The Continuing Criticism Of Trey Hollingsworth
When Hollingsworth ran for Indiana’s ninth congressional district seat in 2016, many accused him of having little connection with the Hoosier state. As he runs for reelection this fall, some say that problem has actually gotten worse.
It was pitch black and freezing when a group of visitors arrived in Scottsburg on a Monday morning last December, just days before the House was set to vote on the final Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. They had come from all corners of Indiana’s ninth congressional district—a red-hued swath of south-central Indiana that stretches from Greenwood down to the Ohio River. Bundled in heavy coats and standing outside Goat Milk Stuff, a family-run business specializing in goat’s-milk products, the constituents were there to voice their concerns to their congressman, Trey Hollingsworth, who was scheduled to hold a “Tax Reform Town Hall.”
The reason they were standing outside and not in the warmth of Goat Milk Stuff was simple: They hadn’t been invited. The town hall—which was to have been Rep. Hollingsworth’s first since being elected 13 months earlier—wasn’t really a “town hall” at all, not in the traditional, open-forum, all-are-welcome sense. Hollingsworth had publicized it only on the Scott County Chamber of Commerce website, and it was limited to the first 100 people to RSVP. The host of the event was Americans for Prosperity, a prominent arm of the Koch brothers’ network.
When word trickled out on Twitter in the days before the event, the backlash was immediate. Constituents had been calling for Hollingsworth to hold a town hall since his first recess in office, and many criticized the secretive, closed-door circumstances surrounding the gathering. Liz Watson, a labor attorney from Bloomington who would soon become Hollingsworth’s Democratic opponent in this year’s election, organized the group of about two dozen ninth-district residents who decided to show up in Scottsburg, invite or not, to make sure Hollingsworth heard their concerns about the bill before heading back to Washington to vote.
Instead, it was Jim Jonas, owner of Goat Milk Stuff, who greeted them. “I appreciate you guys coming out today,” Jonas said, walking out to meet the group. “I’m sorry Trey didn’t make it. We were as surprised as anybody.”
The official reason for the cancellation, according to an emailed statement by Hollingsworth’s head of communications later that day, was threats of “planned violence.” But when questioned further by reporters, his office refused to release any other details, referring all inquiries to Capitol Police. (Watson says her campaign staffers called both Capitol Police and the Scott County Sheriff’s Office that morning to assess the danger, and were told that there was no threat. Neither Capitol Police nor the sheriff’s office responded to requests for this story.)
Some say Hollingsworth’s no-show in Scottsburg typifies his time in Congress. When he moved to the ninth district from Tennessee just months before the 2016 primary, the multimillionaire was blasted by opponents in both parties for having little connection to Indiana. Once he got elected, that became irrelevant for many Republicans. For his detractors, however, Hollingsworth’s “carpetbagger” origins are at the root of his failure to adequately represent the people of his district. He’s unavailable back home, they say, and he’s unaccountable out in Washington, with a voting record that indicates he’s more responsive to his donors than to his constituents. In fact, critics argue, Hollingsworth—who once owned a factory here that he recently sold—has even less connection to the Hoosier state today than he did when he first stepped into office.
In the fall of 2015, Trey Hollingsworth was an unknown 32-year-old real-estate developer from Tennessee entering a crowded ninth-district primary. His wealth quickly separated him from the pack. During the primary alone, he spent $1.5 million of his own cash, while his dad, through a super PAC, added another $500,000, most of it on attack ads directed at fellow candidates Greg Zoeller, the outgoing attorney general, and state senator Erin Houchin. Newspaper op-eds across the district skewered him for his lack of Hoosier credibility. Jim Pfaff, an early Republican candidate who dropped out of the race to support Zoeller, penned a letter to the Brown County Democrat stating: “Trey Hollingsworth is not a Hoosier. He’s never been a Hoosier … [he] has the political itch and moved to Indiana to buy a Congressional seat.”
None of it stuck, though. Hollingsworth, riding the “outsider” wave of 2016, took home 33 percent of the Republican vote in the May primary—far short of a majority, but enough of a plurality due to the intra-party competition to advance to the November general, where he defeated Shelli Yoder by 13 points (in a district that Donald Trump won by 26).
In the two years since, Hollingsworth has faced a growing chorus of criticism from back home, where his failure to hold a single town hall has been a particular point of contention. In a poll conducted by the Jeffersonville News and Tribune, Hollingsworth’s hometown newspaper, 80 percent of respondents thought the freshman congressman should hold a town hall during the recess. He never did, though—not on healthcare, or tax reform, or gun control, or immigration, or even tariffs, which have affected many people in the ninth district whose votes he depended on two years ago.
Baron Hill, who represented the area from 1999–2005, and then again from 2007–2011, knows something about facing constituents during turbulent times. The Democrat was in office as his party tried to pass the Affordable Care Act. “A normal town hall meeting would draw about 40 or 50 people,” Hill says. “But at the two town halls I had in August of 2010, one in New Albany and one in Bloomington, we drew over a thousand to each one.” Half the room was dead-set in opposition—it didn’t matter how long he stood in front of the crowd answering questions and explaining the ins and outs of the bill. Three months later, Hill was voted out of office.
“That’s what democracy is all about,” Hill says, when asked how important it was for him to meet with voters, even though he knew Republicans in his district opposed him on that issue. “You’re not effectively representing your constituents if you don’t hear from them. It’s the most important thing you can do as a member of Congress.”
Some voters in Hollingsworth’s district today complain they haven’t heard from him at all. “You’ve got a young, completely inexperienced but extraordinarily wealthy person who moved to a district he knows nothing about, and then never shows up and talks to the constituents,” says Kate Hess Pace, executive director of Hoosier Action, a nonpartisan community organizing group in Southern Indiana. “It feels like he’s the embodiment of the brokenness of our democracy.”
That sentiment can be heard in pockets across the district, from people who have either felt slighted—the residents of deep-blue Bloomington, the most populous city in the district, have to drive an hour to reach a Hollingsworth office, for instance—or just generally ignored by the freshman congressman. Consider last fall’s South Central Opioid Summit. The event, which was put on by the Monroe County Government, drew more than 600 attendees from 11 area counties. Senators Joe Donnelly and Todd Young were both asked to record a statement, which they did, delivering strong messages about funding efforts to address the epidemic, a commitment they then backed up this past spring by jointly introducing a pair of bills aimed at combating the crisis.
Shelli Yoder, Hollingsworth’s former opponent—she was tagged “Socialist Shelli” in ads paid for by Hollingsworth’s dad—reached out to the congressman in her role as a Monroe County councilwoman to invite him to attend, but she never received a definitive answer. “I got placed on his mailing list,” she says with a laugh. (Hollingsworth’s staff says the congressman was ultimately unavailable on the day of the summit because of votes in Washington, but he later toured one of the addiction-treatment facilities featured in that meeting.)
When you talk to Republican party officials in the district—some of whom initially opposed Hollingsworth—they paint a completely different picture of his representation, praising his phone-banking prowess, his willingness to knock on doors, and how he often pops into local businesses when he’s home from Washington. “I think he has grossly exceeded my expectations,” says the sheriff and Republican party chair of Clark County, Jamey Noel. “It’s refreshing. Sometimes in politics, unfortunately, people will say anything to get elected. That’s not the case with Trey.”
Hollingsworth supporters say he prefers a more personal, individualized approach to connecting with constituents. From their perspective, the criticism about him not having had a town hall, or his lack of an office in Bloomington, is overblown by those on the left. “Let me put it this way,” says Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, a conservative pundit who runs IndyPolitics.org. “If I was a Republican congressman in the ninth district, would I really want to set up shop in the People’s Republic of Monroe County and just have a bunch of granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing hippies beat the hell out of me on everything that I do?”
And that’s the thing about trying to assess Hollingsworth’s commitment to his home district: There’s little hard data to cite, few official public records to quantify just how present he has been. To some in Southern Indiana, Hollingsworth is an absentee congressman. To others, he’s the smiling guy who stops by for an iced tea. For those seeking a more definitive answer, it may be better to look at what happens away from home, out in Washington, D.C.
Indiana’s ninth congressional district is an overwhelmingly rural, working-class one, made up of farming and manufacturing communities, many of which are struggling to keep pace economically. It’s an area of varied concerns. Voters in places like Clarksville and New Albany worry about tariffs and affordable housing. In Charlestown, it’s private-property rights and brown water coming out of the pipes. In Crawford County, they need reliable high-speed internet and cell service south of I-64. Everybody, all over the district, talks about jobs and the opioid crisis. However, of the two bills Hollingsworth personally sponsored in 2018, one was aimed at helping venture-capital funds access new assets, while the other allowed banks to get back into the payday lending game, offering small-dollar loans with interest rates of up to 300 percent, something the FDIC put a stop to in 2013.
Hollingsworth’s focus on deregulating the financial industry is a trend, says Carter Dougherty, spokesman of the left-leaning Americans for Financial Reform. “Just about every time Trey Hollingsworth gets a chance to roll back a consumer protection,” he says, “or a rule that helps avoid a repeat of the financial crisis, he does it.” Hollingsworth’s voting record is directly correlated with the source of his campaign contributions, Dougherty claims, adding that the congressman clearly represents the banks.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, of the $1.13 million that Hollingsworth has raised in 2018, $499,200 has come from the financial-services industry, which amounts to more than 40 percent of his total funds. That number sets him far apart from his colleagues in the House, who on average receive around 14.7 percent of their campaign contributions from the financial sector.
Hollingsworth’s reliance on contributions from banks is indicative of a larger issue, say critics like Hess Pace, who’s been on the ground organizing voters for the past year. In 2016, Hollingsworth was almost entirely self-funded, which allowed him to sell the narrative that he was the only candidate who wasn’t beholden to special interests. That’s no longer the case. Only $747 has come out of his own pocket this time around, and just $10,000 is from small-dollar individual donations, typically an indication of on-the-ground, grassroots support. By comparison, Watson has pulled in $263,000 from small-dollar donations during the same span, and outraised Hollingsworth both in-state and within the ninth district. That lack of financial support from his constituent base has caused him to rely heavily on wealthy out-of-state donors and corporate PACs, such as those associated with commercial banks and investment firms. And that, Dougherty says, comes with a price tag: “Money is how Wall Street gets what it wants.”
Perhaps no piece of legislation is more frequently cited by critics as an example of who Hollingsworth represents in Washington than the “pass-through” provision that was a part of the final tax bill, itself criticized as a huge giveaway to corporations and wealthy individuals. Originally intended for small business owners and “job creators,” the final version of the provision included a loophole that allowed owners of large-scale real-estate holdings—companies that typically have few, if any, employees—to capitalize on the 20 percent deduction as well.
The loophole is expected to be very beneficial to Hollingsworth, who collects rent from 41 different LLCs according to his financial disclosure. An assessment generated by the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows that he’s projected to save as much as $4.5 million in 2018 on the “pass-through” provision alone, the largest tax cut in Congress by more than $2 million. “He’s got his hand in the cookie jar!” says Watson, who accuses Hollingsworth of being exactly the kind of self-dealing political insider he claimed not to be when he ran as a businessman outsider in 2016. “Trey Hollingsworth,” she says, “is the definition of The Swamp.”
To his credit, the congressman is willing to discuss his first term in office and some of the criticism he has faced. Friendly, big-voiced, and energetic, Hollingsworth—who says he makes 500 random constituent calls a week—insists on first names, dishes out flattery, and thanks you for taking the time to speak with him. It’s easy to see why he prefers a more personal approach. In terms of his presence in the district, Hollingsworth cites his many trips to schools, farms, and manufacturing facilities in all 13 counties, and he calls it a “terrible shame” that “people want to say they’re not fairly represented just because they’re in the small minority of people in a district that feel a certain way.” Asked why he doesn’t have an office in Bloomington like his predecessor Todd Young, Hollingsworth jumps at the chance. “That’s a great question! I’m glad you asked that,” he says, explaining the logistics behind placing his two offices in Jeffersonville and Greenwood, right off I-65. “I want to make sure that everyone can access these offices,” he says. “And you know, Todd Young was from Bloomington, so that’s why he had a small satellite office there.”
Hollingsworth is a little less direct when talking about his campaign contributions, sidestepping questions about the source of his funds, and focusing instead on his role as a member of the House Financial Services Committee, where he says his main focus is to “provide relief from the Dodd-Frank Act and ensure that Hoosiers can access the credit they need to achieve their American Dream.” He insists that small community banks in Indiana have closed thanks to “heavy-handed” regulations.
There is only one thing the congressman isn’t willing to comment on. Back in 2016, when he first ran for office, a key part of Hollingsworth’s campaign was his ownership in Alexin, an aluminum manufacturing facility in Bluffton, Indiana. It was the one tangible tie to the state he could point to when his Hoosier bona fides were challenged, and he flooded the airwaves with TV commercials showing himself with a hard hat on, dress-shirt sleeves rolled up, walking the floor of the factory and chatting with employees. The message was clear and repeated often: Trey Hollingsworth is an “Indiana job creator.”
Two years later, that’s no longer true. In late January, about a month after Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and a week after the secretary of commerce submitted a report to the president recommending aluminum tariffs, Hollingsworth sold Alexin to a Canadian company. His cut, according to a transaction report filed with the U.S. Clerk’s office, was as much as $25 million. It was, Watson and others say, the last Hoosier connection he had.