Indiana’s Looming Gubernatorial Race Should Act as a Lesson for Democrats on the National Stage

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's reputation took a drubbing in the aftermath of the "religious freedom restoration act." But many progressives feel his would-be adversary, John Gregg, isn't progressive enough to satisfy voters.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's reputation took a drubbing in the aftermath of the "religious freedom restoration act." But many progressives feel his would-be adversary, John Gregg (pictured), isn't progressive enough to satisfy voters. John Gregg/YouTube

Indiana’s reputation took a drubbing after the legislature passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, however, took the brunt of the vociferous national blowback. Once considered a potential presidential candidate, the chances for higher office collapsed for the conservative Republican, who officially launched his re-election campaign on Thursday night.

In the face of growing controversy and media coverage of the bill as it moved through the Indiana legislature, the governor defiantly signed the state RFRA in a private ceremony surrounded by anti-gay religious right lobbyists and leaders. Within days, however Pence had started to waffle between vehemently defending the law and admitting it needed to be “fixed.” He bumbled his way through multiple interviews and press conferences, blaming the media for sensationalizing the legislation. While he signed the new legislation specifying that the RFRA law could not be used to deny service to LGBTQ people, Pence was still pointedly clear when he said that protecting them from discrimination was not a priority of his administration.

Messaging against the law, meanwhile, was remarkably consistent for an uncoordinated campaign. Businesses nationwide decried the RFRA, canceling or postponing plans to build or expand in the state. Conference organizers threatened to pull conventions; celebrities started trashing the state on social media and canceling upcoming appearances; politicians took to the bully pulpit; and Hoosiers took to the streets by the thousands for a protest in Indianapolis.

One voice from the opposition was conspicuously absent as the public relations catastrophe unfolded, however. John Gregg, a Democrat and Pence’s opponent in the last gubernatorial election, remained silent through most of the controversy. When he did put out a statement, hours after legislators passed the bill through both chambers, it spoke primarily about his religious faith and expressed concern “about others who mock me because of my faith.” Gregg’s statement hardly mentioned LGBTQ people, except for a single reference that he once campaigned for a gay man.

Gregg, who has already announced his intention to pursue a rematch with Pence in 2016, has tried to dance a delicate line on gay rights over the past few years but continues to trip over his own feet. Abandoning a chance to not only score political points, but win support from LGBTQ voters, Gregg hesitated to speak on the issue at all. Instead of acknowledging the law was rooted in animosity toward LGBTQ people, Gregg said Republicans pushed it “because they don’t want us to look at their failure to govern the state in a responsible manner.”

Other political watchers and players weren’t as coy.

Richard Sutton, the former president of Freedom Indiana, the group that led the 2014 effort to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality, didn’t hesitate to speak up. “He issued a RFRA statement and it was windy and limp,” Sutton said in an interview with Rewire. “He’s a great person. I respect his track record in the house and at Vincennes University,” where he was interim president, “but his record on civil rights issues is rotten.”

Pushback like this from Indiana progressives against Gregg’s recent gubernatorial campaign announcement can and should act as a microcosm for the upcoming presidential election. Populism has started to spread throughout the Democratic base in recent years, as seen by the rise of Elizabeth Warren as a progressive leader, and with Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign kickoff. More moderate Democrats are now eyed with wariness. Cozying up to Wall Street and the military industrial complex are out. Social issues like LGBTQ civil rights, as well as reproductive rights and other progressive causes, now require strong supporters instead of lukewarm lip service.

Who Is John Gregg?

Gregg, a former speaker of the house in the state legislature, is a conservative Democrat known by both allies and opponents for his big bushy mustache. His RFRA response was the latest in a dismal record on social issues: During his tenure as the head of the house, legislators passed the first attempt to write discrimination against gay and lesbian couples into the Indiana Constitution. Gregg supported the bill.

He continued to oppose same-sex marriage through his gubernatorial campaign in 2012. After President Obama announced his evolution on marriage equality, Gregg rushed to the cameras to assure Hoosiers that he hadn’t changed his position and he still supported a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. When Democratic party officials decided to include opposition to the proposed amendment into the party platform, Gregg advocated for it.

Zach Adamson, Indianapolis’ only openly gay city-county councillor and a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, a governing body representing LGBTQ Democrats, is hardly enthusiastic about a potential rematch between Pence and Gregg given Gregg’s history.

“If I have a choice, I’ll support a Democrat who embraces our platform and did not throw us under the bus for no reason,” Adamson said.

“He was a consistent antagonist during the 2012 campaign. He fought us on platform language at the Democrat state convention,” recalled Sutton. “He says he favors full marriage equality now, but that train has left the station. Our community would prefer Governor Gregg over Governor Pence any day of the week, but he has a lot of making-up to do to prove to us that he’s serious on important civil rights issues.”

Gregg’s allies in the state maintain, meanwhile, that the candidate has taken a laissez-faire stance on marriage equality. “Gregg says that the issue of same-sex marriage has been fought and it has been won by the supporters. He says that he’s told many ministers around the state that same-sex marriage is the law of the land in Indiana, and it’s not going to change,” according to Jon Easter, a gay Indianapolis city-county council candidate who supports Gregg’s candidacy and spoke with the candidate about the issue in May. “As governor, Gregg said he would veto any bill curtailing that law,” Easter wrote in a blog post describing the conversation.

On reproductive rights, as well, Gregg has tried to hold fast to his personal views while maintaining an illusion of true progressivism. Easter noted in the same blog post that Gregg agrees with “96 percent” of what Planned Parenthood does, citing birth control and cancer screenings as examples, while he neglects to mention what it is about the reproductive health organization he disagrees with. Easter also wrote that Gregg is a “pro-life Democrat, and that comes out of his religious beliefs.”

Former state Sen. Vi Simpson (D-Monroe), who ran alongside Gregg for lieutenant governor in 2012, denied that there was a struggle on the ticket over Indiana Democrats’ LGBTQ-inclusive party platform. “We had a private conversation about it and decided that the party platform was the party’s business and we wouldn’t involve ourselves in that argument. We focused on our campaign and our message,” she told Rewire.

“I don’t think people give him enough credit for how far he’s come on some of these issues,” Simpson continued. “Just like society as a whole and individuals such as President Obama, Hillary Clinton and [Indiana Senator] Joe Donnelly, John’s positions have been evolving. We all are different people than we were a decade ago, and that is true of John as well. His willingness to listen and consider other viewpoints should be acknowledged.”

Gregg did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Rewire.

Populist Persuasion

Indiana Democrats, Gregg included, have long suffered from what state progressives call “Evan Bayh syndrome.” Bayh, a former governor and senator from the late ‘80s through 2011, was notorious among leftist Hoosiers for his milquetoast positions and his insistence that he was a “moderate” in an attempt to woo Republican voters.

As the highest elected Democrat in the state for years, Bayh’s handpicked leaders for the party followed his lead and the tone of the party became more conservative. Instead of advocating for solid principles that championed the working class, LGBTQ people, and people of color, they focused on courting right-leaning Democrats and moderate Republicans, refusing to challenge conservative proposals. The two parties became practically indistinguishable until recently, when extremist social conservatives and the Tea Party took over the Republican base in the state.

At this point, it is useful to remember President Obama’s 2008 campaign, in which he focused on a message of inclusion and issues important to the Democratic base. He was the second Democrat presidential candidate in history to win the state’s majority vote. Hoosier Democrats seem to have forgotten that recent example as they continue to mount stunning losses in nearly every election with candidates who refuse to take strong progressive stances on social justice. The last gubernatorial race was no exception.

“In 2012, a group of Democratic leaders from across the state met, looked at polling results, determined the candidate profile we needed to run against Pence and settled on Gregg as the nominee. The field was cleared, and he had his shot,” Jennifer Wagner, former communications director for the Indiana State Democratic Party, said.

Now, Wagner says that her support of Gregg would be nothing more than window dressing.

“If Gregg is our nominee, I will devote my efforts to Democratic candidates who share my beliefs and whom I believe should be in public service,” she continued.

“Naturally, I’ll support our nominee, but I think, for all of my memory, the political machine has given the voters a choice between right-wing fascist and a diet Republican,” Adamson agreed. “I mean really … What’s the worst that could happen? We could lose? How is that different from the last 12 years? You can’t keep doing what you’ve always done and expect a different outcome—especially when the population is trending towards your issues.”

Clearly, a change is necessary in order for Democrats to have any chance of succeeding in Indiana’s gubernatorial race—because the status quo of Democrats more concerned with fundraising and mollifying corporate interests just isn’t working. Instead of settling for the candidate who is Not-A-Republican, many progressive voters are clambering for a chance to vote for someone who actually reflects their own values. If the party wants to inspire voters to choose their candidate, they need to select someone who stands out instead of going with more of the same.

Simpson, a former state senator from one of the state’s most liberal areas, is considering a run for the office herself. Many progressive pundits and organization leaders across the state include her when ticking off potential candidates they would support; most list her first.

Simpson, for her part, has been beating the populist drum for years, in addition to her support for LGBTQ and reproductive rights.

“The inequalities in personal income of Indiana families concerns me greatly,” according to Simpson. “When incomes go down, families have less to spend and that has a negative impact on business and the economy, generally. Indiana’s average family income has lagged behind the nation for more than a decade, and we must commit ourselves to turning this trend around,” she told Rewire.

“The Democrat bench is very deep, and our state is fortunate that we have so many talented, energetic people in our ranks. However, running for statewide office is a very personal decision that requires a lot of sacrifice and commitment,” Simpson said. “My plans are uncertain at this time. I am weighing my options based on what is best for my family and how I can best serve the people of Indiana.”

State Sen. Karen Tallian, meanwhile, has already announced she will seek the Democrat nomination, but most insiders don’t think she’s quite ready for a statewide campaign yet. Her lack of name recognition and small base of supporters would make her a tough sell to voters across the state, they think.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who has been involved in several high-profile scuffles with Gov. Pence over the past few years, also announced her candidacy earlier this month. Recent polling has Ritz tied with Pence in a head-to-head matchup. She has the support of the teacher’s union and could attract progressive voters with her pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ positions.

Wagner, for her part, favors former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, but he hasn’t announced any intention to run yet. Peterson has flown under the radar since losing his last campaign for a third term as mayor, but played a prominent role in the bipartisan “fix” to the disastrous RFRA law.

“I’d like to see Bart Peterson run because I think he would be a good governor. For me, the entry-level litmus test for wanting any elected office is being able to articulate why—and being able to do the job. That’s my chief issue with Gregg: He has never been able to clearly say why he wants the job or how he’d get it done,” Wagner said.

This kind of discontent with “middle-of-the-road” Democrats is not limited to red states like Indiana; in fact, the situation there reflects the one on the national stage. While Clinton was seen as the frontrunner for the 2008 election, Barack Obama clinched the nomination by appealing to more progressive voters and youth. This time around, although it is still early in the presidential election season, a challenger on Clinton’s left has emerged once again in the form of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is drawing the largest crowds in Iowa and bringing in big bucks from small donors.

As Americans have wised up to the increasingly conservative social policies of the newly remade Republican majority, civil rights and reproductive rights, in addition to immigration reform, income inequality, fixing a broken prison system, and rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure have risen to the top of many voters’ priority list. And as next November draws nearer, Democrats in both state races—including Indiana’s gubernatorial fight—and presidential campaigns will need to support more populist candidates and lead on these issues.

Last-minute maneuvering to appease progressives, such as empty statements of support after any political risk has vanished, simply won’t work. Voters want more—and they’re increasingly turned off by social conservatives and those who seek to emulate them.

As Adamson said, “With a shift in the popular perception on how disconnected the social conservatives are, the time to give the voters a contrasting choice has never been better. I’ll back the candidate that does that.”