Five Indianapolis Democrats are in a crowded primary election battle to become their party’s nominee for a newly drawn seat in the Indiana Senate.
Ashley Eason, a former not-for-profit executive; Andrea Hunley, a principal at Indianapolis Public Schools; Kristin Jones, an Indianapolis city-county councilor; Bobby Kern, a paralegal and perennial office-seeker; and Karla Lopez-Owens, community outreach director for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, are vying for the Democratic nomination in the May 3 primary.
They are seeking to represent Senate District 46, created in this year’s redrawing of legislative maps by the GOP-dominated Indiana General Assembly.
The new district sprawls across the heart of downtown Indianapolis, from the West Indianapolis neighborhood to Fountain Square and Irvington and the Old Southside.
Candidates in the race have also described the district as an economic engine of Indianapolis. It contains the city’s two largest sports arenas, Lucas Oil Stadium and Gainbridge Fieldhouse; large companies like Eli Lilly and Co. and Salesforce; as well as the city’s museums, White River State Park, Garfield Park and the Indianapolis Zoo.
District 46’s creation sparked immediate interest from Indianapolis-area Democrats, as it sits in a cluster with two Democratic-stronghold districts, 33 and 34, represented by Sens. Greg Taylor and Jean Breaux, respectively. The new district also is projected to lean strongly Democratic in the general election.
One Republican, Salesforce consultant Evan Shearin, has filed to run in the district. Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face him in the November election.
Crowded primaries in Indianapolis can be rare because both Democrats and Republicans hold endorsement conventions, also called “slating,” where the party selects a candidate to support in the primary.
But slating has lost its glow among some Democrats, who see it as a barrier for minorities.
Jones was the only District 46 candidate to participate in the slating process; she received the party’s endorsement. That could give her a leg up with other endorsements and campaign contributions.
“I’ve been part of the party for a good portion of my life. I’ve invested in the party. They’ve invested in me,” Jones said. “It’s really easy to throw stones at it when you just come and show up and you’ve not been part of it.”
Eason, Hunley, Kern and Lopez-Owens joined several Democrats running for other offices in opting out of the slating process, saying it favors establishment candidates.
“I just see it as a constraint,” said Eason, who also skipped the slating process when she ran for and won the Democratic nomination for Senate District 36 in 2020. “And so, for us to be effective as Democrats in this state, I think we’re going to have to recruit a lot more Democrats who don’t invest all their time in party politics.”
Hunley also said the process can be a barrier to women and minorities.
“We have to stand up against systems and structures that are designed to keep certain people out, especially when those people are women or when they are minorities,” she said.
Originally from Texas, Eason moved to Indianapolis in 2016 after working in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. A resident of the Irvington area, Eason said she was compelled to run to provide her neighbors representation in this new Indianapolis district.
Until early this year, Eason worked as an executive at The International Center in Indianapolis, a not-for-profit that helps promote Indiana’s global engagement. She left to focus on her campaign full time and said she would not seek another job if she won the Senate seat, even though Indiana’s Legislature is part time.
Her campaign platforms include supporting mass transit funding, well-paying jobs, health care access for mothers and their children, clean energy and gun reform.
Eason noted that, in a crowded Democratic primary like this one, winning on policies alone might not cut it. She said she is the best candidate for the seat because she is not afraid to go head-to-head with the Republican supermajority.
Eason plans to draw on her advocacy experience in Washington, where she worked with Republicans in Congress, she said. That bipartisan approach will be essential to get anything accomplished in Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislature, she added.
Another goal Eason has is to lead the Democratic Party to focus on how to win campaigns and flip Statehouse seats. She said Democrats can’t focus on pursuing their priorities until they combat the Republican supermajority.
And Eason has experience running a competitive election against a Republican incumbent in the Senate. She ran against Sen. Jack Sandlin for Senate District 36 in 2020 and lost, but with a closer-than-expected margin as she garnered 46.1% of votes.
Hunley is a newcomer to politics, but she wants to bring diverse ideas and her background as an educator to the Legislature.
Hunley has worked as a principal at Indianapolis Public Schools Center for Inquiry School 2 for nearly a decade. Her priorities include supporting public school funding, teacher recruitment, workforce development and expanding pre-K education.
She also noted that none of the senators on the Senate Education and Career Development Committee have backgrounds working in K-12 schools.
“That’s something I would be able to lend a voice to,” Hunley said.
Another priority of hers is supporting mass transit.
Hunley also said she would bring a diverse perspective to the Senate. She grew up in Fort Wayne in the foster care system, before being adopted by her parents. Her parents are in an interracial marriage, and so is she.
Additionally, she said she could use her experience as a leader in one of the state’s largest school districts to work and collaborate with lawmakers in the Republican supermajority and also advocate for her policies. Hunley added that she has lived and worked in areas outside Indianapolis—such as Fort Wayne, Columbus, Martinsville and Bloomington—and that would give her more perspective on how issues affect people statewide.
“I think that I would be able to build relationships, build up a rapport, know when to compromise, know when to collaborate and know when to stand firm,” Hunley said. “I will tell you, that as a mom and as a principal and as a Black woman, knowing when to just hold your ground and stand firm is something that I have a lot of practice doing.”
Jones, who has been a councilor since 2019, in that role already represents much of the area covered by the new Senate district: the west side, Fountain Square and other parts of downtown.
She said she sees this Senate seat as an opportunity to represent Indianapolis neighborhoods that have been ignored in state representation.
Her council seat “wasn’t something that I had set my sights on to use as a stepping stone for further office,” Jones said. “But I’m very effective in being a councilor. I’m very neighborhood-focused and get results.”
Jones said she assisted many individuals and businesses in her district during the pandemic, such as helping businesses apply for loans and helping people apply for rent assistance.
One of Jones’ top priorities, if elected, is looking into changing the state’s road-funding formula to help secure more funds for Indianapolis’ crumbling infrastructure. The city is facing a $1.07 billion annual funding gap to improve and maintain its roads, bridges, sidewalks and other transportation infrastructure, according to a Department of Public Works report released this year.
Her other priorities include equitable health care, supporting unions, improving the state’s schools and education, and improving adult protective services.
Born in Cuernavaca, Mexico, just south of Mexico City, Lopez-Owens immigrated with her family to the United States when she was a child. She grew up in Indianapolis and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009 when she was 18.
With her background, Lopez-Owens said she hopes to bring a more diverse voice to the General Assembly.
She said Democrats in Indiana are at an “all-time low” and the party needs new voices and new ideas. She contends the party is not doing anything to foster relationships with the state’s growing population of Latino voters.
“I want to be part of this movement that normalizes the process by which people that look like me—a progressive, young, Latina immigrant, formerly undocumented—can enter politics,” Lopez-Owens said.
Her top priorities include housing affordability, sustainability, voting access and combatting increased crime rates by building bridges with law enforcement and communities.
Lopez-Owens also said that, while her agenda is progressive, she has the skills to work with Republicans. She noted her opportunity in college to work with the late Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, who was known for his bipartisanship. She worked with his staff advocating for the DREAM Act in 2011, which would have allowed immigrants who were in the United States illegally and were brought here as children to remain if they met certain criteria.
At the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office now, Lopez-Owens works often with Republican lawmakers on legislation.
Kern has never won elected office but is a perennial candidate, running for the seventh time.
A lifelong Indianapolis resident, Kern said he threw his hat into the District 46 race because the district needs representation from someone who will listen and understand voters’ problems.
“I listen, I learn and I act on what the constituents want,” Kern said.
Some of his priorities include expanding post-secondary education opportunities to high school and middle school students by providing more college-level courses and skilled-labor classes. He also prioritized expanding ballot access and rights for convicted felons.
Kern has lost Democratic primaries for various offices in every election cycle since 2012. He has sought the Democratic nomination in Indiana’s 2nd, 7th and 9th U.S. congressional districts and in Indiana House District 98.
Kern did win one primary, in 1998. He won the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 6th Congressional District, defeating party-favored R. “Nag” Nagarajan.
Party leaders then tried to have him removed from the ballot, saying he changed his name from Bobby Hidalgo to Bobby Kern before the election to appeal to white voters.
At the time, The Indianapolis Star reported that Kern had served a year in prison for forgery and theft.
Kern told IBJ his record has since been expunged.
“That’s not who I am. That was when I was in my 20s. I’m almost 60 years old now,” he said.
In campaign contributions, Jones leads the pack with more than $77,000 in contributions in the first reporting period, filed in January with the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office. Hunley had around $33,000 in the first reporting period and had reached $60,000 in March, she said.
Eason has received more than $24,800 in campaign contributions and listed more than $12,000 cash on hand in her filings.
Lopez-Owens said her campaign has raised $20,000, as of the end of March.
Kern said he has not raised funds but has spent almost $70 of his own money on the campaign.