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Indiana Democrats, Republicans Hoping For More Diverse Legislature After Heckling Incident

Cherrish Pryor General Assembly

Rep. Cherrish Pryor (pink sweater) is one of 14 Black members of the Indiana General Assembly. There are 17 people of color in the General Assembly - 16 Democrats and one Republican. (Joey Mendolia, WTIU/WFIU News)

Rep. Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis) was on the House floor when a February debate over school choice devolved into heckling and booing before nearly turning physical.  

“I've been elected since 2008,” recalls Pryor, the House Democratic Caucus Floor Leader. “We have had emotional discussions on a lot of issues. But nothing to the level of disrespecting another person in the institution.”

When she walks the Statehouse halls, Pryor doesn’t see many people who look like her. She’s a Black woman in a building historically – and currently – dominated by white men. Lack of diversity in government is something she’s always known but the heckling incident brought the issue to the forefront.

READ MORE: Tensions Flare As Some Republicans Boo, Heckle Black Democrats On House Floor

“There is a constant fight to have your voice heard sometimes on issues,” Pryor said.

Fifteen percent of Hoosiers are people of color, making Indiana one of the whiter states in the country.

When you compare the state numbers to the demographics of the General Assembly, white Hoosiers are slightly overrepresented. They’re 85 percent of the population and about 89 percent of legislators. Latino and Asian Hoosiers are underrepresented, while African Americans are represented proportionally.

But members of the state’s Black Legislative Caucus say that doesn’t mean much when the party in power is almost completely white.

“It's only legislation from one perspective,” Pryor said. “It’s not public policy from a wide variety of perspectives.”

All but one of 110 Republican legislators are white, as is every statewide elected official. The lone exception is Rep. Peggy Mayfield (R-Martinsville), who is Asian and Latina.

With the Republicans’ commanding supermajority in the legislature, the Black Caucus says its Republican counterparts often disregard their concerns; bills can be passed without bipartisan support. The state GOP has not acted on Democrats' calls for censures and implicit bias training following the February incident.

READ MORE: Republicans Expand Supermajority In Indiana House, Lose Only One Seat In Senate

“Oftentimes [they’re] being dismissive until those particular issues arrive in the majority community,” Pryor said. “And then all of a sudden, what we say then becomes relevant and true.”

Indiana didn’t pass a hate crime law until a synagogue in Carmel was vandalized in 2018. The Black Caucus had been pushing for one most of the decade.

In a December interview, Sen. Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis) noted that he had written a hate crimes bill for six straight years. 

“Not until there was actual damage to a property located in a Republican district did we come to the table with an option or some standard for hate crimes,” Taylor said.

Caucus members still have issues with the current hate crime legislation, and say having more diverse voices in power – on either side of the aisle – would create better legislation for all Hoosiers.

synagogue.jpg
Black Caucus members often point to the state's decision on hate crimes as an example of their Republican colleagues dragging their feet on issues important to minority communities. The vandalism above occurred at Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in Carmel in 2018. Indiana's hate crime law went into effect in 2019. (Indianapolis JCRC)

Increasing diversity within the GOP has been at the top of Kyle Hupfer’s list since taking over as chair of the state Republican party in 2017. He’s not concerned with the party’s current makeup, though.

“I don't necessarily cast [it] as a problem but it's certainly something that we need to improve upon,” Hupfer said.

But minority voters tend to cast blue ballots; some 80-plus percent of Black voters identify as Democrats. When it comes to Hispanic and Asian voters, the numbers get only slightly better for Republicans.

“[The goal] is not to try to convert them to be Republicans. I think that's an inappropriate goal, given where we're starting from,” Hupfer said. “But as we are the party in governance largely in the state, at a minimum we have to build relationships to where these individuals and groups feel like they have access where they have an ability to come and tell their story, and speak their truths so that we can hear them and understand it.”

According to Hupfer, Republican policies on some issues, such as workforce development and child mortality, have helped some minority communities disproportionately. He says the party needs to do a better job of communicating its successes with those populations and is starting to “take meaningful steps to have authentic conversations and build authentic relationships” with grassroots community leaders.

The GOP hired its first director of diversity and inclusion in late 2019 and began a diversity leadership series last year to increase engagement and prepare minority Republicans to run for office. Classes are already underway for the first cohort.

“This is something that we hope continues long into the future. But we have got to build up a bench. And we've got to start with folks who are participating at a local level, who are working on campaigns, who are going to events so that they can build relationships. And then our ultimate goal is to increase the number of elected Black and Hispanic Republicans in Indiana.”

But this week, the party caucused in Evansville to choose a replacement for former Rep. Holli Sullivan, the new Secretary of State. The caucus chose local real estate broker Tim O’Brien. Alfonso Vidal, an immigrant from Venezuela, didn’t make it past the first round of voting.  

“It's going to be a process,” Hupfer said in an interview before the caucus. “We didn't get here overnight. We won't – it won't change overnight.”

Members of the Black Caucus say one needed change would be to take their concerns more seriously than they have been in the past. The General Assembly passed a police reform bill this session that Gov. Holcomb’s signed into law Thursday. But it only happened after mass demonstrations for racial justice over the summer.

House Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers) declined a request for an interview but provided the following statement via email: “We always look to include more diversity among our membership and efforts are being made, especially at the state level, to expand our reach to communities of color and encourage civic engagement at all levels of government. It is a personal goal of mine to make sure our caucus better reflects the diversity of Indiana in the future.”

Bryan Chatfield
Bryan Chatfield ran for Indianapolis City Council in 2019 before being elected to the Wayne Township Board in 2020. "It makes me pick up the phone more and have more conversations with my peers about running for office and getting involved in politics," he said of the heckling event. (Joey Mendolia, WTIU/WFIU News)

About seven miles west of the Statehouse, Bryan Chatfield is taking it upon himself to change what the typical Hoosier politician looks like, starting at the local level. 

“As I got on the campaign trail, I had these biases myself, like, ‘All these folks, they don’t want to listen to me, they're gonna see this Black guy and turn away.’ But that wasn't the case.”

He was elected to the Wayne Township Board as a Democrat last year and now spends the second Thursday of each month at the township government offices listening to his constituents’ concerns.

“Anytime I get sort of comfortable with the way things are going in Indiana, things like that [heckling incident] pops up to remind me that that, ‘Bryan, you're here to really serve. And there’s so much more work to do.’ So it does motivate me quite a bit it.”

But if the state party ever saw him as Statehouse material, Chatfield says he’d have to consider.

“You can't really impact institutional racism or even issues and institutions unless you have a seat at the table,” Chatfield said.

This article has been corrected with proper legislative titles for Rep. Pryor and Sen. Taylor. 

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