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Out on the Trail: Zach Adamson's Rise in Indy Politics

Not long ago, running as an openly gay candidate in this city might have been political suicide. Not anymore.

Editor's Note: Zach Adamson was subsequently elected to the City-County Council in Indianapolis, the first openly gay candidate to take that office in the city. On Oct. 19, 2013, he married partner Christian Mosburg in Washington, D.C.

Twenty or so smartly dressed public officeholders, lobbyists, candidates, and campaign staffers are assembled in the swanky bar of Forty Five Degrees, a restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue, sharing cocktails and lobster wontons on a Wednesday evening. They have come for the monthly Indiana Stonewall Democrats Mixer, a casual happy-hour affair where the talk is as often chatty or off-color (“beer for the lesbians!”) as it is political.

Indiana’s Stonewall chapter was established in 2001 as an affiliation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, Democrats and their allies. The group’s events have become a regular stop on the circuit of aspiring candidates and others looking to make connections in progressive political circles. A complete guestbook, if such a thing existed, would include members of Congress, the General Assembly, and the City-County Council, as well as other elected officials of various stature. A fundraiser the group held last year brought in $10,000 for four Statehouse candidates, including current state rep Ed DeLaney. At today’s mixer, DeLaney’s son, Tim, eager and fresh-faced, introduces himself around the room and spreads word of his intention to run for state Senate in 2012.

A drink or two into the soiree, the partygoers slowly move toward a cluster of tables at the far end of the room. A dark-haired, clean-shaven man wearing a black blazer and pressed open-collar shirt stands to address them. His voice rises above the chatter but breaks off suddenly as he darts a look of exaggerated impatience at one particularly talkative table, like a schoolteacher at a noisy convocation. When he finally has the crowd’s attention, he begins by recognizing some of the mixer’s attendees. The woman with glasses and blond hair to his left, he reminds them, is Jackie Butler, a past Stonewall vice president and treasurer, who is running in the 5th (a City-County Council district that runs along Marion County’s northeastern border) against Republican incumbent Virginia “Ginny” Cain, “the most anti-LGBT member on the council right now.” He then gestures toward a man with a goatee sitting at a table on his right, Henry Fernandez, “the openly LGBT member of the Lawrence Township School Board.” (Fernandez, who ran unopposed in 2006 and served until last year, is believed to have been the first openly gay candidate elected to public office in Indiana.) Fernandez, Butler, and Adamson are all graduates of the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute, a national PAC-funded program that offers training to promising political aspirants—and whose alumni include two U.S. representatives, numerous state legislators, and the mayor of Houston.

The speaker is Zach Adamson, a downtown salon owner running for a countywide, “at-large” City-County Council seat in the November 8 elections. In February, hundreds of rank-and-file Democrats showed up at the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis and voted to include Adamson on the party’s slate of endorsed candidates. He then cruised through the May primary with 19,344 votes—almost 4,000 votes ahead of the next finisher.

And yet, perhaps just a decade ago, his run would have been nearly inconceivable in Marion County. Adamson, 40, is the first openly gay major-party candidate to run for City-County Council in Indianapolis. The first openly gay major-party candidate to run for a local countywide office. The first to win a local primary election. As recently as 2005, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national PAC that supports LGBT candidates and public officials, had Indiana on its list of “Horizon States,” one of only 11 around the country that had no openly LGBT officeholders. In February, just a few days after Adamson won the Democratic slating endorsement at the convention center, the Indiana House of Representatives, assembled across the street at the Statehouse, voted 70-26 to approve an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage and civil unions; in March, the state Senate passed the measure 40-10. It didn’t seem to matter that same-sex marriage is already illegal in the state.

"Zach is the model of a modern LGBT candidate," says one political observer. "He has done it all on his own. He didn't wait for the party boss to tell him it was okay."

The Victory Fund “endorses qualified, committed openly LGBT candidates who can WIN at the ballot box.” And evidently, despite Indiana’s mixed record on accepting gay Hoosiers, the Victory Fund thinks Adamson fits that description: The PAC has named him a “featured candidate” in 2011. The Marion County Democratic Party, perhaps buoyed by Adamson’s strong showing in the primary, later tapped two more openly LGBT candidates, Jackie Butler and Todd Woodmansee, to run in district council races. The local LGBT community, after having steadily increased its participation and influence in politics over the past two decades, mostly quietly and behind the scenes, is finally finding a place at the podium.

“The Democratic ticket has never been more diverse or complete,” Adamson tells the Stonewall Mixer crowd. He touts the strength of the lineup, from mayoral candidate Melina Kennedy to the four-person roster of at-large council candidates—made up of Adamson, a woman, an African-American, and a straight white guy. The local Democratic Party, he says, “has really opened up to the idea of LGBT candidates running for office. This is a historic time.” He concludes with a sheepish reminder about an upcoming function at the 501 (a famously bawdy local gay bar), and advises attendees to “wear your best leather outfits.”

The city-county council, the legislative arm of municipal government in Indianapolis, has a total of 29 seats—the four at-large seats and another 25 that represent smaller geographical districts within the county. The body holds the city’s purse strings, and its members vote to enact, repeal, or amend local laws.

Generally speaking, the easiest route to the council is to run on the ticket of the dominant party in a district dominated by one party. But the easy route was not available to Adamson. He lives in the 16th, a gritty near-eastside district roughly bisected by Washington Street, where a popular Democrat held the seat; challenging him would have crossed the party brass. Democrats controlled only one of Marion County’s four at-large seats, which meant the other three were fair game. But running at-large is an altogether different endeavor. You have to cover more ground, in remote and unfamiliar corners of the county. He started testing the water in 2009, logging face time at party functions and fundraisers, then filed his candidacy papers later that year. He spent the next year trying to compile the 400 verbal commitments he thought he would need to get an endorsement at the slating convention. When the primary rolled around, the head start and hard work gave him a comfortable win.

Adamson’s campaign is illustrative. Bil Browning, a longtime observer of Indianapolis politics and founder of The Bilerico Project (a national LGBT blog), says the seemingly sudden emergence of gay and lesbian candidates stems from a refusal to be denied access to the political machine. “Zach is the model of a modern LGBT candidate,” says Browning. “He made himself into the best candidate to run, and he has done it all on his own. He didn’t wait for the party boss to tell him it was okay. He built up his chips with a huge base of supporters. The party didn’t have much choice. It wouldn’t have done any good to oppose him.”

At the same time, though, the Democratic establishment’s willingness to bring the LGBT community into the fold also reflects the changing demographics of Marion County. Starting in the latter half of the 20th century, the party that once counted white working-class voters as its strongest base of support began to rely more heavily on urban African-Americans and the kind of professional, suburban whites that might be best exemplified by former mayor Bart Peterson (and now by Melina Kennedy, his political successor).

Other changes have occurred as well. Although the U.S. Census doesn’t count individuals based on sexual orientation, it does track same-sex “unmarried-partner households.” In 1990, the census reported only 748 such couples in Marion County; last year, there were 3,681, an increase of nearly 400 percent. Over the same time period, the number of 18-to-24-year-olds also outpaced overall population growth in the county. In short, Indianapolis has become more attractive to LGBT residents, and it has more young eligible voters, who, according to Brian Vargus, a political-science professor at IUPUI, “tend to be more tolerant and cosmopolitan.”

“It’s very significant that people are willing to run openly as gay or lesbian,” says Gary Welsh, a local political observer and founder of the Advance Indiana blog. “In the past, that would have been the kiss of death. It’s a testament to the progress we’ve made.”

Still, that progress has come in stops and starts. In 2005, Proposal No. 68, commonly known as the “human rights ordinance,” or HRO, came before the City-County Council, putting forth a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. When HRO went up for a vote, several black Democratic councillors, likely fearing backlash from socially conservative elements in their constituencies, voted “no.” The measure failed—a bitter defeat for Democrat-aligned LGBT activists.

But the matter didn’t end there. Congresswoman Julia Carson, a powerful figure in the Marion County Democratic establishment and certainly the most influential among African-Americans, interceded on behalf of the measure’s supporters. In closed-door meetings and sternly worded phone calls, she expressed her displeasure to Democratic no-voters on the council. “She spoke very candidly to some local leaders who shall remain nameless,” says Andre Carson, her grandson, who now holds her old congressional seat. “I happened to be sitting next to her in the kitchen when some of those phone calls were made, and I was there in person when some of those conversations were held. She was kind of a lobbyist for the LGBT community.”

When the measure came before the council again, several months later, three of the Democrats changed their votes, and HRO passed. It was a galvanizing achievement for LGBT activists, and it secured the legacy of Julia Carson—already a reliable friend—as a great champion of the LGBT community. Andre, a member of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, has carried on the alliance. “My grandmother believed, as do I, that it’s an issue of equal rights, and standing up to discrimination,” says Carson. “At the end of the day, we’re all human beings. We all want good-paying jobs, strong schools for our children, safe neighborhoods, respect from fellow human beings. And those needs are independent of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

“This is the evolution of a community structurally going through change,” says Ed Treacy, chairman of the Marion County Democratic Party. “This is not the same county it was 10 years ago. Accepting gays and lesbians is the next step in the process of the maturing of the citizens in Marion County.”

Off the record, Democratic insiders will tell you that an important part of Treacy’s job is settling squabbles among the party’s racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and ideologically diverse constituencies. “But the gay and lesbian community has been welcomed as part of the Democratic coalition,” says Treacy. “You name the minority, we’ll accept you. LGBT is just another piece of fabric that makes up the quilt of Democratic players.” Adamson, for his part, regards the occasional in-fighting as part of the deal, same as in a big family. “This is what a big tent looks like,” he says, then cites the old Will Rogers quote: “I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.”

The HRO debate also highlights another characteristic of Indy’s LGBT political class: It is often fighting from a defensive position—against “pro-family” initiatives, shrill rhetoric, and the like. In response to a Bilerico Project e-mail query before the first HRO vote in 2005, Cain, the Republican now facing Butler in the 5th district, wrote that “homosexuality is an addiction to unhealthy sexual behavior.” She continued: “The Bible is clear that sex was created and intended within the confines of heterosexual marriage. It is meant to mirror our relationship to our Creator. Who would want to pervert that? Satan ... the author of sin.” She concluded by asserting that she would “never support something that is meant for destruction of human beings and our civilization.” Her father, Dr. Vincent Alig, a psychiatrist, offered testimony in a committee hearing that homosexuality is a mental disorder (a view abandoned by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973).

"We could raise money from the gay community until the cows came home," says one organizer. "But we wouldn't be taken seriously until we actually got a candidate elected."

In the face of opposition like that, it’s difficult to underestimate the value of having friends, like Julia Carson and others, who stick up for you. Which is why LGBT activists, like any embattled political constituency, tend to reward allies who’ve “had their back” (a phrase they often use) with fierce loyalty. In 2006, Kris Kiser, a former Washington lobbyist and staffer for congressman Lee Hamilton, returned home to Indiana to run against Julia Carson in the Democratic primary. He was believed to be the state’s first openly gay congressional candidate to seek a major-party nomination. Amid widespread concerns about Carson’s age and health, the younger Kiser was quoted as saying that Indianapolis needed “a new voice and a new energy.” Some Carson supporters from the LGBT community—and particularly a prominent activist named Marla Stevens—begged to differ. Outraged that Kiser would challenge the beloved congresswoman, they waged a smear campaign in the blogosphere, calling him a “carpetbagger” and, ironically, bringing his intimate personal life under intense scrutiny. Carson came away with 80 percent of the primary vote (although concerns about her health weren’t far off base; she died the following year), and Kiser disappeared from public life.

“How powerful the gay and lesbian community is, is still an open question,” says Vargus, the political-science professor. “They can be an important constituency at times. It’s difficult to talk about them as a major influence, but the other side is their indirect influence.” Within a couple of years of the founding of the state’s Stonewall chapter, the Indiana Democratic Party gave the group a permanent seat on its Central Committee, giving it a kind of hall pass to the party’s inner corridors. At a state Democratic dinner last year, the Stonewall contingent walked out in protest after U.S. Senator Evan Bayh told a glib AIDS-related anecdote; the reaction elicited a public apology from the powerful, popular pol.

In the same weekend, when Brad Ellsworth, U.S. representative for Indiana’s 8th district, sought the Democratic committee’s endorsement to take Bayh’s place on the ballot in the upcoming Senate contest, the Stonewall Democrats were prepared to vote “no,” based on his failure to support a hate-crimes bill and other measures. Ellsworth met with the group in an attempt to clear the air, and they finally agreed to abstain rather than vote against him. Some of the Stonewall Democrats’ leadership came around to supporting Ellsworth before the general election, but only after he voted in favor of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and made other favorable gestures. “He needed to know that the votes he made were more than just political calculations,” says Adamson. “We’re real people with real concerns. These are our lives. We’re not just a sound bite.”

Activism runs in Zach Adamson’s family—a long line, in his words, of “opinionated people.” His grandparents came to the United States from Mexico and eventually settled in Marion, Indiana. His grandmother, Carmen Velasquez, was an advocate for improving working and living conditions for migrant farm workers. (The Indiana Task Force on Migrant Affairs honors her legacy by granting an annual award that carries her name.) His grandfather Albert Velasquez was a prisoner of war in France during World War II. Adamson’s father left the family when Adamson was only 2 years old, and the future candidate grew up in Marion surrounded by his mother’s extended family.

As a freshman at Marion High School, Adamson endured some bullying, he says, until he came out, and after that he was able to enjoy a mostly happy adolescence. He joined the debate team and marching band, and he performed in school theater productions. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and got involved with the Indiana Youth Group, a nonprofit LGBT support organization based in Indianapolis, and, as a senior, tried to get his high school to institute a counseling program for students struggling with gender identity and sexual orientation.

Adamson moved to Indianapolis in 1990 to attend IUPUI while working part-time as a restaurant server and ballroom dance instructor, but he left the university after two years to go to beauty school. He got a job at the Just Hair salon on East Ohio Street, in downtown Indianapolis, and, after a few years, had an opportunity to buy the shop. “Knowing how to cut hair is only half the business,” he says. “The other half is personal relationships, and I’ve always been very good at that.” Now, he has made being a small-business owner one of the selling points of his candidacy. If elected, for example, he wants to promote economic development by supporting vocational training for the unemployed. “I am a hairstylist by trade, and I have been gainfully employed all through the recession, while some of my friends who finished college haven’t,” he says, repeating a common refrain from the campaign.

The political bug bit Adamson in 1991. Louis Mahern, a longtime state senator and Democrat, was running for mayor of Indianapolis against Republican Stephen Goldsmith. (The outgoing mayor, Republican Bill Hudnut, had signed proclamations recognizing gay-pride days, considered one of the city’s earliest official nods to the LGBT community.) Mahern did the rounds at gay functions and bars around the city, and is widely believed to be the first Hoosier pol to seek the LGBT vote. The strategy didn’t sit well with everyone—“He ought to be in the redneck bars,” The Indianapolis Star quoted one Democrat as saying—and Mahern ended up losing. But the campaign helped establish the LGBT community as a viable, if fledgling, political constituency. And it inspired a young Adamson, who heard Mahern speak at the Indy Pride festival, to get more active in politics himself. “His campaign started to engage a group of people who were typically unengaged,” says Adamson. “And it acclimated the Democratic Party and the community to the idea of gays participating in politics.”

In 1992, as the national Republican Party grew more closely aligned with the religious right, Adamson painted his truck in support of the Clinton/Gore campaign and, in subsequent years, was a reliable foot soldier for a cavalcade of Democratic candidates (including Julia Carson). He had conviction for progressive political causes and a knack for organizing. He could get people to show up—for campaigns, for rallies, for demonstrations. In 2001, he became a precinct committeeman, a first step into political inner circles; he and his partner, Christian Mosburg, have hosted fundraisers and meet-and-greets for candidates ranging from prosecutor Terry Curry to sheriff John Layton. Adamson also became a tireless advocate for the city’s near-east side, taking leadership positions in the Near Eastside Community Organization, the Riley Area Development Corporation, the Holy Cross–Westminster Neighborhood Association, and the Willard Park of Holy Cross–Westminster Civic Alliance, which he founded.

When the area needed the city’s attention, Adamson’s neighbors often looked to him to raise his voice. Working with local officials and city-hall bureaucrats eventually led Adamson to the belief that only two kinds of people seek public office: “ladder climbers” seeking power, money, and connections, and people like him, who “have spent years working in the community and are tired of banging their head against the wall of city government.” Too few city-county councillors, he thought, had experience with the kind of street-level problems (crime, abandoned houses, etc.) he confronted on a daily basis. And the old Harvey Milk slogan that “machines operate on oil and grease,” he says, seemed to sum up the kind of sweetheart deals with cronies that he suspected were business as usual. (Adamson cites the city’s leasing of parking meters—to a company represented by the law firm the council president works for—as a recent example.)

By 2009, Adamson had begun to believe that if he were on the council, he could be an advocate for improving the quality of life in his neighborhood and others. And he was getting encouragement from his politically active friends. “We realized we could raise money from the gay community until the cows came home,” says Doug Meagher, founder and past president of the Indiana Stonewall Democrats. “But we wouldn’t be taken seriously until we actually got a candidate elected.”

The driven, outspoken Adamson seemed like a good prospect. As it happened, though, the seat in Adamson’s district was held securely by Louis Mahern’s son, Brian, scion of a local political dynasty.

The driven, outspoken Adamson seemed like a good prospect. As it happened, though, the seat in Adamson’s district was held securely by Louis Mahern’s son, Brian, scion of a local political dynasty. Adamson kicked around the idea of running for an at-large seat, but it was daunting for several reasons, not least because Adamson was gay, and campaigning countywide would expose him to the county’s conservative outer edges. But one day that spring, he and Mosburg were riding along in Adamson’s Jeep when, out of the blue, Mosburg turned to Adamson and said, “You should do it. You should run for the at-large seat.”

“I had buyer’s remorse almost as soon as the words left my mouth,” says Mosburg, who might be the busiest candidate “spouse” on the trail. “We wanted to be very out in the open,” says Adamson. “We didn’t want anybody to be able to come out later and say we were hiding something.”

After Adamson had won his place on the ballot in the May primary, several spots remained open on the Democratic ticket, including the council seats for the 5th and the 21st. Treacy, the party boss, raised some eyebrows in June when he got Butler—the former Stonewall vice president and treasurer—to agree to fill out the ballot in the 5th, against incumbent Republican Cain, whose public views on “homosexuality” were well-documented. Regardless of sexual orientation, Butler, 56, a successful lawyer and judge, is a viable council candidate by almost any measure. And she says she has visited upwards of 7,000 houses for the campaign. But it’s largely a good-soldier candidacy—the district is reliably Republican, and Cain ran unopposed in 2007.

“Ed was very straightforward with me,” says Butler, adding that the party needed to “find someone who will knock on doors, go to the fundraisers, support the mayor, and help create larger turnout among the Democrats.” Treacy, who agrees the 5th is a “tough seat,” says sexual orientation was the last thing on his mind when he asked Butler to run. But, he added, “If she [Cain] wants to make it an issue, it will bite her in the butt.” It’s hard not to see his strategy for the 5th as a kind of dare.

For the 21st, which begins on the near-east side and stretches east to the border of Hancock County, Treacy recruited Woodmansee, 39, also a lawyer and judge. Growing up in the conservative stronghold of Plainfield, he says, “I always thought I was going to be a Republican.” The anti-gay rhetoric of the ’92 Republican National Convention changed his mind. “I thought, ‘Wait, they’re talking about me,’” he says.

Woodmansee came out years later, while he was a deputy in the Indiana Attorney General’s office. A few years later, at a holiday party for the staff of the Marion County Prosecutor’s office, where Woodmansee worked, the man he was dating at the time introduced himself as Woodmansee’s “boyfriend” to Republican Scott Newman, Woodmansee’s boss.

“I was so panicked at how he would react,” Woodmansee says. When Newman heard he was concerned, he called him into his office and told him, “Don’t worry about it—I knew you were gay when I hired you.” Over the years, Woodmansee got used to sexual orientation being a non-issue in the legal and political circles in which he operates. He has served as a precinct committeeman in Irvington for 11 years, and in 2010 he ran unsuccessfully for judge of the small-claims court of Warren Township.

Oddsmakers like Woodmansee’s chances better than Butler’s; in last year’s general election, the district’s straight-party Democratic voters outnumbered their Republican counterparts by nearly 20 percent. But it’s still an uphill climb. He’s running against an incumbent, Republican Ben Hunter, chief of police and public safety director at Butler University and a former city cop (although Woodmansee has scored at least one nice endorsement, from, ironically, the Fraternal Order of Police). “That district is winnable,” says Treacy. “It just depends on how much shoe leather he puts in.”

The cynical view of Treacy’s strategy for the 5th and 21st, offered by Browning of the Bilerico Project, is that “with its history of anti-gay leadership, the Democratic Party has decided that by nominating two LGBT people for these positions, maybe they can try to repair some of the level of trust that the LGBT community has lost in the party.” On the other hand, there might be no reason not to take Treacy at his word when he says, “I’m not looking for gay candidates or straight candidates—I’m looking for good candidates and good officeholders.”

Whatever the case, the stakes, says Browning, are high. If Adamson, Butler, or Woodmansee wins, he says, “You’re going to see a loosening of that mentality of ‘Stay in the closet—we don’t care if you’re gay or lesbian, just don’t make a big deal out of it.’ You’ll also see a lessening of the discouragement of openly LGBT candidates to run.” But if the candidates don’t fare well, he says, the party might use it as an excuse “to shut out the LGBT community from the political process.”

During a typically busy stretch of campaigning late this summer, Adamson spent part of a Saturday in a dunk tank at the Feast of Lanterns festival on the near-east side. It had been a long day. That morning, he had walked in the festival’s parade, throwing candy to children and admonishing one little girl for tossing a spent wrapper off of a bridge and into Pogue’s Run creek. (Adamson estimates that he has walked in close to two dozen parades as a candidate.) He had spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon manning a campaign table, greeting fellow Democrats—state rep John Day, former lieutenant governor Kathy Davis—and a neighborhood organizer dressed in a Ben Franklin costume, among others. He had engaged a retired IPS teacher in thoughtful conversation, explaining that the root cause of the school system’s problems were poverty, which is partly why, if elected to the council, he would work to promote job creation in inner-city neighborhoods by helping small businesses. “That’s why we’re focused on economic development and getting jobs back in these areas—then you’ll start to see schools improve,” Adamson said. He had gamely entertained a buffoonish pair of young men who tried to draw him into a political debate before asking him what the City-County Council was. One of them had insisted on reading Adamson’s palm, and said that when the candidate was 19, “a girl broke his heart,” and that he would eventually father three children. “That doesn’t seem likely,” Adamson had replied, “considering that I’m the first openly gay candidate for City-County Council.”

Ultimately, the fate of Adamson's campaign might lie with that other pioneering campaigner: Kennedy, who is vying to be the first woman to serve as mayor of Indianapolis.

The next day, Adamson, Mosburg, and Cameron Radford, Adamson’s campaign manager, attended a service at Central Christian Church on North Delaware Street. For the Adamson campaign, Sundays are “Church Days”; they attend different services nearly every week, and they always show up early to press the flesh. “I was a little concerned about the African-American churches, but we’ve been running an out campaign, and I can’t imagine they don’t know,” he says. “I’ve been getting a welcome reception.” He often points out that he is the only Democratic at-large candidate who lives south of 38th Street, which, he says, gives him common cause with many black, inner-city voters. After the service at Central Christian, the three of them headed for the near-northeast side for another afternoon of neighborhood canvassing. (Adamson and Mosburg have been out canvassing nearly every weekend since May.) “I haven’t been to my own church in weeks,” says Adamson. “I’m on cue all the time. But it doesn’t start to wear on me until I get home.”

When Kennedy, the mayoral candidate, showed up at the Feast of Lanterns festival in crisp black capri pants, a trim white jacket, and designer sunglasses, retinue in tow, it had the air of a celebrity appearance. Adamson was inside the dunk tank, soaking wet and trying to catch his breath, when Kennedy arrived. Someone asked her if she would take a turn in the tank. “No, I’m trying to win votes, not lose them,” she quipped.

Ultimately, the fate of Adamson’s campaign might lie with that other pioneering campaigner: Kennedy, who is vying to be the first woman to serve as mayor of Indianapolis. The door-to-door slogging, the parading, the festivals and cookouts, and the suffering of indignities—everything short of kissing babies, which he avoids, he says, because he “won’t kiss any strange thing”—could be for naught if Kennedy doesn’t have a good showing. In 2003, when Peterson, a Democrat, won the mayor’s race, his party took all four at-large seats; in 2007, when Greg Ballard won, Republicans took three. As the mayor’s race goes, they say, so goes the council.

It bodes well for Adamson, however, that likely Democratic voters in Marion County outnumber the Republican-leaners. “When everyone shows up to vote, Democrats win,” he says, as in 2008, when the county’s voters chose president Barack Obama with 241,987 votes to John McCain’s 134,313—a difference of more than 107,000 votes. Last year, the county had 36 percent more straight-party Democratic voters than it did Republican.

It bodes ill, though, that observers and experts like Vargus, the political-science professor, are predicting low turnout, the norm for off-year municipal elections. Which is partly why Adamson’s campaign isn’t pushing him as the “gay candidate.” He’s running as a Democrat. “There aren’t gay and lesbian potholes,” he says, his pat response to questions about sexual orientation. He is disciplined about weaving the party’s platform message—particularly on economic development and neighborhood improvement—into his own political narrative: As a small-business owner, he wants to promote other job-creating enterprises around the city; as a leader in community organizations, he has worked tirelessly to try to improve the depressed near-east side, and he wants better enforcement of quality-of-life measures like the city’s noise ordinance. He has raised more money—in excess of $30,000—than any other at-large candidate presently in the race, according to official filings. With a $6,500 donation from the Victory Fund, he was able to hire Radford, his campaign manager, who worked in Senator Bayh’s office and, more recently, for the state Democratic Party. Still, most of his funding, Adamson says, “has come from the straight community, rather than the LGBT community, which is a real disappointment. They will use any excuse in the world to throw a party, except a political fundraiser. It’s like, uh, hello? Civil rights?”

Party regulars have noted that they have never seen more intensive campaigning from the at-large lineup. The candidates—Adamson; John Barth, a healthcare administrator from Butler-Tarkington; Pam Hickman, a northside small-business owner and former schoolteacher; and Leroy Robinson, a high-school teacher in Pike Township—have been running as a team, even though they are, really, competitors: The top four vote-getters win the seats, regardless of party. And Adamson has an edge, if for no other reason than the fact that the candidates’ names will be listed on the ballot in alphabetical order, with Adamson’s first, right below the mayoral candidates. Nevertheless, many attribute the Democratic ticket’s newfound level of efficiency and coordination, at least in part, to Adamson’s considerable organizational skills. “He’s a worrier,” says Mosburg. “And I don’t blame him. That’s his name on the campaign signs. It’s when a candidate stops worrying that you have to be concerned.”

And it’s not just voter turnout that Adamson has had to worry about. Although the campaign has been largely free of negativity, when approached about this story, Adamson was, at first, reluctant. He was concerned about a possible 11th-hour crusade by the “pro-family” forces who carry nasty signs and shout hurtful slogans at people they don’t approve of—as they have, in recent years, on the Statehouse steps, along the Pride parade route, outside a school play, and at soldiers’ funerals, to name just a few of the venues. “I don’t want to instigate the rabid conservative lion,” Adamson said.

Woodmansee, his fellow candidate, knows the feeling. “It would be disquieting to think any of us would lose simply because of whom we love,” he says.

 

Photograph by Tony Valainis

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.