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Before a sparse crowd Thursday evening, the four men vying for the Republican nomination for Indianapolis mayor acknowledged the issues where they agreed and refrained from criticizing the current mayor outright as they offered their visions for the city.

The Republican candidates are Jefferson Shreve (above, second from left), founder of Storage Express and former city-county councilor; Rev. James Jackson (above, second from right), founder of Fervent Prayer Church and member of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission; Abdul Hakim-Shabazz (above, center), attorney and political commentator; and John Couch (above, right), self-employed businessman who has unsuccessfully run for the Indiana General Assembly.

Hosted by The Indianapolis Star, the town hall followed a question-and-answer format with the moderator, Oseye Boyd (above, left), public engagement editor at The Star, posing the questions submitted by members of the audience. The candidates were concise in their responses, often finishing before their allotted time ran out, which brought the forum to a close in roughly an hour.

Mayor Joe Hogsett and three primary challengers – Rep. Robin Shackleford; community activist Clif Marsiglio; and businessman Larry Vaughn – participated in The Star’s Democratic town hall Tuesday evening.

The Republican candidates did not mention Hogsett by name or speak out strongly against any specific policies undertaken by the current administration. Instead, as Shreve did in his opening comments, they spoke about their plans and why they see a need for change.

“I’ve done business around the Midwest. I’ve been in markets that would have competed with Indianapolis, some we have competed favorably, others we have lost ground. So I have had that opportunity to see that contrast and I’m convinced, sadly, that our city is drifting,” Shreve said. “It’s just drifting and I want to help turn that around.”

However, as indicated by the audience size, the Republican mayoral hopefuls may struggle to even find the voters to listen to their ideas. Less than 20 people attended the town hall compared to upwards of 90 who filled the chairs to hear the Democratic candidates.

To get Indianapolis residents to pay attention to the Republican views and vote for a Republican mayor, the candidates put the responsibility on themselves.

As far as turnout goes, it’s really more about the candidates than it is about anything else,” Shabazz said. “If you have competitive races and quality candidates, people will turn out.”

Crime

The question of how to address crime and bring down the city’s murder rate highlighted the areas of agreement among the Republican candidates. Jackson and Shabazz both advocated for reinstating the position of public safety director and, along with Shreve, they called for ending the early release of repeat violent offenders from the jail.

“We got to deal with this early release because look at our murder rate,” Shabazz said. “Seventy-seven percent of the victims and 80% of the suspects all tend to have prior adult felonies and if somebody maybe had been behind bars, somebody might still be alive today.”

Jackson pointed to Krystal Walton who was allegedly killed by Orlando Mitchell, the father of her then 1-year-old son, in September 2022. Mitchell, according to WTHR, had two arrest warrants for violating a no contact order and his probation, both related to his agreement to plead guilty to domestic battery in exchange for charges of strangling a pregnant woman, confinement and intimidation being dismissed.

“He didn’t get the help he needed before he was released. I believe if he had gotten the help that he needed, Krystal, quite possibly, would be alive today,” Jackson said. “That’s a very important policy. As mayor, I will work with our local legislature and state legislature to make sure that we’re ending the revolving door that is contributing to the high number of homicides that we are now seeing.”

Shreve said the city is also being harmed by the loss of police officers. According to the stats he cited, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has 1,543 officers, down more than 100 from when Hogsett began his first term as mayor in January 2016. Moreover, Shreve said the mayor has not delivered on his promise to increase law enforcement by 150 officers.

The consequence, Shreve said, is not enough officers on the street to proactively address the crime. The swarm of IMPD cars at crime scenes that viewers of the nightly news see daily show the police can only react.

 “This was all reactive policing because they aren’t in the neighborhoods,” Shreve said. “They don’t attend neighborhood meetings and they’re not communicating with citizens. You don’t see officers on the street, on the beats. We can’t get ahead of it that way and we burn out the officers that we have because they’re working so much overtime. We’re losing them. We’ve got to do better.”

Couch linked the crime rate to a lack of ability of people to control their behavior and actions.

“This is self-control,” Couch said. “I have no control over your actions, your thoughts or anything like that. The problem is people are demonstrating self-control and that’s where we’ve got to start at.”

He proposed starting a program to each students listening skills as well as anger management and critical thinking skills. In addition, he advocated for the installation of a GPS system with cameras so if a crime is committed in a neighborhood, the police can immediately check the video and see where the potential suspects are going.

“…They can do a much better job of utilizing who they have so they can catch the suspects when they’re leaving the scene of the crime,” Couch said of the police. “It makes it a lot easier for them because right now we’re playing chase the criminal. This way we can stop them when they’re leaving the scene of the crime. Makes it a lot easier for the prosecutor, the investigators and everyone.”

Sustainability

The Republican mayoral candidates offered a wider range of views when asked what sustainability goals they would prioritize to improve the city environmentally by 2030. Jackson and Couch offered initiatives that they believe would advance sustainability within the next seven years while Shabazz and Shreve advocated for more measured approaches.

Jackson called for the implementation of green infrastructure and smart streets, noting other cities are already doing this and expressing confidence that Indianapolis could be a leader in using this environmental technology by 2030. He did not offer specifics as to how the city would switch to smart street technology or how the city would pay for it.

Couch championed solar power. He talked about getting solar powered vehicles for law enforcement and using grant programs to help homeowners, particularly those with older homes, convert their houses to using solar power.

Shabazz spoke first of money.

 “The city’s only got so much money in its budget,” Shabazz said. “We’ve got lots of issues, lots of concerns, lots of priorities so anything we do with the environment has to be fiscally responsible.”

He then said “little things” like syncing the traffic lights on Meridian Street would have reduce emissions by preventing cars from stopping and idling while waiting for the light to change.  Also, he called for gradually changing the building codes and encouraging developers to construct sustainable projects by offering tax incentives.

Shreve pointed to work already being done that he said are improving the environmental challenges in the city. In particular, he said the coal ash ponds are “front and center out at AES” and the city is making progress on the White River pollution.

“I would contend that we are making progress. Is this going to be priority number one in the Shreve administration? No,” Shreve said. “But as part of placemaking that is a priority because this has to be an attractive community and environment, in which people are going to live, invest and make their home. And so that all has to fit together in the calculus.”

Redistricting

A question about redistricting brought a near unanimous response from the candidates – to the victor go the spoils.

In 2021 as the General Assembly was redrawing the state’s legislative districts, several groups and individuals pushed for the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting committee to remove political influence of the supermajority Republican caucus from the process. The Statehouse Republicans ignored that request, opting to draw the districts themselves. However, the Democrats in Marion County also rejected the same calls to turn the redistricting work over to a committee.

Shreve and Shabazz saw redistricting to boost the party in power as just part of politics. Shreve said the redrawn Marion County council districts were “were not crazy or unfair.”

Shabazz pointed to demographics of the state and Marion County as the reason for the lopsided representation. More Hoosiers are Republicans, he said,  so the right is going to hold the majority in the Legislature while more Marion County residents identify as Democrats so the city-county council will have more progressives.

“I always find it interesting that peole ask for an independent redistricting commission because redistricting is fundamentally politics,” Shabazz said. “In politics there’s no real independent redistricting commission per se because somebody somewhere is more Republican or Democratic who wants to draw the maps in their favor.”

Couch dismissed the notion that redistricting had much impact.

“It doesn’t matter what party you’re with,” Couch said. “I’m a head soccer coach so it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side, we still got to come out and do our job, do the things that have to be. so it doesn’t matter how the precincts are set up….”

Jackson characterized redistricting to favor one political party over another as morally wrong. He said a solution would be to assemble a task force that could mediate between Republicans and Democrats to ensure the system is fair for voters and elected officials.

“I think in Indianapolis we need moral leadership, good moral leadership to do things in a way that’s not going to benefit any one person or one party,” Jackson said. “That’s going to benefit the people because if it’s not about the people, it’s not about anything.” — Marilyn Odendahl

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