Candidates hoping to unseat Jackie Walorksi fight to define Democratic Party’s ‘soul’
Published in the South Bend Tribune: April 15, 2018, Author: Jeff Parrott
See original article here.
SOUTH BEND — Moments after Mel Hall announced his candidacy in October for Indiana’s 2nd District U.S. House seat, a reporter asked him whether Donald Trump had been a good president so far.
The minister-turned-CEO is vying for the Democratic nomination and a chance to unseat Republican incumbent Jackie Walorski, who has amassed a formidable campaign finance warchest after winning her past three elections. But it was Trump who, a year earlier, had cruised to a 20-point win over Hillary Clinton in the sprawling district, which has been rated at least 10 points favorable to Republicans since the state party redrew boundaries in 2011.
Hall pondered the question for a few seconds.
Over the next two weeks, two more candidates entered the race, businessman Yatish Joshi and attorney Pat Hackett, and they’ve staked out policy positions that are further left on the political spectrum than Hall.
By the time debates were held on March 27 and April 10, the dynamics of the 2nd District Democratic primary had come into sharp focus. Hackett and Joshi, declaring that health care is a right owed to all Americans, called for a “Medicare for all,” or a government-funded, single-payer health care system. Hall advocated for improving the Affordable Care Act.
But in the debates, which had to be moved to larger venues because of heavier than anticipated interest from Democratic voters, Hall was no longer saying “the jury is still out” on Trump’s job performance.
“We have a president who spends too much time dividing us and not nearly enough time uniting us, and he has abandoned his promise to help working Americans,” Hall declared in the second debate.
Still, Hackett has called herself “the real Democrat” running against two “businessmen” in the race, pointing to $47,500 that Hall donated to Republican candidates and the national party since 2004, and $2,700 that Joshi donated to Walorski during her last campaign against Democrat Lynn Coleman.
The race is a reflection of forces playing out nationally in the run-up to the November 2018 midterm elections. Democrats, needing to flip 23 seats to regain control of the House, are grappling with a tough decision: seize an opportunity presented by Trump’s low approval ratings and champion a more progressive agenda, or appeal to more “centrist” or swing voters as Democrats did during the 1990s under Bill Clinton.
“The Democratic Party is having kind of an internal fight for its own soul over whether to go further left and progressive or stay in the moderate zone,” said Brian Howey, who writes a syndicated column about Indiana politics. “Here in Indiana, that’s the way it was during the Evan Bayh era. Whoever wins the nomination, and the same thing with the congresswoman, they’re going to need to track independent voters, which is a growing bloc of voters. You can’t just win with your base.”
Hall has raised much more campaign money than Hackett or Joshi, reporting about $432,000 cash on hand at the end of 2017, the most recent figures publicly available. That’s still well below Walorski’s $829,000, but it’s far ahead of Joshi’s $88,327 and Hackett’s $842.
Hall’s receipts include a $210,000 loan from himself, while Joshi has lent himself $400,000 and spent about $312,000, much of it on billboards. Hackett has spent nearly all of the roughly $16,000 she has raised in individual contributions.
“I’ve kind of got it as it leans in his direction,” Howey said of Hall in the May 8 primary. “And I was fascinated by the debate where Joshi and Hackett came out for single-payer. That may play well in the Democratic primary. Probably in the 2nd District, that would be a liability in a general election in the fall. It’s one thing to win the battle. Can you win the war?”
While they share common enemies in Trump and Walorski, and while the race has mobilized energetic supporters for the candidates, there has been a disconcerting level of friction between the Hackett and Hall camps, said Jason Critchlow, St. Joseph County Democratic Party chair.
The friction spilled onto the stage at the debates, where Hackett at one point accused Hall of moving back to South Bend last year in order to run for the seat, prompting Hall to counter that he returned to the area to care for his ailing father.
That friction also has been evident behind the scenes, between a relatively small but vocal segment of each candidate’s supporters.
“I’ve seen it be really bad between folks,” Critchlow said. “I’ve seen people that are really good friends, one of them supporting Mel Hall and another of them supporting Pat Hackett. Even personally, between the two of them, there’s a huge amount of friction there.”
The race was one of six around the country that The Washington Post profiled in a recent story headlined, “Emerging Democratic Party united on liberal policies but divided on how to win.” The Post reported that Critchlow fears Hackett “is starting down a path that, should she win the nomination, could make it impossible for Democrats to oust Walorski.”
“You have this sort of new breed of activist,” the Post quoted Critchlow as saying, and “for some reason, it’s very important to them that they have this enemy within — not just Republicans and not just conservatives.”
Critchlow sought to downplay those concerns Friday in an interview with The Tribune. He attributed a lot of the strife to “emotions” of people who have become involved in politics for the first time and said he isn’t worried that it will hurt the Democratic nominee in the fall.
The primary “has led definitely to an increase in people’s awareness and engagement,” he said. “It’s at levels that I’ve never seen it before. On paper, these three candidates have similar or the exact same positions on 99 percent of the issues. Because of that, you’ll see a tendency for candidates to seek opportunities to create contrasts between themselves and their opponents.”
Indeed, the debates made it clear that the trio share a lot of policy positions, including support for more gun control, campaign finance reform and measures to boost incomes for low- and middle-income workers.
Historically in American politics, voters’ views of the sitting president have played a significant role in mid-term congressional elections. While polls have measured Trump’s public approval nationally and in Indiana, no polls have been taken to gauge his approval ratings among voters in the 2nd District, a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas covering much of northern Indiana.
Critchlow thinks many voters in the district backed Trump because they strongly disliked Hillary Clinton. Those voters, he said, won’t care how the Democratic candidates feel about Trump.
“In the end, it’s all about, what are you bringing to the table as a candidate?” he said.
None of the three 2nd District Democratic candidates have ever run for public office, and they all three were born within 10 years of each other. But they have very different personal backgrounds.
‘The values I hold’
Hackett, 58, was born Mary Patricia Hackett and is originally from Detroit. She has lived in South Bend for 40 years, having stayed here after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology from the University of Notre Dame.
She left town in 1984 to pursue a doctoral degree in theology from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., but opted not to finish the degree and returned to South Bend to earn a law degree from Notre Dame in 1991.
She is openly gay and seven years ago married Rita Koehler. She has acknowledged that could cause her some problems in some of the district’s more rural and culturally conservative areas.
“People who have not had the opportunity to know people in committed, same-gender marriages can have a hard time with this,” she told The Tribune when announcing her bid in late October. “I’m hoping people can come to know me as a person, the values I hold and the competency that I bring.”
‘They can change things’
Hall, 64, grew up on a farm near Marion, Ind., a fact he raised in both debates and features in his ads. He graduate from Taylor University in Upland, Ind., and then from a United Methodist seminary. At his request, he has said, the church first sent him to minister in one of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods, introducing him to an entirely different world than the farm life he had always known.
He spent seven years in Detroit, which “burned in my heart and in my mind what people from diverse backgrounds with minimal resources who are committed to action can do, and they can change things.”
In 2001, Hall became CEO of health care survey firm Press Ganey. He left the company in 2012 to lead a Nashville-based health care staffing firm, SpecialtyCare, which he left early last year after it changed ownership.
Hall is divorced with two grown sons and two grandchildren.
Container company founder
Joshi, 67, immigrated to the United States from India in 1976. He initially came to Toledo, Ohio to pursue graduate studies, but ultimately made his way to South Bend, where in 1988 he founded GTA Containers on the city’s west side. The company makes large-scale water containers for the military, and Joshi has made a point to note in the debates that 80 percent of his 53 employees are black or Latino.
Despite living in the country for four decades, his Indian accent remains strong, so much so that he quipped during his campaign kick-off event that he often can’t understand himself on voice recordings. He has drawn heavy laughter at the debates, especially his line, “Repeal and Replace Jackie Walorski.”
He also has twice suffered devastating family tragedy. In December 2007, his wife, Louise Addicott, died after a twin-engine Cessna plane he was piloting crashed near Traverse City, Mich.
The year before, in 2006, the couple’s 24-year-old daughter, Georgina Joshi, died in a single-engine plane crash near Bloomington. She was a graduate student in music at Indiana University at the time, and had been piloting the plane during the crash, which also killed four other students.
In 2013, IU South Bend announced that a $1.2 million gift from the Georgina Joshi Foundation, created after Georgina’s death, would be used to renovate a recital hall on campus. The hall is now named the Louise E. Addicott and Yatish J. Joshi Performance Hall.