Republican Jefferson Shreve knows that to unseat two-term Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, he’ll need to win over a lot of Democratic-leaning voters.
His advisers acknowledge that he started the race at least 15 percentage points behind the incumbent mayor because that’s the built-in advantage Democrats enjoy in Indianapolis, where they hold every countywide elected office.
But Shreve says he has a winning message about fighting crime and improving public safety. And his campaign sees a recently released poll that puts him just 10 points behind Hogsett as evidence that the issue is moving the needle as the Nov. 7 municipal election nears.
“I believe that there is an appetite for change,” Shreve told IBJ. “I believe that issues of public safety cross party lines. People are party-agnostic to how I feel about my hometown.”
He also has an advantage that other Republican mayoral candidates in recent years haven’t had: money. Shreve, a successful businessman and former city-county councilor who sold his self-storage company last year for $590 million, is largely self-funding his campaign.
That has allowed him to spend millions of dollars on commercials that criticize what he calls the mayor’s failed leadership on violent crime.
While Shreve has weighed in on many other issues, from downtown development to improving care at the city’s animal shelter, his crime-fighting ads dominate the airwaves and are where the campaign has pinned its greatest hopes.
But political analysts say he still faces an uphill battle against Hogsett, who has won his previous two mayoral elections by an average of 34 percentage points over underfunded and outmaneuvered candidates.
On fighting crime
With ads that blast Hogsett for falling 300 police officers short of full staffing and allowing the city to experience a record number of homicides in 2021, Shreve has laid out a crime-fighting plan that mirrors Hogsett’s in many ways.
Both candidates have proposed pressing the Legislature to allow Marion County to require permits to carry concealed weapons in Indianapolis, ban the sale of assault weapons and increase the legal age to buy a gun to 21.
Those proposals would require legislative approval because state law prevents local governments from regulating firearms.
Shreve said he also would hire a public safety director who would “live police, fire, EMS, dispatch—morning, noon and night.” It’s a position Hogsett eliminated in 2016. Shreve’s plan also would ban the discharge of firearms within city limits and increase the penalties for doing so.
Shreve said he also would focus more attention on retaining police officers because Indianapolis has seen a net loss of about 130 officers during Hogsett’s tenure, losing 888 to retirement or departure while hiring 755.
Shreve’s focus on crime and his leadership as a business executive have been enough to win the support of voter Josh Gonzales, a former bar owner who voted for Hogsett in the past two elections.
Until last year, Gonzales operated the Thunderbird bar in Fountain Square and Jailbird on the south side.
He acknowledged that he disagreed with Hogsett officials about COVID-related restrictions placed on bars. But he said that issue was a small factor in his decision to support Shreve.
“The larger issue is the state of Indianapolis itself,” Gonzales told IBJ.
“Hogsett had eight years to sort of redirect things,” he said in an earlier interview, “and it’s pretty apparent that isn’t happening.”
Shreve campaign advisers said the shifting of some Democratic-leaning voters like Gonzales to Shreve are reflected in a recent poll that shows the GOP candidate closing the 15-point gap typically expected against a Marion County Democrat.
The poll of 400 likely voters for Indy Politics and Crossroads Public Affairs showed 47% of respondents were likely to vote for Hogsett while 37% were likely to vote for Shreve, with 16% undecided. The poll, conducted by ARW Strategies, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
“The Democrats Jefferson needs to win have already taken the first step by NOT siding with Joe,” Shreve adviser Mark Lubbers wrote in a text. “The atmosphere is breaking in Shreve’s direction.”
Hogsett campaign manager Blake Hesch dismissed the poll in a statement, saying, “The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day, and we eagerly anticipate the opportunity to earn the support of our community as Mayor Joe continues to move Indianapolis forward.”
Democratic strategist Lara Beck told IBJ that, if the poll is accurate, Shreve has spent a lot of money to still be lagging in name recognition.
‘Comes down to leadership’
When it comes to fighting crime, the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police was so underwhelmed by both candidates that it opted not to endorse either—after having endorsed Hogsett in his previous two runs for mayor.
FOP President Rick Snyder told IBJ that an increase in murders and an unfavorable response to the racial justice riots prevented officers from supporting Hogsett this year. And he said Shreve’s proposals for retaining officers were unconvincing. The Republican also proposed a gun-control plan similar to Hogsett’s, which the FOP opposes.
The FOP is also neutral on the concept of the city hiring a public safety director to oversee IMPD, the Indianapolis Fire Department and emergency services. Snyder said the FOP prefers the direct line of communication with the mayor.
In response, Shreve told IBJ he understands Snyder’s position but said he would be a more effective mayor if he had a director of public safety.
Shreve also faces questions about why he thinks he can do a better job than Hogsett, who has nearly eight years as mayor under his belt and prosecuted federal crimes as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana.
When asked to respond to those questions by ReCenter Indiana, a not-for-profit that advocates for bipartisanship, Shreve replied: “One would think that [Hogsett] would be able to lever that experience … but the body of evidence, in my view, is clear that that work experience that he had heretofore … has trend-lined in the wrong direction through his administration. Again, it comes down to leadership.”
Some voters have said they’re concerned that Shreve’s focus on police overshadows the need for mental health resources and non-police responses to emergencies. The Hogsett administration launched a $2 million effort this year to dispatch teams of mental health providers to nonviolent emergencies through downtown.
Clif Marsiglio, a community activist who ran an unsuccessful Democratic primary campaign for mayor in the spring, said Shreve is too focused on the police rather than these alternatives.
“When we talk to Shreve, it seems like, ‘We need more police officers, more police officers, more police officers,’” Marsiglio said. “And that is not the answer.” Unlike most Democrats, though, Marsiglio said he supports the call to reinstate the public safety director position.
The former candidate is on the board of the Citizens Alliance for Public Safety, a not-for-profit that seeks to “blur the line between the public and the public safety professionals who serve them,” according to the organization’s website. Marsiglio has not expressed wholehearted support for either candidate.
When asked about funding for the city’s non-police emergency response team, Shreve told IBJ he would be interested in “amplifying” the investment because it can ultimately save money where individuals might end up with serious health problems or be incarcerated.
Making the rounds
While Shreve has invested his dollars in advertising, he’s put substantial time and energy into meeting voters one-on-one.
In a typical week, the candidate appears at about 20 events, making about half of those over the weekend.
At the St. Joan of Arc French Market on Sept. 9, for example, Shreve wound through attendees, holding the hand of his wife, Mary. It was an overcast Saturday afternoon, and his team was determined to make one more circle through the Catholic church parking lot to meet voters.
“Jefferson! Good luck; I hope you make it,” a man seated at a table interjected. “I hope I do, too,” Shreve responded.
The Shreve campaign, which is headquartered in Broad Ripple at 6216 Guilford Ave., estimated this week that 192 volunteers have knocked on more than 91,000 doors and made 43,000 phone calls since the campaign began.
But despite what the campaign said has been recent momentum, Shreve still faces an uphill battle, said University of Indianapolis political science professor Gregory Shufeldt. Democrats have won most countywide elections for the last decade, and the City-County Council has a Democratic supermajority, holding 19 of 25 seats.
Hopeful Republicans point to Greg Ballard’s 2007 shocking upset of incumbent Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson, but Shufeldt said he doesn’t expect voters in either party to do much switching sides this November.
“There’s probably not much that could have happened this campaign cycle that would make you change your mind,” Shufeldt told IBJ.
Ballard’s surprise victory was driven in part by skyrocketing property taxes caused by a change in the way the state assessed property. Although many homeowners have also suffered tax increases this year and last, the state and city took some preemptive action to tamp down outrage.
And it’s still unclear if concerns about violent crime will carry much sway—especially because Shreve’s crime platform, months in the making, nearly mirrored Hogsett’s. Beck said the delay and the similar plans were a misstep for the campaign.
“If you want to be mayor, and crime is your main platform, you don’t wait until after the Fourth of July [to release a plan]; you put your platform out there immediately,” she said.
Aside from beating the drum on crime, Shreve’s team also is making moves to show that he is not as conservative as Hogsett’s ads paint him to be.
One ad notes that Shreve received the highest rating from the National Rifle Association during his unsuccessful run for state Senate in 2016.
As a mayoral candidate, Shreve has said he would lobby the Republican supermajority at the Statehouse to allow his gun-control policies in Marion County, even though many conservative Republicans recoil at intrusions on gun rights.
The move might have alienated some conservatives who would otherwise be excited to vote for Shreve, Shufeldt told IBJ. But most Republicans who were likely to vote in the first place will still cast a ballot for him, the political science professor predicted.
One of those voters is Indianapolis investment adviser Roger Lee. The gun-control measures are a tough topic for Lee, who appeared in a short Shreve commercial shot on primary election night before Shreve announced his gun-control proposals.
Lee, an occasional investing columnist for IBJ, supports the right to carry firearms. But he also said it’s easy to shrug off Shreve’s proposal. He compared it with the business concept of product-market fit.
“If he came out mega pro-gun, it’s not like there’s a huge Republican base that’s going to come out and vote for him,” Lee said. “It’s still Indianapolis.”
Prominent GOP donor and Shreve supporter Jim Kittle told IBJ that even if a Republican is elected mayor of Indianapolis, state lawmakers won’t change their tune on gun control to fit the mayor’s desires.
“The chance of the Indiana General Assembly doing that will be the chance that we can build a waterway to the ocean so we have access,” Kittle said. “Zero. Not a chance. Anybody sensible knows that.”
Kittle told IBJ the gun issue is a “red herring,” because the mayor has little to no control over such policies. He said the same is true for abortion, an issue Hogsett’s campaign ads have raised.
Those ads also point to Shreve’s state Senate campaign, during which he promoted himself as someone who would “fight for the right to life.”
Shreve’s mayoral campaign fired back with an ad that accuses Hogsett of raising an issue that “is just not part of the mayor’s job.”
“I’m Catholic. I take my faith seriously but quietly,” Shreve says in the ad. “I believe in the separation of church and state and that my views are mine and your views are yours. I will absolutely not dedicate IMPD resources to prosecuting cases of abortion. Our police already have their hands full, to say the least.”
Democrats have compared the candidate to former President Donald Trump and claim his stances aren’t genuine. Marion County Democratic Party Chair Myla Eldridge said the party is confident voters will see through Shreve’s messaging and support the incumbent mayor on Election Day.
“It’s a … stark choice between the progress the mayor has brought and the Trump-style … politics of Jefferson Shreve,” Eldridge told IBJ. “It just seems like he will say anything to get elected.”
Shreve’s campaign said the abortion and gun questions raised by the Hogsett team are unnecessarily taking up campaign space and are an attempt to divert attention from important issues such as crime and downtown revitalization.
“We need 15% of Hogsett’s normal vote to flip to Shreve,” Lubbers wrote in a text. “This is obvious. And this is why you see the [Hogsett] campaign trying so hard to freeze swing voters by politicizing with national issues.”
Vision for growth
Shreve said he thinks about his plans for Indianapolis as a businessman, which is why boosting the city’s population and development amid competition from other cities is top of mind.
He said the city’s sports and convention event strategy will remain critical if he’s elected. But he said he also will focus on maximizing opportunities created by the splitting of IUPUI next year into separate Indianapolis operations for Indiana and Purdue universities.
He sees the realignment as putting Indianapolis at the epicenter of a STEM and biotech corridor between Purdue’s campus in Lafayette and IU’s campus in Bloomington.
He also wants to see Indianapolis attract an electric-vehicle manufacturer, he said. Factories within the state make parts for these vehicles, but none are EV assembly plants.
The manufacturer could be in one of Marion County’s more rural townships, Shreve said, such as Decatur. He noted that some neighbors might want to maintain a rural feel to these areas, though.
His vision for downtown includes more office-to-residential real estate conversions and keeping Monument Circle open to traffic.
But a key component to making the city more vibrant and more attractive for development is improving public safety, his campaign says. And, for that, the team says Shreve has the necessary leadership skills to implement a winning strategy.
“Everything is converging on the conclusion that it’s time for a change,” Lubbers said, “and that Shreve is safe change.”•