Republicans Bennett, Spear, Bell advance in county council race

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Alison Simo, left, listens as Bartholomew County Council At-Large candidate Kim Bennett talk about vote totals during the Bartholomew County Republican Party primary election results watch party at Hotel Indigo in Columbus on Tuesday. Bennett won the most votes of four GOP candidates

Bartholomew County Council (at-large, vote for 3)

Kim Bennett (R): 4,255

Marcus Daniel Speer (R): 3,654

Michael R. Bell (R): 3,563

John Prohaska (R): 3,427

Michelle Carr (D): 1,224

Nancy Merbitz (D): 1,101

Zack Patchett (D): 1,042

There will be a full slate of both Republican and Democratic candidates vying for three at-large seats on the Bartholomew County Council this fall.

With 14,160 ballots cast, Kim Bennett unquestionably received the most support from registered Republicans in Tuesday’s primary election. The 49-year-old treasury management officer with German American Bank came away with 4,051 votes (28.56%).

But there was only a 91-vote difference between Marcus Speer and Michael Bell in the GOP primary. Speer received 3,654 votes (24.53%) Bell, the 55-year-old chief financial officer of Tallman Equipment, garnered 3,563 votes (23.91%).

Cummins Inc. manager John Prohaska was not far behind Speer and Bell. The 55-year-old received 3,427 votes, which accounts for 23% of all ballots cast. Despite an impressive showing, Prohaska still placed last, and will not have his name on the ballot in November’s general election.

The at-large council race was unique because all three incumbents — Matt Miller, Bill Lentz and Evelyn Pence — chose not to seek reelection. While none have elaborated on their reasons for stepping down, all three have expressed concerns about maintaining fiscal sustainability after recent financial windfalls are exhausted.

There will be no unopposed candidates running this fall for the at-large council seats. Democrats Michelle Carr, Nancy Merbitz and Zack Patchett all filed their candidacies in early February. In the Democratic primary, Carr received support from 36.35%, Merbitz garnered 32.70%, and Patchett earned 30.95%.

Finding Democrats willing to run for a county office has been a challenge in the past several elections, and the turnout for Tuesday’s primary indicates Republicans dominate in rural areas of the county. There were 14,899 votes cast for the Republican at-large council race, while only 3,367 votes were received for the same race by Democrats.

Republicans have dominated in nearly every county election since 2008. All current elected county officials and state lawmakers representing Bartholomew County are Republican. And for every Democrat who cast a straight party ticket in 2023, there were four Republicans doing the same, according to official election records.

For Speer, a farmer, minister and school bus driver, the third time was the charm. When running against fellow Republican Chris Ogle for the county council in May, 2014, Speer lost by a mere 42 votes. Four years later, Speer sought the seat again after Ogle announced he would not seek reelection.

But Speer and his primary opponent, Scott Bonnell, were friends. As a result, neither sought funds for the primary election and neither spent money to campaign that spring. Bonnell received 1,127 votes while Speer received 908.

This year, each of the seven council members are being paid a base salary of $9,835. Besides one to two meetings a month (work session and public), there are 13 different boards, commissions and committees where a council member has been appointed.