The 1979 Shelbyville city elections signaled the beginning of a new era for local government. The results ushered in a solid Republican majority and presaged a nationwide GOP trend that would manifest itself in Ronald Reagan’s landslide presidential victory and Republican control of the senate one year later.
Even more significant in a macro sense was the fact that the 1980s would set the country on a continuous journey into a brave new world of economic and technological advancement.
The unique nature of the 1979 Shelbyville mayoral contest drew statewide attention. Thirty-one-year-old insurance agent Republican Dan Theobald, a 1966 Shelbyville High School graduate and political novice, faced off against experienced Democrat and Shelbyville’s first female mayoral candidate (Sara) Delight Adams.
Theobald ultimately prevailed by a 54-46 percent margin.
The two candidates were a stark contrast in political terms. Theobald had never before sought elective office; Adams, 42, was a two-term Shelbyville clerk-treasurer and proven “vote-getter.”
She was well-known and active in local government and Democratic political circles. She had a strong family connection to government. Her father, Herrin Brown, served as county clerk in the late 1950s and her grandfather, Ralph Brown, was Shelby County Sheriff in the 1930s.
Theobald was new to public affairs. He had initially filed to run for a council position but local party leaders convinced him to change course and run for the city’s top job.
The newcomer ran unopposed in the May Republican primary while Adams defeated incumbent Democrat mayor Ezra Dagley, garnering 60% of the vote (1,289-845). Walter Reese, a third Democratic candidate, received only 29 votes.
Theobald captured 2,617 votes compared to Adams’ 2,221 for a 396-vote plurality, winning 8 of 12 precincts. Several people lamented the low voter turnout.
“I wish more people had voted,” said Adams on election night.
However, that turnout would be considered tremendous by today’s standards as 4,838 of 7,348 (66%) of 1979 registered city voters cast ballots. In 2019, only 23% of voters (2,853) went to the polls to elect incumbent Democrat mayor Tom DeBaun over Republican candidate Brad Ridgeway.
DeBaun garnered 1,527 votes, 53.5% of the total vote.
Adams was Shelbyville’s first female mayoral candidate, though neither she nor Theobald perceived that to be an issue.
“I don’t think there is any resistance to a woman being mayor,” said Theobald during the campaign. “This is not a battle of the sexes.”
Adams voiced similar thoughts indicating that she never perceived any negative feedback concerning a female Shelbyville mayor.
Betsy Stephen would become the city’s first and only Shelbyville female mayor to date when she was elected on the Republican ticket in 1995.
Theobald related that he considered himself the underdog from the start.
“The mayor’s job is as different as night and day from the clerk-treasurer position, however the idea that many people may look at her government experience as a plus is important,” stated Theobald during the campaign.
An additional potential advantage for Adams was that census figures revealed there were approximately 1,000 more women than men residing in Shelbyville in 1979. If Shelbyville female voters were to rally in support of the city’s first woman mayoral candidate, that would certainly bode well for Adams.
Dan Theobald and wife Peggy talk with former Shelbyville mayor Ralph Van Natta on election night 1979.
Theobald’s relative youth was another potential hurdle for the first-time office seeker. Theobald was quick to counter any questions concerning his age and inexperience, declaring that Shelbyville had historically elected several mayors in his age demographic, including one who was only 28.
Campaign issues focused on standard topics. Adams promised an “open door” policy at city hall and enhanced ambulance service. Both candidates emphasized fiscal responsibility and improved snow removal services.
Post-election speculation following Theobald’s victory pointed to some possible fragmentation and resentment within the local Democratic Party due to Adams’ unseating of the party’s incumbent mayor in the May primary.
Theobald agreed that there may have been some credence to this, stating, “I think there were some wounds there. Registration was down overall, but mainly among Democrats. I think that whole situation helped us.”
In the end, Shelbyville Republicans dominated election night in 1979, winning eight of the nine offices which, in addition to electing Theobald, included wins for: clerk-treasurer Betty Worland and council representatives Allen Elder, James Law, Marilyn Hendrick, Gerald Glascock, Sheldon “Bo” Keith and Gene Sexton.
Former mayor Jerry Higgins was the only Democratic winner of the evening, as he secured the fourth ward council seat.
Theobald’s victory brought the local GOP back to the city’s chief executive office. Democrats had captured the previous two mayoral races with Higgins winning in 1971 and Dagley in 1975.
Theobald would go on to serve two additional consecutive terms as mayor before losing a bid for a fourth term to former police chief and city councilman Bob Williams in 1991.
Theobald gained notoriety across the Midwest for spearheading Shelbyville’s prodigious economic development during his time as mayor. His administration successfully pursued numerous business initiatives and brought significant industry to the city including Ryobi and PK USA. That surge of industry established Shelbyville as an excellent example of economic development.
Following his tenure as mayor, Theobald became the executive director of The Plainfield Chamber of Commerce for five years. He spent an ensuing five years with The Johnson County Development Corporation before returning to Shelbyville to head the Shelby County Development Corporation from 2001 through 2015. He and wife Peggy currently reside in Greenfield where he remains active in community affairs.
Delight Adams and her husband Merlin moved to Shaefer Lake near Hope in the 1980s. She continued her work in government with the town of Hope for several years. She also enjoyed a career as a real estate agent for Century 21 from 1987 until 1993 and worked as a senior tax advisor for 20 years for H&R Block. She and Merlin eventually moved to North Carolina. Delight Adams passed away in March of 2016.
A myriad of factors makes the 1979 Shelbyville mayoral election historically significant, both in terms of the race itself and its ramifications: The city’s first female mayoral candidate upset an incumbent mayor from her own party and was pitted against a political neophyte who was many years younger than recent city chief executives.
The election brought Shelbyville and similar-sized cities into a new era that would be characterized by a focus on economic development and consistent business growth. Cities and towns across Indiana and the country, would now be thrust into a network of widespread interaction, communication and connection. The very nature of that economic cooperation and development would constitute a new age for Shelbyville and similar communities.
In retrospect, on a more basic level, the 1979 Shelbyville mayoral campaign presented two respected, formidable individuals. Both betrayed a genuine love for their home community and went on to compile impressive and extensive resumes. They moved on from their fateful and historic political encounter to continually excel and enjoy exceptional and satisfying personal and professional lives.
The salient takeaway from that mayoral election of 44 years ago is that Dan Theobald and Delight Adams were special people who served our community well and represented the best of Shelbyville.
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