1970-1979: ERA OF CRISES

Watergate-based cynicism impacted both parties locally

By Jonathan Maze of The News-Sentinel

In July 1974, Allen County Democrats took a poll and found that, at least locally, Watergate had not affected Richard Nixon: He had a 70 percent approval rating in the county.

One month later Nixon resigned, almost certain that he would otherwise be removed from office.

In the next election, GOP voters stayed home. "People were very disheartened by the thing," said Alan McMahan, who was Allen County's GOP chairman at the time. "Nixon was very popular here."

But the Democrats' victory would be short-lived. In fact, some say the scandal may have had a more detrimental effect on the Democratic Party in the long run — it helped make the public more cynical, which led to a steady decline in voter turnout.

When fewer people vote, Democrats are often hardest hit because they are typically less likely to go to the polls.

Watergate stands out as the past century's most memorable scandal, and almost certainly its worst, what some call the Constitution's most difficult test.

It passed — the scandal led to the indictment of 40 government officials and Nixon's resignation.

There's little doubt of the scandal's political effects. Democrats did very well in the following election, and in 1976 Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford for the presidential election.

Locally, in 1974, Democrats Graham Richard and Woodrow Wilson took Indiana Senate seats. The party also won the race for auditor, and it was the last year in which a Democrat won a seat on the Allen County Board of Commissioners.

In addition, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Roush survived a challenge from State Sen. Walter Helmke.

"That was the last time we've really done well countywide," said Charlie Belch, who was the county's Democratic Party chairman in 1972 and 1973.

The scandal devastated many local Republicans who had been fans of Nixon. Many party officials who were around at the time say Watergate deflated the party and took the edge off politics.

But Democratic domination would only be temporary. The next year, Republicans won the Fort Wayne mayor's race, with Bob Armstrong defeating incumbent Ivan Lebamoff. The party also solidified its strength in county races.

Not temporary was the effect the scandal had on American trust. After Watergate, people were suddenly more willing to believe their government could be sinister.

"It began a major shift in the way people viewed government," said Richard, now a candidate for mayor. "There's a major amount of cynicism now."

As a result, people tuned out. They became disillusioned, a feeling that was confirmed with subsequent scandals such as Iran-Contra and the Monica Lewinsky affair.

By the end of the century, voters have rarely been so unhappy with their government.

Party affiliation has declined steadily. Locally, voter turnouts have reached record lows.

Ironically, Belch says Nixon may have helped his party.

"That started a downhill fall," Belch said. "Low voter turnout hurts the Democrats. Republicans stay in one place, and they vote. Democrats move every election and you have to find them."

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