With Supreme Court vacancy, social issues gain importance in Indiana gubernatorial race

Gun Rights

Chris Sikich
| Indianapolis Star

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Hoosiers concerned about social issues have a rare distinct choice in the Indiana gubernatorial race.

Dr. Woody Myers, the Democratic nominee, has eschewed his party’s time-honored playbook of running as a socially conservative Democrat and is pushing for abortion rights, stricter gun control measures and LGBTQ+ equality. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, is running as the more traditional Hoosier politician. He has signed several bills regulating abortion and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association after largely expanding gun rights. 

Holcomb also has been a leader within his party on LGBTQ+ equality, pushing for a comprehensive hate crimes law, though advocates wish he would do more. 

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How Myers’ approach will play out in red-leaning Indiana is difficult to say. The self-described ”gun-totin’, Bible-quotin'” John Gregg largely ran as a social conservative in the past two gubernatorial elections and lost. So too did socially conservative Senate hopefuls Evan Bayh in 2016 and Joe Donnelly in 2018.

Myers’ biggest problem, pundits say, is an outmatched campaign that is down roughly 10-1 in fundraising. But if Myers can find a way to get the word out, he might win over some voters who sometimes feel left out in Indiana. 

“I do think this is an interesting strategy and a smart one for Myers,” said Laura Merrifield Wilson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis. “While it won’t be the make-or-break issue of the race, it does show that Myers is his own candidate, and it gives those pro-choice voters a candidate who supports their stance on the issue.”

With conservatives poised to take a historic conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, Holcomb’s and Myers’ ideas on these issues take on increased importance. It’s somewhat common for Indiana laws on social issues to head straight to the courts. 

IndyStar reached out to Holcomb and Myers to discuss their ideas. Holcomb responded to written questions through his campaign, and Myers gave a phone interview. Here’s what the candidates had to say: 

Indiana lawmakers have chipped away at abortion

Abortion seems likely to be a significant topic at the Statehouse if the U.S. Senate confirms Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. 

Doctors in Indiana performed 7,637 abortions in 2019, down 400 from the previous year, according to state records.

Lawmakers have been chipping away at abortion for years, and legal challenges have followed, including a recent ban on a type of second trimester abortion procedure and increased reporting requirements for practitioners. 

Holcomb, 52, also has signed laws that enhance parental rights when minors seek abortions and when schools offer sexual education courses, that allow murder and manslaughter charges for killing a fetus, that toughen licensing requirements, that allow health care workers to opt out of abortion procedures and that dictate how remains are disposed. 

Some lawmakers and anti-abortion advocates have pushed for an outright ban of abortions. Legislative leaders have buried those bills, saying courts have made their position on the matter clear. Advocates on each side of the issue wonder whether that calculus will change in 2021 with a potentially more conservative Supreme Court. 

Holcomb declined to say whether he would sign an abortion ban, saying the question is too speculative at this point. He pointed out his platform focuses on jobs and the economy, but he said he has and will continue to consider bills on abortion that cross his desk. 

“I’m a pro-life governor, and you are correct I have signed bills that made it to my desk that have protected life,” he said. “My agenda going forward will focus on economic empowerment, skilling up our workforce, building out our infrastructure, and maintaining a growing economy.”

Indiana Right to Life, which has endorsed the governor, says it’s time to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

“We believe all of the multiple legal challenges already percolating in the federal courts from Indiana carry the potential to topple Roe,” Indiana Right to Life President and CEO Mike Fichter said, “but the possibility of a historic shift on the Supreme Court adds incentive to double down on our efforts in 2021.”

Both Right to Life and Holcomb say the government also needs to focus on broader women’s health care issues. Right to Life pointed to a bill Holcomb signed in 2018 to increase prenatal care. 

“My pro-life stance isn’t exclusive to abortion,” Holcomb said. “To me, being pro-life also means increasing adoptions, which we have; lowering infant mortality, which we have. … It means coming alongside at-risk mothers and providing them the healthcare resources and expertise they need to deliver a healthy child.” 

Myers says government should stay out of abortion

Myers, 66, pointing toward sex education programs, says his goal would be to make abortions as rare as possible, while still ensuring that women have the right to choose.

“The decision should be between a woman and her doctor,” Myers said. “If the woman wants to involve her clergy, that’s even better. But I think it’s a decision the state of Indiana should stay out of and stop trying to push a woman in a direction that some believe she should be pushed.” 

Both Planned Parenthood’s local advocacy arm and NARAL Pro-Choice America have endorsed Myers. According to Planned Parenthood, Indiana has passed the second most restrictions on abortion of any state but Louisiana. 

“To have the leadership of someone like Dr. Myers, a Black physician and former Indiana state health commissioner, who unapologetically supports reproductive freedom and access to affordable health care in the middle of a pandemic, is the kind of critical change our state needs when the future of the Supreme Court looks unstable and unpredictable,” said LaKimba DeSadier, Indiana state director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Indiana and Kentucky.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights advocacy group not normally involved in Indiana statewide elections, points out that Americans largely support Roe v. Wade. A recent NBC News survey showed support for keeping the decision in place at 66%. 

“From Vice President Pence to Gov. Holcomb, the state of Indiana has for too long been led by anti-freedom, anti-science politicians pushing an extreme ideological agenda,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Planned Parenthood also pointed out the Trump administration cut its funding, which the agency said has left nearly 6,000 patients in Indiana without access to women’s health care. The agency said Indiana declined to fill the nearly $1 million gap

Myers said he would try to increase funding for Planned Parenthood, which he said many women rely upon for comprehensive health care. He said Indiana needs to do better with regards to women’s health. 

“You’ve got to remember that Planned Parenthood does a lot of different things,” Myers said. “They are a health care organization involved in abortions, but that’s not their primary focus.”

Holcomb endorsed by NRA

The NRA has praised both Holcomb’s stance on guns and his relationship with the group.

In 2019, Holcomb stood on the stage at the national NRA convention in Indianapolis and signed a bill that both enhanced the state’s stand-your-ground law and also allowed gun owners to carry firearms to church, even if there is a school on the grounds.

The NRA also praised Holcomb for signing legislation that eliminates state fees on a five-year license to carry and to allow Hoosiers to register to vote when they apply for a license to carry.

“Hoosiers’ rightful Second Amendment rights are well protected in Indiana by Gov. Eric Holcomb,” said John Weber, the Indiana state director for the NRA. “Gov. Holcomb proudly signed laws that support law-abiding gun owners and therefore keep our communities and state safer.”

Still, Holcomb hasn’t been silent on gun control. He signed a bill tightening Indiana’s ”red flag” law, which allows police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who are threatening to harm themselves or others. The bill also prevents people courts deem dangerous from buying firearms. 

“There’s simply no place more friendly or more supportive of the Second Amendment than right here on Hoosier soil,” Holcomb said. “We value our freedom, liberty and the importance of being able to bear arms and protect and provide for ourselves and our families.”

Myers calls for gun control

Myers said he’s as gun owner but thinks Indiana could do a lot better on common sense gun safety issues. He has been endorsed by Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group. 

During a talk he conducted with gun control advocates on Facebook, Myers suggested bans on high capacity magazines, limits on assault-style weapons and tougher measures on gun storage, background checks, and reporting of lost or stolen guns.

As an emergency room physician, Myers said, he has experienced the impact of guns first hand. 

“There have been countless individuals who have come in with gunshot wounds,” he said at the Facebook event. ”In some cases in the emergency room, people followed them in when they didn’t die to continue the fight and to finish them off. It’s been absolutely nuts dealing with that both as a physician and as a policy leader.”

Holcomb pushes for hate-crimes law

Holcomb for two years pushed the legislature to pass a comprehensive hate-crimes law that included gender identity. Such measures allow courts to enhance sentences if crimes are motivated by factors such as race, gender, sexual identity or gender identity.  

In 2018, Holcomb told lawmakers such a bill must protect transgender Hoosiers. He couldn’t rally the votes, though, and the idea died. In 2019, he tried again, championing the cause from the bully pulpit in his State of the State address.

The Senate rewrote his bill, though, to say more generally that judges could consider bias due to victims’ real or perceived traits. They did not explicitly list gender, gender identity and age.

Some disagreement exists over whether the law, which has yet to be tested in court, is written in a way that judges can use it to enhance sentences for hate crimes. Holcomb says it will be effective, even for transgender Hoosiers, but many LGBTQ+ advocates worry it’s not written specifically enough.

Holcomb decided to sign the bill though in a private ceremony without the hoopla that often accompanies legislative wins.

“Indiana’s bias crime law protects everyone,” Holcomb said. ”I fought for this and we got it done. Every Hoosier is covered. To say certain groups of people aren’t protected simply isn’t factually and legally true. For the first time in the history of our state, Indiana has a comprehensive bias crimes law and this law is being applied.”

Holcomb was out on a limb with the issue, upsetting both conservative lawmakers and lobbyists. Micah Clark, head of the socially conservative American Family Association, said he disagreed with the governor’s call for a hate crimes bill listing specific classes of people. Clark thinks listing protected classes in and of itself shows bias.

“The hate crimes proposal that Gov. Holcomb wanted was not satisfactory to conservatives,” Clark said. “The one the legislature passed applied to everyone equally. The governor claimed victory when it went through, and I praised him for it. But his original proposal was not one we supported at all.”

Katie Blair, director of advocacy and policy at ACLU Indiana, said the law needs to be strengthened to list specific classes. She spoke to IndyStar about the law but stressed the ACLU is not endorsing a candidate. 

“What ended up passing was something that was so vague it will never be used in a court,” Blair said. “It’s definitely not a win for the LGBTQ community or any community for that matter.” 

Myers thinks Indiana should do more on LGBTQ issues

Myers says he would champion LGBTQ+ issues at the Statehouse

“All of my friends in the community tell me that we ought to take one more pass at the hate crimes law in Indiana,” Myers said. “We need to finish the bill that got us 80% there.” 

He also would consider LGBTQ+ diversity when hiring and appointing state officials.

Perhaps most significantly, he is interested in a law to protect LGBTQ+ Hoosiers from discrimination in housing and public places. It’s an idea Democrats and the ACLU have supported but Republicans have declined to hear. 

“I support policies that protect fair housing access because no one should be discriminated against based on their gender identity, sexual preference, ability or color,” Myers said. “It’s past time that we include civil rights protections for our LGBTQ Hoosiers so they continue to live, work and thrive in Indiana.”

Blair, with the ACLU, says it would be a bigger win than a more expansive hate crimes law. 

“I would rather have a law that allows us to live in equity rather than one that gets someone in extra trouble when they kill us,” Blair said. “That’s horrible to say, but it’s true.” 

How to vote

In Marion County, the City-County Building is open for early voting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through Oct. 23, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 26-30 and from 8 a.m. to noon Nov. 2. Weekend hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Additional early voting locations will open Oct. 24 through Nov. 1.

Applications for absentee voting can be downloaded online at in.gov/sos/elections. Voters can also request their county election offices mail the applications. The Marion County number is 317-327-5100. 

The applications must be received by election officials by Oct. 22, and the ballots themselves must be returned by noon Nov. 3.

Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.

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