In a city that has only ever had white men as its top executive, incumbent Mayor Joe Hogsett could face two Black candidates in the race to be the Democratic nominee in 2023 and, if he wins, a Black Republican in the fall. But Black clergy who have been critical of Hogsett—and some who have supported him—aren’t ready to say race will be the driver of the faith community’s support.
State Rep. Robin Shackleford and consultant Gregory Meriweather have announced they will challenge Hogsett in the Democratic primary in May. The Rev. James W. Jackson is the only Republican to announce a mayoral bid so far, though there’s still time for other candidates to emerge.
Black clergy, who often carry significant influence with African American voters, say it’s time for a Black mayor. But several told IBJ they are not prepared to say the Black faith community will support any of the Black candidates who have announced over Hogsett until they learn more about their plans and policy positions.
Under not-for-profit tax law, churches can’t endorse candidates. Pastors can endorse candidates in a personal capacity, but not from the pulpit or at church functions.
“We are wanting to see what the commitments are to a Black and brown agenda,” said Rev. David Greene, leader of Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis.
He told IBJ that Concerned Clergy plans to invite all candidates to discuss issues that disproportionately affect communities of color. Concerned Clergy has been vocal about political issues and Hogsett’s campaign in the past.
In Hogsett’s 2019 reelection bid, the group of 60 black pastors criticized Hogsett for not immediately answering their call to present a Black agenda.
Hogsett initially said his overall agenda would lift all residents. But after facing backlash for his response, he relented and presented proposals to the group that called for a reevaluation of city contracts with minority-owned businesses, a review of entrepreneur lending programs, a community advisory council to assist with charter school application and recruitment, more permanent affordable housing, an eviction-prevention fund and $1.2 million in the 2020 budget for police body cameras.
Greene said that he expects the challengers to take aim at Hogsett’s public safety record, noting that the mayor dissolved the city’s public safety department so that the leaders of the police and fire departments reported directly to him. Hogsett called himself the “public safety mayor.”
“They’re going to look at, ‘What are the results of that?’ And most of the results aren’t good,” Greene said.
The average number of homicides per month in Marion County increased from 12.8 in 2019 to 18.4 in 2020. The average monthly number increased again in 2021, to 20.6, according to an analysis of IMPD data by IUPUI’s SAVI Community Information System. Through September, 2022’s average is lower at 17.1.
Focusing on crime didn’t work for Republican Cyndi Carrasco, who failed in her attempt this year to unseat Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears, a Democrat. But the argument might work better in a Democratic mayoral primary given that Hogsett has made crime a key part of his previous campaigns.
Shackleford has a history of advocacy aligned with Concerned Clergy. The state representative and the religious advocacy group called for the resignation of the Marion County Democratic Party previous chair earlier this year on accusations of discriminatory practices in the party’s choosing of candidates as well as conflicts of interest.
The groups called for the end of the party’s endorsement process, called slating. Shackleford told IBJ at the announcement of her candidacy that Hogsett told her he would support bringing an end to the practice.
How will Hogsett maintain Black voters?
For his part, Hogsett is confident Black voters can see his commitment.
“I think my record, particularly in the African American community, speaks for itself,” Hogsett told IBJ. “Record levels of investment in parks and affordable housing.”
According to the most recent Census, 29% of Indianapolis’ population is Black. Hogsett said that anecdotally, he believes he spends “a disproportionate amount of time in the African American community.” He said that is because of his commitment and bond to those neighborhoods.
Greene said that he hopes to see intentionality behind plans to support Black and brown residents from the candidates.
“We’re going to have to have that in the next mayor,” Greene told IBJ. “And I hope that Hogsett has figured that out by now.”
Hogsett is likely to speak more explicitly about race than he has in previous campaigns, according to political science professor Vanessa Cruz Nichols of Indiana University. Meanwhile, the trio of Black candidates might be more careful about bringing up race.
Minority candidates “try to toe the line and try to use very safe rhetoric around their agendas and policy goals, because they’re trying not to alienate white voters and white electorate who may feel like, ‘Oh, this minority candidate is only going to look out for minority voters,’” Cruz told IBJ.
Black faith leaders unaffiliated with Concerned Clergy say they will similarly decide which candidate has priorities and offers solutions that match their own.
Pastor Janae Pitts-Murdock of Light of the World Church said her congregants value efforts to address homelessness, Indy’s eviction rate and the homicide rate. Voters will have to decide whether Hogsett’s seven years were enough time to address those issues, she said, or whether the pandemic means he needs a third time to accomplish his goals.
Pitts-Murdock called the current field of candidates “momentous” and said it reflects the diversity within Black residents and even Black clergy.i
Cruz, the political science professor, said the GOP nationally is increasing its number of Black and Hispanic candidates, with Jackson and newly-elected Indiana Secretary of State Diego Morales among that group.
Black voices in power are important because white residents see a different version of Indianapolis, Pitts-Murdock said.
“I think it is time for the leadership in our community to reflect the population and also to reflect the future of Indianapolis, and it would be great to have an African American mayor,” she told IBJ.
“I’m interested in having a great mayor,” she added. “And if that mayor happens to be African American, then that would be an abundant blessing.” As to whether or not Hogsett is that great mayor, she said it’s yet to be determined.
Faith in Indiana, an advocacy group that also includes white faith leaders, has been successful in getting priorities in Hogsett’s agenda.
The group led a movement calling for police to be removed from mental health-related dispatches in Indianapolis following the death of Herman Whitfield III in police custody during a mental health crisis in April. Those calls led to a 2023 budget allocation of $2 million for a physician-led response team under the Hogsett administration.
Josh Riddick, the Black Churches Coalition organizer at Faith in Indiana, has appeared at events with the current mayor touting the upcoming initiative. While Faith in Indiana doesn’t endorse candidates, its political arm does. Mayoral candidates will have to focus on police accountability, alternatives to policing, climate issues and affordable housing to gain the group’s interest.
Riddick said Black churches were formed to be a safe place for Black people to exist and have advocated to make their communities safe places for poor Black residents. He said the Black Churches Coalition will continue to orient itself to that legacy without being loyal to a party or candidate.
“We don’t claim allegiance to a singular party or a singular elected official, but we claim allegiance to a type of justice and imagination of a just world,” Riddick told IBJ. “So we’re going to push and demand and advocate and support the type of policies that are going to create that world.”
He added that a candidate’s race or identity doesn’t qualify or disqualify them from best serving the Black community.
Riddick said that Hogsett’s historic investment in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department does, to an extent, run counter to the goals of the organizations.
“No, we definitely are not encouraged by that,” he told IBJ. “We also recognize the intention of trying to staff a depleting police department.”
Rev. Charles Harrison, who leads a group of clergy addressing violence called the Ten Point Coalition, said the opportunity to have Indianapolis’ first Black mayor is overdue. But, he said discussions with clergy and congregants give him a sense that Shackleford isn’t the one.
He said Shackleford hasn’t made a name for herself in the city, and there are Black officeholders that might be better suited to be the city’s first Black mayor, such as City-County Council President Vop Osili, and Councilor Maggie Lewis. Neither councilor responded to a request for comment from IBJ.
But Harrison later said it’s unlikely Osili would run against Hogsett, and that the council president would probably wait for the next election to seriously consider a bid for mayor.
As for the other mayoral hopefuls, Harrison criticized Meriweather’s views as “too far out.” Harrison said he identifies himself as a moderate Democrat or an independent. Jackson could do well if he is successful at fundraising (a big “if” given the GOP’s struggles to fund recent mayoral campaigns) and engaging Republican voters, Harrison said.
In response to Harrison, Meriweather told IBJ that he’s often viewed as “challenging” or “tough” but that it’s in the interest of progress and saying what is necessary.
The pair have a bit of history. In 2019, Meriweather was disciplined during his time working in Hogsett’s administration for a Facebook comment he left criticizing the Ten Point Coalition, Harrison’s organization.
Meriweather said that at the time, he took issue with Ten Point Coalition’s claims that the group had prevented youth homicides in certain areas. He said the group had determined a narrow window for what could be considered a youth homicide.
“In hindsight, looking back, I don’t ever want to judge the hearts of people. And if they believe what they’re doing helps, it’s not for me to criticize,” Meriweather told IBJ.
Harrison said the candidates need to address issues that disproportionately affect Black residents, like crime, violence and poverty. The contested Democratic primary will provide healthy dialogue about how to fix thsoe issues and might drive up turnout, he said.
“From what I’m hearing from my colleagues and Black partners, it’ll play a major role in getting Black people out to vote,” he told IBJ.
From his perspective, Hogsett has done well for the past seven years.
“I do think he’s done a fairly good job and tends to be in dialogue with Black leadership on a regular basis,” Harrison said.
Hogsett and Shackleford are the frontrunners in the Democratic field: Hogsett because he’s the incumbent and Shackleford because she has some name recognition and political connections. But Hogsett is way ahead on the money front, with $2.4 million in his campaign account as of last February, the last time he had to report. Shackleford, who hasn’t had to file a mayoral campaign finance report, had about $8,300 in her legislative campaign account as of last month.
If no other Republican candidates surface to challenge Jackson and either Shackleford or Meriweather best Hogsett in the Democratic primary, a candidate could become the first Black mayor of Indianapolis.
However, none of them would be the first Black candidate to receive a major party’s nomination for Indianapolis mayor. The Democratic Party nominated Z. Mae Jimison, a Black woman, to run against Republican Stephen Goldsmith in 1995. Goldsmith won re-election.
Correction: This story has been corrected to explain that not-profit-tax law bars churches from endorsing political candidates.