New city-county councilors eager to tackle Indy’s challenges

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Dan Boots

When Dan Boots, an incumbent Democratic councilor who had just been reelected to District 3, took the stage on election night, he called 23-year-old District 4 councilor-elect Nick Roberts the future of the Democratic Party.

“I had a terrible time keeping up with him. He out-raised me, he out-campaigned me,” Boots told an audience at Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett’s Kountry Kitchen victory party in November.

Roberts, a rookie candidate, was the second-biggest spender among City-County Council candidates in the 2023 election cycle, just behind President Vop Osili.

Vop Osili

In a district that Hogsett’s Republican opponent actually carried by 200 votes, Roberts bested his GOP opponent by 800 votes—crediting his persistent door-knocking, which he told IBJ put him at the same house four times.

“There’s always that thought in the back of my mind when I was knocking doors, ‘These people might be nice to me, but will they actually check the box next to a 23-year-old for council?’” Roberts said. “And the answer was yes.”

He is part of a diverse group of six Democratic councilors-elect, who include the council’s first Democratic Socialist and several community advocates. Their election will give the Democrats a 19-6 majority.

Republicans gained a seat with the election of councilor-elect Derek Cahill.

Gregory Shufeldt

All are expected to continue to pursue the pet causes they pushed during the campaign, ranging from decreasing pedestrian deaths to reforming police and criminal justice systems.

Their efforts might result in action. But they also might discover that governing is slow and that progress can be found only by working within the system rather than speaking out, said University of Indianapolis political science professor Gregory Shufeldt.

Here’s a look at the issues they plan to pursue.

Nick Roberts

Roberts will represent Castleton and Geist. He’s focused on improving the roads within his district and investing in public safety measures, although he noted that his future constituents don’t see much crime within their own neighborhoods and have greater concerns about the city as a whole.

Roberts also wants to promote investment in mental health and education programs.

“In my day job working for the trustee’s office in Lawrence Township, I’m obviously involved in a lot of these different issues on a day-to-day basis,” Roberts told IBJ. “It’s been eye-opening, obviously, with the campaign, too.”

Roberts also hopes to work on reupping the revitalization plan for Castleton. In 2020, a plan created by local firm MKSK, the city of Indianapolis and dozens of stakeholders called for a $93.5 million investment, but Roberts said that plan seems to have been tabled due to the pandemic.

The plan also includes the state’s largest shopping mall, Castleton Square. Roberts said he “would love to see [the shopping center] become more of a focus for the entire city.”

Brienne Delaney

In a district adjacent to Roberts’, Brienne Delaney won a competitive battle to represent an area that includes Meridian Hills and Nora.

Delaney is focused on pushing for further criminal justice system reform. The 40-year-old attorney has public service experience as Marion County’s former director of elections and as a deputy prosecutor.

She wants to see continued expansion of the clinician-led community response and the Indy Peace Fellowship peacemakers program, which is making the funding transition this year from federal COVID-19 money to city funds. The group of 50 “peacemakers” engages community members and provides mentorship in an effort to deter crime.

Delaney’s primary win was one of three for newcomer Democrats who unseated incumbents, as she ran a hard-fought battle to oust longtime Councilor Monroe Gray. In the downtown district, councilor-elect Jesse Brown ousted Vice President Zach Adamson. In Irvington and the far-east side, Andy Nielsen defeated incumbent David Ray.

Compared with her peers, Delaney fought the hardest election battle. After unseating an incumbent in the primary, she faced a Republican who campaigned hard in an area the GOP saw as an opportunity.

Osili praised her work at the Hogsett-hosted election night celebration. “[Delaney] decided, ‘I’m gonna kick this guy’s butt,’” Osili said on election night.

She hopes to use her experience in the criminal justice system to work on issues like expanding access to mental health services and reducing the number of illegal guns on Indianapolis streets.

“It’s been a while since anybody with a public safety background has been on the council,” Delaney told IBJ. “So I’m really hopeful that I can use that experience and bring that experience to bear on our council.”

Jesse Brown

Jesse Brown, the self-identified Democratic Socialist who successfully unseated Adamson in the May primary election, will represent areas of downtown and the near-east side.

Brown has been outspoken against Hogsett administration plans, like the plan for Indianapolis to build and own a convention center hotel. He’s since walked back those comments but hasn’t been shy about critiquing city leaders.

He applauded the administration’s work to create the clinician-led community response team and the Assessment and Intervention Center at the Community Justice Campus to better address mental health and substance abuse.

What was missing on the campaign trail messaging, Brown said, “was vision for how to move those objectives further.”

“It was, ‘Hey, we already did this.’ Great. All right,’” Brown said. “People are not satisfied with how things are. That seems crystal clear to me. We need to be doing more, and we need to be doing better in terms of responsiveness, in terms of protecting lives.”

For Brown, his win against the council’s number two leader is a sign of a desire for change.

“To me, the message is clear that people are more progressive than our politicians,” Brown told IBJ.

His priorities include creating more transparency around the appointment of city-governed boards, like the Indianapolis Public Library and Indianapolis Housing Agency; implementing a more aggressive pedestrian safety plan; and involving residents in IMPD contract negotiations.

Andy Nielsen

Nielsen is used to advocating at the Statehouse for measures that help those in poverty. For two years, he was a senior policy analyst with the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute.

Nielsen, whose district includes the East Washington Street crossing where 7-year-old Hannah Crutchfield was killed by a driver in 2021, is focused in part on dealing with pedestrian safety. Last year, the city saw a record number of 40 pedestrians struck and killed by drivers.

Activism on the issue—much of it on X, formerly Twitter—led to the topic taking up space in the Democratic primary. Ultimately, a no-turn-on-red ordinance was imposed on downtown streets, and Hogsett appeared at the press conference announcing the initiative.

Nielsen said the increase in advocacy has shown that the increase in pedestrian deaths is a citywide problem. Councilors-elect Roberts and Brown also have listed pedestrian safety as a priority.

Nielsen told IBJ he hopes the council, with the new additions, can champion solving the problem.

“I say ‘problem’ intentionally, but not as a criticism, either,” Nielsen said. “I think in order to solve a problem, you have to admit you have one.”

He pointed to Cincinnati as an example of a city that has increased pedestrian safety through design, construction and enforcement. The city has a rapid-response team to deal with problematic roadways with short-term solutions, designs roadways with infrastructure for vehicular and pedestrian spaces, and implements targeted enforcement for these areas.

“I want us to bend the curve, and one of those things alone doesn’t work,” Nielsen said.

Carlos Perkins

On election night, Carlos Perkins credited his election—with the one of the highest turnouts of any district, despite being uncontested in the general election—to the Black Church Coalition.

“I stand on the legacy of those that understand the importance of community organizing,” said Perkins, who won a three-way primary. “And so my brothers and sisters, I stand here as a representative of the Black Church Coalition to say our voice must be heard in politics.”

The base of the larger not-for-profit Faith in Indiana in March 2022 pushed Hogsett to commit to funding a non-police response to crises. A month later, Herman Whitfield III died in police custody while experiencing a mental health crisis. The administration included $2 million in initial funding for the city’s clinician-led emergency response team in the 2023 budget and eventually plans to expand it beyond downtown to the east side and to make the program available 24/7.

“[The need for a non police response] wasn’t just a generic issue that we brought to the table,” Perkins said of the Black Church Coalition. “It came out of community conversation; it came out of concerns. It came from pain from mothers, from grandmothers and grandfathers having experienced a loved one that did not get the help that they need when they call for help.”

Still, there have been 18 police-involved shootings this year, the majority of which occurred in the last four months. Perkins plans to continue pushing from his seat at the table, but it won’t be completely new to him. As pastor of Bethel Cathedral AME, at 6417 Zionsville Road, he’s used to public speaking from the pulpit.

He told IBJ other priorities include decreasing youth gun violence, building up the city’s response to climate change with a focus on environmental racism and climate justice, and increasing affordable-housing opportunities and the ability for Pike Township residents to build wealth through homeownership.

Ron Gibson

Democrat Ron Gibson is the only councilor-elect to have previously served on the council. Gibson was an at-large councilor from 2000 to 2007. He plans to use his experience from 14 years as president of the Devington Communities Association to better communicate with residents.

In his upcoming term, the councilor-elect for District 8 plans to focus on infrastructure and working toward a solution for abandoned properties that are owned by out-of-state companies.

“When I think about policy, one that really bothers me is that I don’t think we’ve got any influence over all of the abandoned properties owned by out-of-state companies,” Gibson told IBJ.

Gibson also said he hopes he can advocate to better fund education-focused and after-school programs in a way that can deter youth from turning to crime.

Derek Cahill

Cahill, the lone Republican councilor-elect, said he’s ready to work in a bipartisan manner.

For the 45-year-old, one issue is deeply personal: His son has autism spectrum disorder.

When an applied behavior analysis, or ABA therapy, location near his home closed, the nearest was across the county line—where the school system would no longer bus his son. While the situation was doable for his family, he said most parents would not be capable of picking up their child midday to drive to an out-of-county ABA therapy location.

That showed the need for more therapy centers, Cahill said, and city-county government needs to offer incentives for businesses to fill unused or underused buildings.

“When you look at the mental health services, early intervention is the key to success,” Cahill said. “And if a community doesn’t have those services, then the problems amplify down the road.”

Cahill also hopes to tackle employee retention within the City-County Building. He wants to implement anonymous employee engagement surveys, which he told IBJ could help predict when employees plan to leave their roles within the next year. This would be particularly helpful with IMPD, he said.

‘Hopeful perspective’

The impact of the new council members is unclear, since these individuals will first have to get the hang of a new job and will be just seven of the 25-member legislative body, experts told IBJ.

Shufeldt, the political science professor from the University of Indianapolis, told IBJ that more progressive councilors might have a difficult time coming to terms with how slowly change is implemented by a legislative body.

Ethan Evans, a Democrat-turned-independent who chose not to run for a second term, is “a pretty illuminating example” of being unhappy with the council and choosing to walk away, Shufeldt said.

Shufeldt said that, “from a hopeful perspective,” the new councilors will at least move some conversations forward.

“Whether it’s enough to completely address topics that have been ignored in the past, or to actually pass meaningful legislation, I think at least it stands to reason that it’s going to move the discussion,” he said.

Laura Merrifield Wilson

With Brown joining the council as likely the first Democratic Socialist, University of Indianapolis associate professor of political science Laura Merrifield Wilson said observers should see more obvious ideological diversity in the legislative body.

Wilson and Shufeldt both said those from advocacy backgrounds that have been critical of the administration have the choice of continuing to be outspoken or working more behind the scenes to accomplish their goals.

As these councilors-elect shift from “politician wannabe to public servant,” Wilson said, priorities will likely shift as they begin to address constituent concerns.

They might need to prioritize what is doable and what constituents are asking for rather than focusing on big-picture advocacy goals that led them to running for office.

The councilors-elect will be sworn in on New Year’s Day.•

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