Curtis Hill tries for a comeback with gubernatorial bid

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Former Indiana attorney general Curtis Hill (IL file photo)

On a recent Saturday in October, Curtis Hill stood on a stage made of old barnwood and told a friendly conservative crowd in rural Morgan County why he’s getting back into Indiana politics.

“You know, folks, we’re at a crossroads in this country,” the former Indiana attorney general told the audience. “Government has let us down. Those we send to Washington, D.C., you let us down, and it’s time that we choose bold and courageous leaders here in Indiana that fight and know how to win.”

Hill, now five years removed from a groping scandal that derailed his political ambitions, is working to rehabilitate his image as he revs up his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor.

He’s traveling the state knocking on doors, attending Lincoln Day dinners and making appearances at conservative grassroots events. When he’s not on the campaign trail, the former Elkhart County prosecutor is at his Elkhart home with his wife, Teresa, or catching up with their five kids, who are all out of the house now.

Given his unceremonious exit from office, Hill might seem like a long shot for the state’s highest elected office. But in a five-way race, he might need only a little more than 20% of the vote in the May primary election to win the GOP nomination. To some political observers, that gives him a shot.

“If anyone thinks they know how this is going to turn out, it’s because they support one of the candidates,” said Daniel Elliott, state treasurer and former chair of the Morgan County GOP.

“I think Hill has his best shot in a five-way race, given so many candidates, so many lanes, and in a race for governor, so many potential issues that voters will want to know and candidates will feel compelled to address,” said Laura Merrifield Wilson, associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis. “Hill clearly carved a niche for himself in the more conservative wing in the party when he ran for attorney general and has seemed to cultivate a strong, if small, loyal group of supporters.”

At this early stage of the 2024 campaign, Hill faces a steep disadvantage in fundraising, having reported just $20,000 in campaign funds at the midyear mark. The four other leading gubernatorial candidates—U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, former Indiana Commerce Secretary Brad Chambers, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and Fort Wayne businessman Eric Doden—each have millions of dollars at their disposal.

What limited public polling is available suggests that Hill would do no better than Crouch or Braun against Jennifer McCormick, the likely Democratic nominee in the governor’s race, according to poll numbers commissioned by the McCormick campaign.

Hill might not have the campaign war chest of an entrepreneur like Chambers or the establishment backing of a U.S. senator, but the 62–year-old Elkhart native still possesses the same charisma and stage presence one would expect from a seasoned politician and longtime county prosecutor who served four consecutive terms.

His charm was on display at the Hamilton County GOP fall dinner, where he earned the biggest laugh of the night when he pretended to freeze up on camera in a joke aimed at Mitch McConnell, the aging U.S. Senate majority leader from Kentucky who drew national attention on two separate occasions when he suddenly stopped speaking during press conferences.

For a moment, it was a reminder of the Curtis Hill of 2017, who made headlines around the country—and regular appearances on Fox News—for his provocative takes on issues ranging from needle-exchange programs to marijuana-derived CBD oil.

“He was always willing to step in front of a camera,” said Mike O’Brien, a lobbyist who served as Gov. Eric Holcomb’s campaign manager during his 2016 run. “It’s not unlikely [that he’d be] in Congress right now if those things didn’t happen in 2018.”

On the campaign trail, Hill speaks to welcoming conservative groups where the groping scandal is rarely a topic of conversation. Instead, he is free to speak on topics that have become rallying cries for conservative Republicans and critical issues for many primary voters. Hill is critical of mask mandates; diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; the sexualization of children and what he believes to be the weaponization of the justice system, among other subjects.

Fall from grace
Once viewed as a rising star in Indiana politics, Hill was in 2018 accused by four women—including a former Democratic state representative, two Democratic legislative staffers and one Republican legislative staffer—of groping or inappropriately touching them during a party at an Indianapolis bar on the final night of the state legislative session.

The allegations were investigated by legislative leaders and might not have seen the light of day if not for a confidential memo from a law firm that was leaked to The Indianapolis Star four months after the night of the party.

The eight-page document would end up derailing Hill’s chance for a second term as attorney general even though he was never criminally charged. A special prosecutor found the allegations credible but declined to pursue charges, saying he did not believe he could prove Hill committed simple battery.

In 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that Hill’s conduct that night constituted misdemeanor battery, a violation of the rules of professional conduct that brought a 30-day suspension of his law license.

Two months later, Hill was narrowly defeated by Todd Rokita for the Republican nomination for attorney general.

Hill still denies the allegations and said the state Supreme Court’s ruling “shifted his faith” in the justice system.

“I think most people recognize what that was, which was a political hit,” Hill told IBJ. “When you’re a popular conservative, you’ve got a target on your back. I think that folks recognize that we’ve cooperated with the system.”

Linda Chezem

Linda Chezem, a former trial and appellate court judge who served as Hill’s campaign chair during his 2016 run for attorney general and later set up a not-for-profit fund for his legal expenses following the 2018 scandal, said his actions that night were “exaggerated and mischaracterized.”

“The sine die party [at the close of the legislative session] has been legislators and lobbyists and all kinds of behavior for years, and whatever happened at sine die stayed at sine die—until Curtis,” Chezem said.

When asked whether she believed Hill’s statement about a political hit, Chezem said she believed that “the events that occurred, whatever they were in 2018, were handled in a way they would not have been handled had Curtis been someone else.”

Mary Beth Bonaventura, a senior judge and former head of the Indiana Department of Child Services who was Hill’s chief of staff from 2018-2020, had worked for Hill only a few months when the accusations came to light. While she initially wondered whether the allegations were true, she said she came to believe Hill was targeted by a state party apparatus that didn’t want him in a position of power.

“He got there on his own, which made them a little leery, like, ‘Oh my gosh, who is this guy who can get more votes than anybody in the history of Republican elections?’ Here’s a guy who didn’t need them. … They were a little bit put off by that,” Bonaventura said.

She also came to doubt the claims of the four women, which she said “changed multiple times” over the course of several legal inquiries.

“Curtis Hill is not a touchy-feely kind of guy, and he’s not a guy who goes into bars and drinks,” Bonaventura said. “I have never, ever seen that kind of behavior from him in the years I have known him. Knowing him now, I have no doubt that it didn’t happen.”

None of Hill’s four accusers agreed to comment for this story, though all of them testified under oath during the 2020 Supreme Court disciplinary hearing that led to Hill’s law license being suspended.

Mara Candelaria Reardon, who was a state representative from East Chicago, and Gabrielle Brock, former communications director for Indiana Senate Democrats, declined to comment. Niki DaSilva, former legislative assistant for Indiana Senate Republicans, and Samantha Lozano, former legislative assistant for Indiana House Democrats, did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

Testing his credentials
As attorney general, Hill wasn’t afraid to buck party leadership. During the pandemic, he fought against the state’s mask mandate and issued an advisory opinion that said Holcomb wasn’t allowed to place restrictions on religious activities and organizations due to COVID-19.

That same year, he sued the Bureau of Motor Vehicles after the agency instituted a rule allowing Hoosiers to select “X” instead of “M” or “F” as their gender marker. In a 2022 column for the conservative website The Federalist, Hill argued that the governor “tried to circumvent the legislative process” by trying to “sneak in” the rule.

Hill has promised to resume his conservative crusade if elected governor. He has said he will work to ban mask mandates, and in July, he rolled out a proposal to eliminate the Indiana Office of Equity, Inclusion and Opportunity—created by Holcomb in the wake of protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Hill called it a state-funded program that exists “only to pander to identity politics agendas that do not lead to tangible positive outcomes” for Hoosiers. Instead, he would hold “bridge forums” to encourage “open civil discourse with a solutions-oriented focus.”

During a recent campaign stop in Indianapolis, Hill visited a sleepy diner on West 86th Street to speak to the Central Indiana Tea Party Coalition, which would seem like the perfect audience for a candidate who says he’s more conservative than his opponents.

But among a group of Trump supporters and hard-line libertarians, the limits of his conservative bona fides were tested.

When asked by an attendee whether he believes in the independent state legislature theory—a right-wing constitutional theory that posits that a state legislature can make laws regulating federal elections—Hill said he “would have to study” the issue more before forming an opinion.

“I’m not as up on that aspect of government as you are,” Hill said.

“This is a fundamental thing that our Constitution gave us,” asserted Rick Barr, the leader of a right-wing group called Indy Defenders.

“It may be a fundamental thing to you; it may not be necessarily fundamental to everyone else,” Hill responded.

Another attendee asked Hill whether he would support legislation from state Sen. Mike Young, R-Indiana, that would eliminate the property tax and increase other taxes to “free us from not owning our own homes.”

Again, Hill was reluctant to voice approval.

“I think we have to take a look at a comprehensive review of all tax issues,” said Hill, who was also unwilling to say whether he would support eliminating the personal income tax, a proposal currently being studied by the Legislature.

When asked for his thoughts on a specific “Axe the Tax” proposal from Crouch, Hill said it was “a great slogan” but that it failed to offer a replacement revenue stream for the roughly $8 billion in tax revenue that would disappear.

Meaningful shot?

Hill kept a relatively low profile after losing his 2020 reelection bid but has gradually sought a return to the spotlight.

He ran last year in a Republican caucus to fill a vacancy in the 2nd Congressional District after Rep. Jackie Walorski died in a car accident. He was defeated by Rudy Yakym.

Hill also got his name in the news for agreeing to serve as one of two prosecutors in a mock grand jury trial over Dr. Anthony Fauci’s role in the pandemic, but the event, which was organized by a group calling itself America’s Grand Jury, never came to fruition.

To the casual observer, the groping allegations against Hill would seem to prevent him from having a meaningful shot at winning the GOP nomination, but O’Brien, the lobbyist and longtime GOP strategist, pointed to Donald Trump, who won the 2016 presidential election despite facing sexual harassment allegations and whose position as the overwhelming front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination hasn’t wavered in the face of criminal indictments.

O’Brien said he has seen polling that suggests Hill is not the favorite, but that doesn’t mean he can’t pull votes from a candidate like Braun, who also is outspoken on social issues.

Hill also could do what Trump has done successfully for years: Persuade the party base that the allegations against him are part of a calculated witch hunt by government bureaucrats.

“The environment of the Republican Party is that the base is willing to dismiss all of that or use it as fodder. Curtis has said it didn’t happen, and that it’s the Indianapolis crowd coming after him. That’s good red meat in other parts of the state where a lot of Republicans live. I don’t think he’s pulling half the vote, but he’s pulling 10% of it. Can he get it to 25% or 30%? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a considerable impact.”•

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