Indiana Democrats Are Worried Their Candidates Aren’t Pro-Gay Marriage Enough

Progressives say John Gregg and Baron Hill’s stances on same-sex marriage don’t reflect their states’ move to the left.

National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
June 4, 2015, 4 p.m.

Pub­lic opin­ion is mov­ing so quickly on gay mar­riage that even its sup­port­ers are strug­gling to keep up.

Such in the case in In­di­ana, which was at the cen­ter of the na­tion­al LGBT-rights de­bate this spring after a “re­li­gious free­dom” bill was met with over­whelm­ing op­pos­i­tion from voters and busi­ness lead­ers. In a state where same-sex mar­riage only be­come leg­al in 2014, this year’s back­lash against the meas­ure was an un­pleas­ant sur­prise for state Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Gov. Mike Pence, whose im­age and ap­prov­al suffered in the wake of the con­tro­versy.

Now, with two statewide races loom­ing in 2016, some In­di­ana Demo­crats are won­der­ing if they too are lag­ging be­hind pub­lic opin­ion. Former Demo­crat­ic Rep. Bar­on Hill form­ally an­nounced his in­ten­tion to run for Sen­ate on Wed­nes­day, and former In­di­ana State House Speak­er John Gregg said in late April he would chal­lenge Gov. Mike Pence a second time after nar­rowly los­ing to him in 2012.

Neither can­did­ate, however, has a par­tic­u­larly pro­gress­ive re­cord on LGBT rights, and while some in the party say that’s still a polit­ic­ally ad­vant­age­ous po­s­i­tion for middle-of-the-road In­di­ana—oth­ers are wor­ried that the can­did­ates’ lack of pro­gress­ive cre­den­tials would hamper their bids.

In his 2012 cam­paign, Gregg sup­por­ted a pro­posed con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment to ban same-sex mar­riage, and told the ed­it­or­i­al board of The In­di­ana­pol­is Star, “I’ve nev­er hid­den from my con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tion on so­cial is­sues.” In the 2006 cam­paign for his former House seat, Hill ran a TV ad stat­ing “mar­riage between a man and wo­man is sac­red.”

In 2015, some Demo­crats now ques­tion wheth­er Gregg in par­tic­u­lar can serve as an ef­fect­ive foil against Pence on any LGBT rights is­sue giv­en his his­tory same-sex mar­riage, ques­tion­ing wheth­er he’s cap­able of build­ing on any mo­mentum the party gained after the re­li­gious free­dom de­bate. In his cam­paign launch video this year, Gregg em­phas­ized Pence’s weak­ness on the is­sue, say­ing Pence “man­aged to ali­en­ate the en­tire coun­try,” and called it “an em­bar­rass­ment, and wrong.”

But Aaron Schaler, former pres­id­ent of the In­di­ana Stone­wall Demo­crats, saw Gregg’s launch mes­sage as disin­genu­ous. “I think John Gregg is try­ing to run off of Free­dom In­di­ana’s suc­cess with the re­li­gious free­dom bill. That’s all he’s try­ing to do. He’s just piggy­back­ing off someone else,” Schaler said.

Gregg cam­paign spokes­man Jeff Har­ris hopes voters will eval­u­ate Gregg based on what he’s said since the start of the most re­cent cam­paign, and not on the past. “He fully sup­ports re­peal­ing RFRA, the re­li­gious free­dom bill. He sup­ports ex­pand­ing civil rights pro­tec­tions to in­clude LGBT as well as sexu­al iden­tity, and he has stated over and over again that he’s go­ing to be fo­cus­ing on eco­nom­ic is­sues. In In­di­ana the law of the land is to al­low same-sex mar­riage, and he sup­ports that, and as gov­ernor he’s not go­ing to fo­cus on so­cial is­sues, he’s mov­ing ahead,” Har­ris said.

“He’s there on those is­sues for those folks, and there’s a very small minor­ity of people who want to use that de­grade his po­s­i­tion or try to lump him in a box that he’s not there on,” Har­ris con­tin­ued.

In a sign of the chan­ging times, Gregg’s mod­er­a­tion on so­cial is­sues was thought to be part of what helped him run com­pet­it­ively against Pence in 2012. “Now here we are three years later and a ma­jor­ity of the Demo­crat­ic Party here in In­di­ana clearly sup­ports gay mar­riage. So, it has moved. The ques­tion is how much has Gregg moved,” said Dan Park­er, a former chair­man of the In­di­ana Demo­crat­ic Party.

“There has been a tre­mend­ous push­back against his can­did­acy com­ing from the pro­gress­ive left. Ac­tu­ally, I wouldn’t even say it’s the left any­more, it’s the left-cen­ter of the Demo­crat­ic Party. There’s just a re­cog­ni­tion from the en­tire party that there are cer­tain is­sues that you need to be with the ma­jor­ity of the party on,” Park­er said.

Gregg will face at least two op­pon­ents in the Demo­crat­ic primary, both of whom are farther to the left on so­cial is­sues and sup­port gay mar­riage. State Sen. Kar­en Tal­li­an an­nounced her can­did­acy in May, and In­di­ana’s school su­per­in­tend­ent Gl­enda Ritz is ex­pec­ted to join the Demo­crat­ic primary on Thursday. In Ritz’s brief polit­ic­al ca­reer she has rarely weighed in on is­sues out­side those in­volving edu­ca­tion policy, but Ritz spokes­per­son Leslie Barnes said Ritz “ab­so­lutely” sup­ports same-sex mar­riage. Barnes also noted Ritz sup­ports abor­tion rights.

“That could be a point that di­vides the can­did­ates,” Barnes said. Barnes has a trans­gender son and said Ritz’s sup­port for same-sex mar­riage was part of what mo­tiv­ated to get in­volved with her cam­paign.

Schaler cau­tioned that even though Gregg is seen as too con­ser­vat­ive by some Demo­crats, he will be tough to beat in a primary. Gregg is a more seasoned cam­paign­er and fun­draiser, and has close ties to or­gan­ized labor. If Gregg is seen as too con­ser­vat­ive, Tal­li­an is likely to be viewed with equal skep­ti­cism be­cause of her lib­er­al po­s­i­tions.

“I think Kar­en Tal­li­an is amaz­ing. Un­for­tu­nately she is the pot prin­cess here in In­di­ana,” Schaler said. Tal­li­an has been known best in re­cent years for her work on bills seek­ing to loosen In­di­ana’s marijuana laws. “If Hoo­siers are only halfway on mar­riage equal­ity, where do you think they are on leg­al­iz­ing marijuana?”

In the up­com­ing Sen­ate race to fill the seat left be­hind by re­tir­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Dan Coats, former Rep. Bar­on Hill is the only de­clared Demo­crat, but state Rep. Christina Hale, who was a vo­cal op­pon­ent of the re­li­gious free­dom bill, is widely ex­pec­ted to run. Hale is an up-and-com­ing fa­vor­ite of Demo­crats in In­di­ana­pol­is. Though Hill’s ex­per­i­ence in Con­gress makes him an early fa­vor­ite, Hale is ex­pec­ted to be a ser­i­ous con­tender.

Hill, like Gregg, could face trouble gal­van­iz­ing sup­port among more pro­gress­ive Demo­crats, but the re­l­at­ive ab­sence of the re­li­gious free­dom is­sue in the Sen­ate race and Hill’s longer time away from pub­lic of­fice could give him more of a pass from Demo­crats if he demon­strates an evol­u­tion on the is­sue.

Loc­al Demo­crats aren’t the only ones pay­ing at­ten­tion to the is­sue in the Sen­ate and gubernat­ori­al primar­ies. Na­tion­al groups, in­clud­ing EMILY’s List and Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, also are keep­ing a close watch on the two races, and the op­por­tun­ity to po­ten­tially sup­port Hale, Ritz, or Tal­li­an. Though EMILY’s List’s primary fo­cus is on elect­ing fe­male Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates who sup­port abor­tion rights, they’ve touted can­did­ate’s po­s­i­tions on gay mar­riage un­der the broad­er um­brella of gender equal­ity.

“In­di­ana could use some com­mon sense lead­er­ship from Demo­crat­ic wo­men lead­ers. We’re keep­ing an eye on both the gov­ernor and Sen­ate races and are ex­cited about the op­por­tun­it­ies in 2016,” said EMILY’s List spokes­per­son Rachel Thomas.

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