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Commotion in (and out of) Wabash Township: A trustee and ‘The Tippecanoe Way’
Lost in Trustee Jennifer Teising's claimed coups and real-life consequences in a Wabash Township power struggle, playing soon in a court near - or far - from you
Whether Jennifer Teising, standing accused as Wabash Township trustee, really did skip town when she continued to collect her tax-paid salary every two weeks for several months in 2020 and 2021 – not cool for a township trustee, if true, according to state law – eventually will get sorted out in a Tippecanoe County courtroom.
Or maybe in a courtroom in some other town.
The attorney for the West Lafayette Democrat said she plans to ask the court to move Teising’s 20 felony counts of theft to another county, with another prosecutor, with another judge, according to accounts Friday from the Journal & Courier, WLFI and WBAA, among others tracking what has turned into a big-time saga in small-time government.
(For what it’s worth, Karen Celestino-Horseman, an Indianapolis attorney representing Teising, is no slouch. Of note locally, Celestino-Horseman represented Ashlee and Ruby Henderson, a Lafayette couple who challenged the Tippecanoe County Health Department – and Indiana, in general – in 2015 when the same-sex couple wasn’t allowed to put both their names on their child’s birth certificate. The Hendersons won in a case that finally concluded in late 2020, when the U.S. Supreme Court passed on reviewing a state-led appeal of their lower court victory.)
The drama in Wabash Township has been dragging out for several seasons now, as you’ve probably read in weekly and sometimes daily incremental updates in the J&C and on TV news.
And, really, the facts and accusations in Teising’s case have been enough to fuel what’s-up-with-that? conversations in grocery checkout lanes. And it’s left local officials with tangential ties to the Wabash Township fallout holding their heads in their hands.
But the drama playing out around Teising and the rest of Wabash Township – maybe the most dramatic since the days of Republican Kathleen Hudson’s rocky term as Tippecanoe County commissioner (if you remember, you know) – seems more pronounced in a local political scene that, for better or for worse, operates under the concept of “The Tippecanoe Way.”
Rough translation of the term, coined in the past decade but dating long before: The Tippecanoe Way characterizes the way players from both parties are adept at getting past personal differences and political squabbles in the name of getting big projects done and reeling in big economic development wins.
(See: Democratic Lafayette Mayor Jim Riehle corralling help from Republican members of Congress, Tippecanoe County commissioners and eventually his successor, Republican Mayor Dave Heath, to navigate three decades and more than $180 million in a community-changing Railroad Relocation Project.)
(See also, for more modern interpretation: Democratic Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski, Republican West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis and Republican county commissioners putting on a unified face, insisting at nearly every turn that they’re working from the same page.)
Lost in the commotion of claimed coups and real-life consequences in the Wabash Township power struggle – including serious, ongoing questions about who will respond to fires and other emergencies as firefighter jobs remain tenuous – is just how out of place the scene feels.
(Maybe we’re just naive. Or maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so.)
Remember where this all started.
Teising was part of the Tippecanoe County Democratic Party’s class of 2018 and what amounted to a mini-blue wave during that midterm election.
Born among the crowds that spilled into the street outside the steps of the Tippecanoe County Courthouse, in the shadow of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January 2017, local Democrats rallied after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. The party dug in with candidate training and on filling slots in local, down-ticket ballots that often went uncontested and forfeited: county council seats, sheriff, township trustees, township boards.
The idea: Start building a bench in smaller roles, with hopes that a victory here and there could lead to stronger shots at bigger county, state and congressional platforms later.
It paid off. Bob Goldsmith became the first Democrat to win sheriff in decades. Two Democrats landed on the county council for the first time since 1994. Chris Campbell, despite a late entry into the race, flipped the Indiana House District 26 seat back to Democrats. And Democrats swept trustee and board positions in Wabash and Fairfield townships, the two most populous in Tippecanoe County. (Wabash Township includes West Lafayette and ground to the west. Fairfield Township includes much of Lafayette.)
The blue pattern wasn’t a fluke. Republicans conceded the House District 26 seat in 2020, sending up no challenger to Campbell. And Democrats took eight of nine seats in a 2019 West Lafayette City Council election – one in which Republican incumbents said the “R” next to their name on the ballot was what did them in.
That was the runway for Teising and the board elected in Wabash Township.
How it all crashed – including a steady rotation of retreating/resigning board members (Brendan Betz is the only one left of those elected in 2018) – has been slow rolling in the news and recently in court documents.
Since getting called out by fellow Democrats on the township board – who asked where she’d been after she sold her West Lafayette home in June 2020 and, according to their accounts, made herself scarce in a work-from-home pandemic year – Teising has been feuding with board members and with the township fire department. That included firing Fire Chief Ed Ward – the second chief let go in the trustee’s first two years in office.
Teising has refused, fighting back in a series of posts on her township Facebook page and in responses to specific twists in local media.
In a statement to WLFI as things started going sour in late 2020, Teising blamed county commissioners for not working with her on her plans for a multi-township fire district, after she worked on plans to build the fire department budget through emergency loans and to recruit surrounding townships to band together. “They are upset with me personally and ‘it goes beyond you beating Dave Byers’ wife in the election,’” Teising told the TV station in a statement in December 2020. (Byers is a county commissioner. Teising beat incumbent Julia Byers in the 2018 election.)
She claimed at the time that a faction of the fire department had been working with a township board member “to stage a coup and get me to resign from my position.” She denied doing anything wrong as she sold her house and started renting, shortly after she bailed on a proposed run for county commissioner against Dave Byers in 2020. (Being spotted by a photographer from one of the J&C’s sister papers in Florida, set up at a campground site with a travel-trailer, didn’t help her optics.) In the statement to the TV station, Teising called it all “a blatant power grab,” saying Tippecanoe County leadership “shouldn’t be taking their political inspiration from Donald Trump and usurping the will of the people.”
In March, she posted a lengthy defense on her Facebook page, including this, not intended to be a personal treatise on The Tippecanoe Way … but in a way, very much one: “The coordinated campaign to publicly destroy my credibility and reputation is a prime example of why people, particularly women, don't want to run for public office.”
On Friday, Teising declined reporters’ questions as she arrived at the courthouse.
Whether the slow drip of accusations that have landed Teising on the front page and at the top of TV news broadcasts are enough to get a change of venue, who knows?
Is Teising a misunderstood victim, persecuted alike by local GOP with a grudge, Democrats she once celebrated victory with in a mini-blue wave and an investigating media?
Is this train wreck in what otherwise has been an office that rarely gets attention, just waiting to stop moving so cleanup can start?
Or is it something in between?
A court – in the shadow of The Tippecanoe Way or somewhere far off – is about to sort it out.
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