Brad Chambers brings business acumen to GOP bid for governor

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Former Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers says he decided to run because he sees “enormous potential” for Indiana that hasn’t been fully realized. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Brad Chambers knows what it takes to build something from the ground up.

An accomplished entrepreneur, he turned a fledgling rental property business that he started in college into a billion-dollar company.

But in a race that has five competitive candidates for the Republican nomination for governor, being a recognizable figure can be just as important as financial prowess, and Chambers has some ground to make up in the recognition category.

Chad Kinsella

“If there was a poll on the gubernatorial primary, I would be willing to bet there are still a lot of Republican voters who do not know who he is or have any opinion about him,” said Chad Kinsella, professor of politics at Ball State University. “It will be critical for him to run commercials and get information out about who he is [and] why he is running, and [to] make an appeal to Republican primary voters.”

Chambers has been working hard and spending money to do just that.

The former Indiana commerce secretary and founder, president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Buckingham Cos. Inc. entered the governor’s race in August—after four other major Republicans had already announced their candidacies.

But what Chambers lacked in timing he made up for in financing, giving his campaign $5 million of his own money—the largest personal contribution made by any candidate—and raising more than $2 million in contributions of at least $10,000 in less than six months.

In his first TV ad, Chambers introduced himself to voters as a “political outsider.” Hand-picked by Gov. Eric Holcomb to lead the state’s economic development policy from 2021 to 2023, Chambers defends this narrative by noting that he has never run for political office—he was appointed, and only after initially declining the role.

Chambers’ campaign contributors point to his business acumen, outsider status and emphasis on increasing Hoosier wages as factors that make him an attractive candidate.

“Indiana has a very unusual and unique opportunity to select a leader with the kind of background that he has,” said Doug Rose, president of Indianapolis-based real estate company Irwin R. Rose & Co. and a Chambers donor who encouraged him to run for governor. “I think Hoosiers are likely tiring of professional politicians, and Brad offers a chance to select someone that has not spent any time in politics.”

Chambers entered the race after the June 30 campaign finance reporting deadline. But as of that date, most of his significant GOP opponents had more than $3 million in cash on hand. They are U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, who reported $4.6 million at the deadline and is seen by some political observers as the front-runner; Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, a seasoned politician with more than 30 years of experience in public office and $3.8 million in her campaign account; Eric Doden, a Fort Wayne businessman with an economic development and business resume similar to Chambers’ and $3.7 million cash on hand; and Curtis Hill, the former Indiana attorney general who lost his 2020 reelection bid after accusations surfaced that he drunkenly groped four women at a party in 2018. He also entered the race after the June 30 filing deadline.

A sixth candidate is Jamie Reitenour, a largely unknown candidate running on a religious platform who had less than $5,000 cash on hand as of June 30.

The next campaign finance report filing deadline is Jan. 17.

Whichever candidate wins the May primary will likely face Jennifer McCormick, the former superintendent of education who is expected to secure the Democratic nomination, in November. The winner of the general election will succeed Holcomb, a Republican who cannot seek reelection because of term limits.

Mowing lawns, closing deals

Chambers, 59, grew up in Indianapolis but spent time as a child on his grandfather’s small farm outside of Thorntown—“Life wasn’t easy, but we were family,” his TV commercial says—making money by cutting grass for his neighbors. By the time he was halfway through college at Indiana University, he had raised enough money to start a rental property company.

Michael Petrie

When he needed his first business loan, he went to Mike Petrie, a fellow alum who also started his own company, Merchants Capital.

“I knew he was going to make it,” recalled Petrie, chair and CEO of Merchants Bank of Indiana and the finance chair for Chambers’ campaign. “He was hard-working, entrepreneurial and honest, and I could tell he had a good sense for business.”

The partnership has paid dividends. Since Buckingham Cos.’ first rental property purchase in 1984, it has grown to a 400-person company with a real estate portfolio exceeding $3 billion.

Not long after winning reelection in 2020, Holcomb offered Chambers the secretary of commerce post. Chambers had some experience in state government, having served on the Indiana State Fair Commission for the duration of Holcomb’s first term in office, but he said he was hesitant to jump into a full-time role in public service while still running his own company. He initially declined the position.

“It had never been on my list,” Chambers told IBJ. “Giving back has been on my list—being a service guy. Being in an elected position had never been on my to-do list.”

After some cajoling, Chambers accepted the job on one condition: He did not want to take a salary, instead choosing to follow in the footsteps of Mickey Mauer, co-owner of IBJ Media, who earned $1 per year when he was commerce secretary from 2006 to 2008 under Gov. Mitch Daniels.

During his two-year tenure as commerce secretary and president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., Chambers secured more than $33 billion in committed capital expenditures from companies looking to expand or move their operations to Indiana, including a $2.5 billion electric vehicle battery plant in Kokomo, a $3 billion EV battery cell factory in northern Indiana and Eli Lilly and Co.’s $3.7 billion manufacturing campus in Boone County.

When it came time to renew his contract last June, Chambers decided to step down, which fueled speculation that he was considering a run for governor. He confirmed the rumors in August when he filed paperwork to launch his campaign.

On his decision to run, Chambers said he “looked under the hood of the state” and saw “enormous potential” for Indiana that hasn’t been fully realized.

“I think the results that we posted as two years as secretary of commerce underscore that,” Chambers told IBJ. “Thirty-three billion dollars had never been done before. High-wage industries … wages 30% higher than any time in state history. That’s the benefit of having someone not from politics come in to run something that’s in government—with strategy and aspiration for winning. That’s how I got here.”

Tom McGowan, president and chief operating officer at Kite Realty Group Trust, knew Chambers at IU and said he’s “witnessed firsthand his remarkable journey from starting a business from scratch and leading it to become a premier national multi-family enterprise.”

“His blend of passion, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit, along with his dedication to the community through Brad and Carol’s Buckingham Foundation, make him exceptionally well-suited to serve as governor,” McGowan said. “Brad’s unique talents, achievements, and bold vision are a testament to his ability to lead and serve the people of Indiana with integrity and innovation.”

Policy proposals

The Chambers campaign has rolled out several policy proposals in recent months, promising to crack down on China, support law enforcement and protect children from the dangers of social media.

His “Combating China” plan calls for banning the sale of Indiana real property to the communist nation, prohibiting the Chinese-owned app TikTok from being used on devices or systems purchased with state dollars and preventing the state’s public higher education institutions from licensing university-owned intellectual property to Chinese-owned firms.

His public safety agenda calls for instituting mandatory minimum bail for violent and repeat offenders, strengthening qualified immunity for law enforcement and first responders, and creating task forces to address the fentanyl epidemic.

His “Safe Online” plan, which he says will protect Hoosier children, proposes stricter age verification for access to social media platforms, increased penalties for online companies that fail to prevent Hoosier children from accessing pornographic material and partnerships with the Indiana Department of Education to ensure age-appropriate classroom instruction on the risks and dangers associated with social media and other online activity.

But in a six-way race, Chambers will need to find more unique ways to grab headlines that set himself apart from the pack, Kinsella said.

“Right now, his biggest competitor is to not be lost in the back of the pack, which will require some money, luck and striking the right chord with enough Republican primary voters,” Kinsella said. “Because there are six people in the primary, if he can be the champion of a significant wing of the Indiana Republican Party, he may be able to pull off the upset. It is feasible that getting 30%-plus of the vote may be enough to win if the vote fractures enough.”

LEAP District

What will likely come to be a defining feature of Chambers’ legacy as commerce secretary is the LEAP Research and Innovation District, a planned 10,000-acre research park near Lebanon that could serve as the blueprint for additional commercial and industrial parks across the state. LEAP is an acronym for “Limitless Exploration/Advanced Pace.”

Chambers and Holcomb worked together to develop the concept, which is modeled off the North Carolina Research Triangle.

Early in Chambers’ tenure, Indiana lost out to Ohio for a $20 billion semiconductor plant. After that, Chambers said, he was determined to not lose out on another megadeal.

“We were in the hunt [for the semiconductor plant],” he said. “That thing landed on my desk early in my tenure, and we went from being out of competition to very close, but ultimately, at the end of the day, we weren’t ready. And I wasn’t going to not be ready again.”

Planning for the LEAP District was done out of the public eye, and in early 2022, the IEDC began buying up thousands of acres of land in Boone County. When word got out about the agency’s plans, some local landowners banded together to raise awareness and mount resistance to the project.

Those efforts have since spread to the Lafayette region after it was revealed that the IEDC was exploring the possibility of a pipeline to transport as much as 100 million gallons of water per day from the Wabash River aquifers in Tippecanoe County to support the LEAP District.

Chambers’ opponents in the gubernatorial race have seized on the controversy, criticizing the IEDC for a perceived lack of transparency and failure to properly inform local officials and community stakeholders about the project. Some claim Chambers “put the cart before the horse” when deciding to place the LEAP District in a rural area without reliable water service.

“The current politicians will tell you that,” Chambers told IBJ. “That’s what the current politicians want everybody to believe.”

But Chambers sees the pipeline as a chance to solve a projected water shortage in central Indiana while bringing economic prosperity to the region.

“We would never pull the water if it was going to negatively affect any community,” he said. “But it’s proximate enough to a plentiful water source that we could solve the problem with economic development revenues instead of taxpayer revenues. So the false narrative being thrown out there by career politicians is that we didn’t understand the challenge ahead.”

Democratic donations

Chambers’ history of donating to Democratic candidates is another issue that could follow him during his campaign.

In 2008, he donated $5,000 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and gave to more than a dozen Democratic committees. His last donation to a Democrat came in 2015, when he gave $1,000 to former U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly.

Still, he has given more than three times as much to Republicans as to Democrats—$59,825 compared with $17,558—according to an analysis by the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

Chambers said he doesn’t believe his campaign-contribution history will damage his image among Republican voters.

“I’ve been running a business for 40 years. I’ve been focused on running that business, growing that business and being a Hoosier entrepreneur,” Chambers said. “I think that voters are smart. They’re gonna pick who they think is the best leader for the state into the future, and we’ll let them make those decisions.”•

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story, and an accompanying graphic, incorrectly stated that Brad Chambers grew up on a small family farm near Thorntown. Chambers grew up in Indianapolis, but his grandfather moved to Thorntown from Texas and had a small farm where Chambers spent time as a child.

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7 thoughts on “Brad Chambers brings business acumen to GOP bid for governor

  1. His lies need to stop. He DID NOT grow up on a small family farm outside of Thorntown. This is false information. I live in that area and it has been a topic that really infuriates us. The has been extensive research (reviewing all school yearbooks) and discussion between many people who have lived here their entire lives. He is NOT from the Thorntown area and did not grow up on a farm. Also he did not mow the grass for his neighbors. IBJ if you did a little research and read interviews of Chambers from the past. He and a friend started a business mowing the grass of rental units that his friend’s dad owned. Huge difference.

    1. It doesn’t say he gets up in Thorntown, it says he grew up in Indianapolis but spent time at his grandfathers farm ib Thorntown. That could have been on weekends or summers. It says he mowed neighbors grass, did you speak with all his neighbors in Indianapolis?

    2. Interesting that this article has been edited since my comment yesterday and now includes a typo:
      “Chambers, 59, grew up in Indianapolis but spent time time as a child on his grandfather’s small farm outside of Thorntown”

  2. Well if you are going to outlaw TikTok…then you need to outlaw Apple iPhones that are all made in China with Chinese Chips??? Is this a road we want to go down with a governor???? How about sponsoring a bill to repeal class basketball in Indiana???

  3. What I don’t understand is why the Merchants Bank of China is financing a fund that IEDC opened in Cayman Islands and received $750 million to buy companies and bring them to Indiana, where IEDC gets 20% of the shares. But the merchants bank share holders sued the Wang Xiang, the agent, and they’re looking for the money:

  4. Here’s a guy I know little about except he is the president of RDOOR. These are the guys that stepped on our neiborhood integrity by buying land next to my home and others for a homeless shelter in Indy. You want leadership like this?
    I’m 74 and put all my planned retirement in this.

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