candidates.

Chairmanship of the city party was a stepping stone in her climb up the party hierarchy. She was elected vice chairman of the county party and in 1974 graduated to the chair. She became the first woman ever elected to such a leadership post in Bartholomew County and only the second woman in the state to get so high in a county-wide position.

Her political and organizational skills were critical in another impressive win for local Democrats. The party swept to victory in every county office but two. It was also a heady achievement for women. Two of the Democrat victors — Bernice Krieg and Betty Essex — knocked off male incumbents in the contests for auditor and clerk, respectively.

Also victorious in her bid for re-election was county treasurer Nancy Ann Brown.

“I learned so much from Audrey,” the former city and county official said last week. “She ran a tight ship and she preached the basics of politics.”

The basics included some pretty elementary tools for the job of getting elected.

“She would work with individual candidates and she was insistent that they touch all the bases in their campaigns,” Nancy Ann said of her teacher. “I recall that when we went door to door she would insist that we always be equipped with registration forms and supplies in case we ran into someone who wasn’t registered to vote. She even made sure that we had pencils to help voters fill out the forms.”

Audrey would also recruit some heavy hitters to help indoctrinate local candidates.

“Lee Hamilton (who was then Indiana’s 9th District representative in the U.S. House of Representatives) would come and talk to candidates about some pretty basic practices when campaigning,” Nancy Ann recalled. “I remember he had some pretty specific rules such as do not eat onions before meeting voters. He also warned us never to eat at any political dinners. He told us that we might get a sandwich before or after the dinner but while at the event our only purpose was to campaign.”

Part of Audrey Prosser’s success can be traced to her awareness of what was going on in politics — locally and statewide. “She would go to every meeting imaginable,” Nancy Ann said. “She was also a voracious reader. Every morning she made a point of reading The Republic, The Indianapolis Star and the Louisville Courier-Journal. Some mornings I would hear about a story and pass it on to her but she always had known about it long before I told her.”

Ironically, the party’s successes during Prosser’s tenure as chairman were not without some turmoil.

In 1976 she had to put down a challenge posed by former Bartholomew County Sheriff J. Walter Johns, winning a vote by central and precinct committee members to retain her post, 43-27. The “revolt” was somewhat ironic because that was the year that Democrats swept every county office on the ballot.

Fred Allman, a retired insurance agent who served as vice chair of the party which Audrey headed, laughed when asked about her leadership style. “Audrey didn’t drive. I remember someone was asked about that and the response was that, ‘It’s not true. Audrey always drove but never behind the wheel.’”

In 1978, however, she announced that she would not seek re-election to the chair position, electing to set aside some time for travels with her husband Claude who had retired.

Her last election was in November of 1978, and Democrats swept to victory in five of the seven county races.

Her departure was not an immediate omen for her party, however. Nancy Ann Brown would go on to be elected mayor of Columbus, and during the first few years of Republican Bob Stewart’s three-term administration there were more Democrats on Columbus City Council than Republicans.

In recent years however, Columbus and Bartholomew County politic have been colored the red of the Republican party.

Nancy Ann Brown, who learned much from Audrey Prosser, is confident that the tables can be turned and Bartholomew County can soon be described as a two-party community.

After all, the family of her former mentor asked that donations in Audrey’s memory be directed to the presidential campaign fund of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic.     He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.