It would be trite to say the 2019 municipal elections were status quo, not with 17 defeated incumbents. But there are solid trend lines: Democrats dominated in the big cities, coasting to wins in Indianapolis by Joe Hogsett and Fort Wayne by Tom Henry and picking up council seats in Evansville without a credible mayoral nominee.
Republicans did extremely well in the old auto belt, picking up Kokomo, Logansport and Muncie. It helped them forge a historic 70-seat night, which underscores how the Republicans are dominating in the prairies (they hold 80% of county courthouse seats and 89% of county commissioners), while Democrats are holding on to the big cities and college towns.
The suburban areas continue to take a purple hue, with Democrats making gains with Emily Styron upsetting Mayor Tim Haak in once-ruby red Zionsville, along with two council seats in Carmel and Fishers. This comes a year after gay Democrat Sen. J.D. Ford won his suburban Indianapolis and Carmel seat. Democrats also picked up two suburban Louisville mayor races in Scottsburg and Charlestown, while Democrat New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan beat back a credible challenge from Mark Seabrook. And Sue Lynch returned to the Mayor’s office in Portage, turning back Mayor John Cannon, who was voted by caucus to succeed the convicted Republican James Snyder.
On the gender front, in addition to Portage’s Lynch and Zionsville’s Styron, Democrat Treva Hodges won an upset in Charlestown, but otherwise, the 2019 mayoral field was dominated by white men.
If you’re a proponent of good government, Lynch’s victory wasn’t the only one where voters decided to switch parties due to the taint of scandal. Republican Muncie Councilman Dan Ridenour easily won in a city where the Democratic administration of Mayor Dennis Tyler endured multiple FBI investigations.
Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer was upset by Republican Duane Parry just days after the Democratic incumbent was indicted by a Republican county prosecutor on multiple felony charges after the drug arrest by the LaPorte County Drug Alliance of his stepson and the ensuing turmoil in the police department. Parry won by just 76 votes in a race many believed was Meer’s to lose until the arrests and indictment.
There are some real warning flags with Meer’s loss. In such a high profile situation, a prudent course for LaPorte County Prosecutor John Lake would have been for the sheriff to call in the Indiana State Police to investigate. If the mayor was deserving of felony charges, those should have come from a special prosecutor. Now Meer’s attorney, former Gary Mayor Scott King, is calling the indictments a “hatchet job” and believes he can win a motion to dismiss.
Another change-of-the-guard election night took place in Kokomo, where three-term Democratic Mayor Greg Goodnight decided not to seek reelection. Howard County Commissioner Tyler Moore won in a resounding landslide, as the GOP swept the entire city council.
The historic wins included Fort Wayne Mayor Henry’s landslide victory over Republican Tim Smith, giving him an unprecedented fourth consecutive term, while Republican Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett fended off a spirited challenge from independent Pat Goodwin.
Henry’s legacy had been to rebuild Fort Wayne’s downtown, and he now aims to develop the city’s three river fronts. Republican Tim Smith ran an aggressive and negative campaign and it ultimately backfired, with Henry winning 61.2%, eclipsing the 60% he had in 2007.
Bennett has spent much of the past 12 years dealing with the fiscal impacts of the property tax caps, finally steering the city into solvency, and he played a key role in bringing one of the Gary casinos to Terre Haute, with Vigo County voters approving that referendum with 60% of the vote.
Another big winner was Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, who took on crumbling infrastructure with an aggressive paving strategy and won with close to 70% against state Sen. Jim Merritt.
Other legacy mayors include Carmel Republican Mayor Jim Brainard embarking on a seventh term; Hammond’s Thomas McDermott Jr., a fifth consecutive term that he believes will propel him to a 1st Congressional District nomination with the retirement of U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky; Lafayette Democratic Mayor Tony Roswarski forging a fifth term; while the fourth terms await West Lafayette Republican Mayor John Dennis, Plymouth Mayor Mark Senter and Crown Point’s Mayor David Uran.
“It was a historic night for Republicans throughout Indiana as voters in city after city elected Republican mayors,” said Indiana GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer after his party notched a record 70 mayoral victories. “Never in the history of Indiana have Republicans held this many mayoral offices or had this wide a margin over Democrats.”
Democrat Chairman John Zody said: “We elected the first African American mayor in Elkhart (Rod Roberson). We elected a record number of Hoosier Democratic female mayors. We elected the first female mayor in Zionsville and won seats in Hamilton County for the first time ever. We won a majority on the council in Mike Pence’s hometown. We won a commanding council majority and reelected the mayor by a landslide in Indianapolis. We reelected the mayor of Fort Wayne and picked up two at-large city council seats. We elected mothers. We elected Young Dems. We elected union members. We won in the suburbs and in rural cities.”