CHIP — “Hackney: A mayoral election is fast approaching. What will uninformed voters do?”

Suzette Hackney, Indianapolis Star, October 20, 2019
Mayor Joe Hogsett laughs as he talks with Colts cheerleaders Hannah and Megan, during Car Free Day Friday and Colts Blue Friday on Monument Circle, Sept. 20, 2019. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)
Jim Merritt, who’s running to be Indy’s next mayor, gives a press conference to talk about his desire to have Bill Benjamin be the next IMPD police chief, Indianapolis, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Benjamin was not in attendance, and Merritt indicated the longtime police officer would make an announcement next week.  (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

I’ve been chatting with individuals around Indianapolis about the Nov. 5 mayoral election, what they perceive as the most pressing issues, and whose campaign they’ve found to be most engaging.

More times than not, I’m met with a blank stare in return.

Just for the record, I’d like to remind folks that there is an election in roughly two weeks. Yet the lack of buzz around this race remains, well, deafening. I fear that Indianapolis residents will either skip the voting booth or enter it with limited information.

No one seems to care about Indianapolis’ mayoral contest. But voters should. The issues are compelling, and this is a pivotal time in our city. A strategy for attacking Indy’s biggest problems — crimecrumbling streetsjobseducationneighborhood blightpovertyhomelessness — should be on the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Maybe it’s the dysfunction happening in Washington, D.C., that has so many people shrugging their shoulders. Maybe it’s the fact that this election is nestled between last year’s midterms and an already-heated race for the White House in 2020.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the candidates themselves.

For such a loud and boisterous personality, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett sure is quiet these days. It’s clear that Hogsett, the obvious front-runner, is playing it safe. He’s not ruffling any feathers. He’s not slinging any mud. Hogsett is handily dodging any roadblocks that could impede his path to victory on Nov. 5.

A perfect example is his refusal to dive into the controversial waters that have dogged Hogsett and his opponent, Republican state Sen. Jim Merritt. For months, black leaders have been calling on Hogsett and Merritt to present a black agenda, a plan that would examine issues through a racial equity lens.

On Tuesday, Merritt released details of his plan to address disparities affecting African American residents, including policies that address education, economic development, housing and homeownership and public safety. Hogsett has said his overall agenda is inclusive and as beneficial to minorities as it is to the rest of the community.

But by sidestepping a deeper conversation about issues affecting African Americans —28% of Indy’s population, according to 2018 U.S. Census estimates — Hogsett has ostracized a segment of the community that has shown the Democrat solid support. Black leaders also believed Hogsett was unwilling to participate in a debate on such issues and were hounding him to do so. One has finally been scheduled for Monday.

Still, Hogsett has been far from invisible. He’s the king of making appearances — at festivals, at parades, at ribbon-cuttings and at fundraisers. It’s been disappointing that, as the incumbent, he hasn’t found it necessary to make the case for a second term in as many public debates as possible. Name recognition alone shouldn’t be assumed or leaned upon.

Speaking of debates, there has been only one — way back in August — before critical and discussion-worthy incidents occurred, such as the Downtown shooting where six people were injured, and the owner of the former General Motors stamping plant scrapping a plan to build a $1.4 billion mixed-use development on the site.

Even then, the debate took place during the Indy Chamber’s annual HobNob, a ticketed event that was not open to the public.

Last month, the candidates participated in a Historic Neighborhoods of Indianapolis and Indiana Landmarks Mayor Forum on Neighborhoods, which while civil, offered no campaign-defining flashes. They also participated in a moderated Q&A discussion on homelessness at the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention’s annual Celebration fundraiser.

On Monday, Merritt and Hogsett will go head to head in a debate hosted by the African American Coalition of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Recorder focusing on the issues affecting the quality of life for black residents. It will start at 6 p.m. at Arsenal Technical High School.

Fox59 anchor Dan Spehler will moderate a televised debate at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Wayne Township school district’s Chapel Hill 7th and 8th Grade Center.

The last-minute debates certainly don’t give voters ample time to research and explore the complexities of Hogsett’s and Merritt’s platforms.

Yes, their campaign websites have been up and humming for months now, but that’s no replacement for hearing a candidate outline and defend their policies and positions.

Merritt, for his part, has tried to run a traditional race and has been outspoken on issues such as crime and blight, though many of his plans lack substance and details. Merritt recently identified his police chief if he wins the mayoral contest. But it’s hard to campaign when your opponent refuses to engage.

It’s a shame that this race has been diminished to safety politics. Sure, it’s easy, but it also shortchanges voters.

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