The League of Women Voters of Hamilton County’s Oct. 4 forum featuring candidates for Indiana Statehouse races became a one-sided affair after all five Republican invitees decided not to attend.
The event at Carmel City Hall was designed to allow voters to hear from Republican and Democratic candidates in the races for the District 21 and 29 Senate seats and District 24, 32 and 39 House of Representative seats, which primarily cover western Hamilton County.
Instead, voters only heard from the Democratic candidates: incumbent Sen. J.D. Ford (District 29), Senate District 21 candidate Josh Lowry, House District 24 candidate Joellyn Mayer, House District 32 candidate Victoria Garcia Wilburn and House District 39 candidate Matt McNally. They are running against Republicans Alex Choi, incumbent Jim Buck, incumbent Donna Schaibley, Fred Glynn and incumbent Jerry Torr, respectively.
“I feel like in the past, we’ve been treated unfairly,” Massillamany said Oct. 5. “In the past, candidates have been attacked. I thought that it’s more important for us as Republicans to be knocking on doors and engaging voters one-on-one.”
The LWV, which describes itself as a nonpartisan, grassroots organization working to protect and expand voting rights, presented the questions to the candidates ahead of time and allowed them to respond in writing so that their answers could be posted online, even if they didn’t attend the forum. Some Republican candidates responded with written answers.
Massillamany said he felt some of the questions were designed to favor Democrats, although he didn’t specify which ones when asked. He also said that he doesn’t believe the LWVHC is as neutral as it claims to be.
After the Oct. 4 forum, LWVHC President Lisa Dick said she was disappointed that the event didn’t provide a more balanced presentation. She said the league invited candidates in both parties and that she does not recall a previous forum hosted by the group that only had participants from one side.
“I did every single thing I could think of in my power to make sure that tonight was as nonpartisan as we could do, but I don’t have control over which candidates choose to attend. There were candidates that weren’t here tonight that have been at every candidate forum I’ve been to in the past,” said Dick, who joined LWVHC in 2016. “I think it really is important for people to have the ability to hear the candidates talk to each other about their positions.”
Andy Downs, director emeritus with the Michael Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said there have been times all candidates from a party have declined to attend a forum or similar event in the past but that, anecdotally, it seems to be more widespread this year, a trend that may continue with social media making it possible for candidates to communicate more broadly and effectively online.
The internet has led to other reasons a candidate might skip a forum, he said.
“The ease with which a person can record and distribute video, images and quotes also has made events like this one a larger potential liability. A slip of the tongue or intentionally objectionable statement can be spread quickly,” Downs said.
He also said that he’s generally noticed a trend toward more targeted questions being asked in a less civil manner than in previous election cycles, which could also lead toward more candidates skipping these types of events.
LWVHC has another candidate forum set for 7 p.m. Oct. 6 at Noblesville City Hall. That event will feature races for Indiana Senate Districts 25 and 31, Indiana House District 88 and Hamilton County Prosecutor.
Dick said she expects a repeat of the Oct. 4 event, with none of the Republican candidates invited expected to attend.
“I feel like it’s important for us to have the conversations together,” Dick said. “I don’t really have a good explanation for what’s going on.”
Questions asked at the Oct. 4 League of Women Voters of Hamilton County candidate forum were:
- Can you describe what a healthy economy would look like? What should be done to grow and maintain the economy?
- What changes to gun policy if any would you support? Would you personally want to propose any new legislation?
- As an elected official, what would you propose legislatively to safeguard democratic institutions in our state?
- What is your stand on the legalization of recreational marijuana?
- What is your position on energy resources and usage in Indiana?
- Where do you stand on reproductive health access, including abortion?
- What do you feel is the best use of Indiana’s budget reserve?
- What effect has the pandemic had on our economy and what steps do you expect or would you like to see the general assembly take?
- What special skills do you bring to the office?
- What are the top three priorities you would like to accomplish when elected?
- Is there anything else you’d like to add before closing statements?