Lounging back in his seat while smoking an e-cigarette, the St. Joseph County Democratic Party chairman lets out a puff of water vapor into the air.
“It doesn’t have nicotine,” he tells me as we get ready for an interview to discuss the election results.
Jason Critchlow is not your typical politician.
His background is in the sciences: biology and healthcare. As an undergraduate biology major at IU Bloomington, Critchlow took an interest in biological sciences, even though he says it was “not my forte”.
He ended up pursuing a career in cancer research — which he says he has been very successful in — and earned a Master of Public Affairs at IU South Bend in 2011.
The relatively new chairman is also decidedly young to lead a party in a county of a quarter million people. At age 32, Critchlow has yet to even see his hair begin the graying process.
But his youth also gives him a window into the increasingly important Millennial demographic, now the largest generation in American history and a vital voting bloc for Democrats nationwide.
Whatever he’s doing, it is paying dividends.
Under Critchlow’s leadership, the St. Joseph County Democratic Party swept all countywide races. County Council incumbents beat back the Republican wave of 2014, despite a large amount of resources being pumped into local races.
Democrat Corey Noland just recently was certified the winner by 37 votes in the closest race of the cycle. The St. Joseph County Republican Party commissioned a recount, but the final result expanded Noland’s lead.
Robert McCahill, another Democratic incumbent who fended off a serious challenge, won his race by 10 points in what was expected to be a tight contest.
The party chairman credits the qualifications of local candidates, the power of incumbency, and local volunteers for the victories.
“We ran a great ground game. We ran great campaigns,” Critchlow told South Bend Voice. “I think every one of them [the volunteers] led to our success.”
Critchlow was elected chairman in November 2013, taking over the role from state senator John Broden, who stepped down from the position.
“There’s no set path that I followed,” the chairman says. “I guess it just came down to one day I felt motivated to get out and do some volunteering for local candidates.”
“I was willing to do some work that some folks needed done for free. That’s always a good foot in the door with any political party or campaign,” Critchlow offered with a chuckle. “I was just around and people saw that I was trustworthy and they liked the work that I did.
That volunteering ultimately paid off. After heading the close but ultimately unsuccessful campaign of Brendan Mullen against then-state representative Jackie Walorski in 2012, he was elected chairman just one year later.
“I’ve been very involved with the community. That was instilled in me from my father.”
It’s clear from talking with him that he still views public service as a calling. He speaks fondly of the first time that he met an elected official and says that it’s exciting for him to see younger people meet someone like Mayor Pete Buttigieg for the first time.
But not every experience is a positive one.
During these times of partisan wrangling, Critchlow recalls a time when citizens respected their elected officials even when they disagreed with them. He criticized what he called “smear campaigns” against local Democrats this past election cycle.
“I do not want to see that become the new norm,” Critchlow says.
As for if he would ever seek elective office himself?
“Not likely,” he says with a laugh. “You never know, you never know.”
“If something came up and all the cards fell right, who knows what would be there as long as I felt that I could contribute to the community and move things forward,” Critchlow adds. “It’s always something I would entertain.”
Whether or not he eventually seeks to serve the public in a different capacity, Critchlow made it obvious that he enjoys his current job as party chairman.
“I’ve been really honored to be given this responsibility because that is what it is. It’s a responsibility and a duty to a lot of people in the Democratic Party and the community as a whole,” he says. “That’s what motivates me is to try to find ways to make our community better and I think I am able to do that as the chairman of the local Democratic Party.”
Read our follow-up article — Local Democrats Plan Offensive Strategy for 2015, 2016 Elections — where we discuss the Democrats’ election challenges in 2014 and what the party plans to do going into the 2015 and 2016 cycles.