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House Democrats pick new leader as GOP supermajority remains uncertain

November 7, 2018

Democrats picked up at least three seats in the Indiana House while both parties were still waiting for results of one more, putting the Republicans’ supermajority in the chamber in jeopardy.

Republicans won 66 of the chamber’s 100 seats on Tuesday, one short of the two-thirds majority that has rendered Democrats totally without power.

Democrats won at least 30 seats and were leading in three others, according to the AP. The results of one race remained unknown Wednesday night.

Republicans went into the election with a 70-30 majority.

Still, Democrats decided they needed a change at the top of their caucus. They ousted Rep. Terry Goodin of Austin, the leader they’d chosen only months ago, in favor of Rep. Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne. Republicans, meanwhile, stuck with House Speaker Brian Bosma of Indianapolis, despite a pending accusation that he violated House ethics rules.

Results tallied by the Associated Press showed House Democrats took three House seats away from incumbent Republicans on election night. In House District 26, Democrat Chris Campbell beat Rep. Sally Siegrist, R-West Lafayette, with 56 percent of the vote. In District 15, Democrat Chris Chyung ousted Rep. Hal Slager of Shererville, and in District 19, Democrat Lisa Beck narrowly defeated Rep. Julie Olthoff of Merrillville.

Democrats need four seats, however, to break the supermajority, which gives GOP members the ability to meet and take action even if Democrats aren’t present—something they have not done.

In the Senate, Democrats picked up one seat when J.D. Ford defeated long-time Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel. But Republicans will maintain their supermajority in the chamber. Ford is thought to be the first openly gay member of the General Assembly.

Delph served the Senate for 13 years and is known for his tough, conservative stances on abortion, gay marriage and immigration reform. Ford’s far more progressive policies will offer a stark contrast to the chamber in 2019.

Laura Merrifield Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis, said Ford’s win could mean larger cultural changes for Indiana, even if Democrats remain in the minority.

“It’s funny to think that, in 2018, this is new,” Wilson said in reference to Ford’s sexuality. “But it’s who he was competing against that makes this so significant. It shows there’s at least a change in the wind.”

Democrats in the House and Senate and Republicans in the House caucused to choose their leaders on Wednesday.

Senate Democrats re-elected their leaders, leaving Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson in charge of the caucus.

The House Democrats’ decision to make a change came as a surprise.

Goodin took over as the Democratic leader earlier this year, after former Minority Leader Scott Pelath decided not to seek re-election.

House Democrats held an afternoon caucus Wednesday during which both Goodin and GiaQuinta ran for the post. It was a rematch from earlier this year. Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, will serve as caucus chair and Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, was chosen as floor leader. 

Before he was deposed as minority leader, Goodin told TheStatehouseFile.com that the Democrats’ key strategy while in the minority is to garner more public awareness outside of election season.

“We’ll work hard and we’ll talk about issues people really care about,” Goodin said. “That’s why we get people’s attention.”

After Democrats met, Bosma extended his welcome to GiaQuinta as the new minority leader.

“Phil and I are friends and we will solve problems where we can and work in a bipartisan fashion to promote civility in the chamber and continue to move Indiana forward even when we disagree,” Bosma said.

This show of bipartisanship could be exactly what House Democrats need, according to Wilson. But bipartisanship, she added, will only work if Democrats echo the same enthusiasm.

“Republicans have the most to lose and the least to gain,” Wilson said. “Democrats have to focus on bipartisanship to get what they want in this state.”

Bosma added that much of the post-election cycle will be business as usual for House Republicans, even after losing a handful of seats to Democrats.

“We’ve had caucus ranging from 48 to 71 and it’s never changed our approach,” he said.

While life might continue normally for most Republican representatives, much weighs on Bosma himself following accusations that he had a sexual encounter with a House Democratic intern in the early 1990s and spent $40,000 of his campaign funds on a lawyer earlier this year to investigate the woman.

Bosma denies the allegations, which were first reported by The Indianapolis Star this fall, but said he will comply with any investigations by the House Ethics Committee.

The six-member committee includes representation from both parties. Bosma appointed Majority Caucus Leader Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, to continue serving as its chairman.

“I have told the committee that I am going to cooperate in every way,” Bosma said. “They have some information in front of them and if they request more they will receive more. And we will see how it goes.”

Moving forward, Wilson said Democrats cannot be mediocre legislators if they intend to make an impact, particularly on issues as significant as a potential ethics investigation into Bosma’s past. Instead, she said, Democrats must band together and demand action.

“One thing is clear from this election,” Wilson said. “You have to stick with your base to win … and if [the Democrats] want to be successful as a minority, they need to be a vocal one.”

Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Dionte Coleman and Eddie Drews contributed to this report.

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