It was a crisp Friday morning in September, and for the first time in a long time, Monument Circle hummed with life. Drake’s “In My Feelings” played on the Circle’s speaker system as a Colts pep rally got underway. Cheerleaders clapped blue pom-poms together. Football fans wandered through downtown’s heart.
Gone was the human feces that occasionally dotted the streets this past spring and summer. Gone were the homeless, who had been known to accost passers-by. Gone was the out-in-the-open drug use that had become common.
On this particular morning, a more hopeful scene unfolded. City and civic leaders gathered for a downtown clean-up, wearing matching red #BackDowntownIndy T-shirts, part of a $750,000 initiative. Volunteers mulched the Circle’s planting beds and power-washed the streets in an attempt to attract people back downtown, which had become a shadow of its former self in the last few months. Before the crew spread out across Washington Street, they gathered on the steps of the Circle for the pep rally.
In strode Mayor Joe Hogsett. No fewer than 30 seconds into his remarks—“We care about Indianapolis,” the mayor was saying—a heckler driving around the Circle in a white SUV yelled, “You suck!”
It wasn’t clear whether the mayor heard the man. With the vigor of a losing locker-room coach’s plea at halftime, Hogsett tried to rally weary Indy residents. “The last six months have been among the most difficult in that 200-year history,” Hogsett said, referencing the city’s bicentennial.
And then, a record scratch: “Thanks to you!” a bystander jeered. Hogsett rolled his eyes. Any possibility of a cathartic moment evaporated.
Nine months earlier, such an interaction seemed implausible. Hogsett had just been reelected with a historic 72 percent of the vote, and he was sitting on a $1 million war chest for whatever he might decide to run for next. Aside from former South Bend mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, Hogsett was the Indiana Democratic Party’s best-known figure, fundraiser, and de facto leader.
But like everyone else, the second-term mayor has weathered a turbulent eight months. A more progressive city council sworn into office this year occasionally clashes with Hogsett. A new swashbuckling Marion County prosecutor has made his office more independent from the mayor’s. No fewer than 19 days of consecutive protests rocked the city. Three protests over police brutality took place outside of Hogsett’s house. In September, more than a dozen downtown bar-and-restaurant owners sued the city for its coronavirus lockdown policies. Recently, Indiana Senators Todd Young and Mike Braun, both Republicans, have made disparaging remarks about the state of the capital city. It’s a weird, trying time to be a Democratic mayor.
“I understand the political nature of the narrative, because that’s what it really is,” Hogsett says. “But I don’t consider myself—and I don’t think the people consider me—a Democratic mayor. I’m not a Republican mayor, I’m not a Democratic mayor. I just happen to be the mayor. Now, I’m accountable, right? And if people want to criticize the response the city has given, I’ve got to own that.”
People have indeed been criticizing the mayor’s leadership, leaving little doubt the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have dimmed Hogsett’s once-bright political future. But the allure of higher office remains strong, and with three years left in his term, a question remains: Can Hogsett turn the political tide?
Inside the Indiana Roof Ballroom back in January, a different question circulated among the attendees of Hogsett’s second inaugural ball. Even though the mayor had cruised to reelection, Hogsett was still raising money: That night, $300,000 would come in. In his speech, Hogsett acknowledged the elephant in the room. “Many have asked why I continue raising money after recently winning an election,” the mayor said. “‘What are you running for, Joe?’ they ask. My response: ‘That’s my question.’” It was a self-aware nod to his constant campaigning the last three decades.
What Hogsett was running for next was a common question in Indiana politics for much of the 1990s. After serving as former Governor Evan Bayh’s Secretary of State from 1989 to 1994, Hogsett lost three races in a row: a 1992 loss to Dan Coats for Senate, a 2nd District Congressional loss to David McIntosh in 1994, and a 2004 attorney general bid to Steve Carter. Hogsett has a joke that he often tells. He only wanted to be three things when he grew up: lead singer in a rock band, starting point guard for the Indiana University Hoosiers, and United States Senator. The problem with the first was he couldn’t sing. The problem with the second was he didn’t have the jump shot. The problem with the third was the voters of Indiana weren’t interested.
Since then, though, Hogsett has been more careful about picking races. In February 2013, someone (not Hogsett, according to his spokeswoman) registered a number of web domains that indicated statewide ambitions, including hoosiersforhogsett.com. And he has become something of a fundraising powerhouse. Much is made about Republican Governor Eric Holcomb’s $8 million piggy bank, but consider Hogsett’s: For a mayoral run, he raised $6 million. For his 2016 statewide reelection campaign, former governor and current vice president Mike Pence had raised just $6.7 million by the end of 2015.
Prior to the pandemic, Hogsett had put together a solid mayoral résumé, if not a bold one. His campaign efforts on the behalf of his fellow Democratic city councillors essentially defeated Unigov, the 1970 legislation that consolidated Indianapolis and Marion County governments and led to more Republican representation there. He also checked off bread-and-butter governance to-dos, such as passing the city’s first balanced budget in a decade, announcing a new community justice campus, and playing a pivotal role in getting a long-term Pacers deal. On matters of social justice, he became one of the first mayors in the country to push for the firing of a police officer after IMPD shot an unarmed Black motorist, Aaron Bailey, in 2017. Aides say the day an investigation into the matter produced no charges left Hogsett the most emotional they had ever seen him during his time in office.
Last November, voters rewarded him. His electoral victory was the largest in modern Indianapolis history. “That only happens if you’re doing a damn good job,” says former Sen. Evan Bayh, who speaks weekly with Hogsett.
According to Indianapolis Democratic insiders, Hogsett has quietly been positioning himself to run for statewide office. Last month, he was scheduled to make a few of his first campaign stops, including a speech to the Vanderburgh County Democrats at an Evansville hotel, according to an invite obtained by Indianapolis Monthly.
But then things began to turn. Within 24 hours of Hogsett getting sworn in for his second term as mayor, the World Health Organization learned of a virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. Hogsett jumped into action, taking a hardline approach to pandemic safety on everything from enforcing a mask mandate to limiting bar service to shutting down cultural thoroughfares like Mass Ave. All of which earned him criticism—and later a lawsuit—from a broad swath of restaurant and business owners. He was also accused of not addressing the decay of downtown this spring, and of not being tough on crime.
When looters smashed windows and stole merchandise over the course of two nights in May, some accused him of giving the perpetrators a pass because few of them were prosecuted. The owner of Windsor Jewelry just off Monument Circle, Greg Bires, told Indianapolis Business Journal that Hogsett instructed IMPD to stand down during the protests and riots. And as open drug use became more common on the Circle in the weeks that followed, business owners there only became more angry.
Hogsett defends his handling of the crisis downtown. “I think we’ve made it clear that IMPD was empowered to arrest anyone that was committing a crime,” he says. “Now, what my good friend over at Windsor Jewelry—who I had a very, very good conversation with a couple of weeks ago—what he may be confusing is, once an arrest is made, then it goes to the prosecutor’s office. For whatever reasons, perhaps justifiable, the Marion County prosecutor [Ryan Mears] has decided not to prosecute low-level criminal activity. At some point, it gets very frustrating for business leaders, just as it gets frustrating for IMPD, when they know that if somebody is engaged in criminal activity there’s not going to be any prosecution made. And I use drug dealers as an example, because if they know they may be arrested, but then they’re going to get let go and not prosecuted, they’re going to deal drugs openly. So that may be what the confusion is.”
Mears confirms that his office has been selective in prosecuting cases this year. “We don’t have infinite resources, so we need to make sure we’re dedicating our resources to the people who pose the biggest threat,” he says. “But the second part of that is we also need to make sure that people in the community see the prosecutor’s office as an agency that wants to help.”
In addition to the challenges downtown, Hogsett has faced condemnation on other fronts. During the mayoral re-election, he didn’t deliver an agenda to improve the lives of Black people in the city, which frustrated some constituents. Instead, he argued his policies boosted all citizens. Black community leaders demanded a revised use-of-force policy banning chokeholds, which Hogsett eventually delivered. In late summer, the Black Lives Matter protests became targeted at the mayor himself, in part due to his institution of a curfew. “They have been to my house on three different occasions,” Hogsett says. “Two of the three occasions were extraordinarily peaceful. I mean, they were protesting, so it wasn’t that they were quiet, but there was really not much of an imposition of a threat. One particular evening, they got a little animated. A couple of people jumped up on the front porch, knocked on the door, and implored me to come out and speak to them. That was a bit unnerving for my family.”
Dan Parker, a longtime Hogsett friend and the director of the Department of Public Works, puts it this way: “It’s not the second term anyone thought it would be, but you have to deal with the crises,” he says. “You cannot hide and, pardon my French, you cannot bullshit when you’re in city government.”
As for Hogsett’s previously planned statewide travel before the pandemic and BLM protests that some have construed as fundraising for a run for higher office, he frames it as being aimed at helping other candidates. “Had it not been for the pandemic, I might’ve done a few more of those types of dinners,” he says. “But again, it was more out of a commitment that, ‘OK, last year I focused on myself. Now I need to help people who over the years have helped me.’”
Despite the setbacks of 2020, Hogsett will likely be wooed by national Democrats to run for a statewide office. Some want him to consider challenging Republican Senator Todd Young in 2022, whose first six-year term will be up that year. Indiana Republicans, too, are eager for him to be the candidate, and would likely paint his time in office as ineffectual compared to the likes of former Indianapolis mayors such as the late Dick Lugar. “He looks like a guy who is just disengaged,” says one top Indiana Republican who asked to remain anonymous. “That is wholly inconsistent with what we think of as Indianapolis mayors in the Lugar, Hudnut, Goldsmith, Peterson, Ballard tradition. These are guys that all did big things. He’s got total control of the government. He comes out with a huge electoral victory, and we’re supposed to believe the guy is powerless? That is not what we expect of our mayors.”
Democrats on the council who occasionally tangle with the administration have nevertheless lauded Hogsett’s response to the crises. “The riots and the protest have really given us a lot to think about, and he would be wise to be more responsive, but he’s done a lot of good,” says council vice president Zach Adamson. “He’s thinking 10 steps ahead,
pandemic-wise. The protest and rioting, that is not something people from Indiana are accustomed to. He’s done better than I would expect anyone else to do.”
Hogsett’s term as mayor doesn’t end until 2023, and he says he has no immediate plans to run for higher office, particularly before the coronavirus crisis is over. His allies say that if he quietly aspires to that, he needs to mount a comeback for the city. If he is able to do that, his own fortunes may turn, too. “A lot can change in a year, and three years is an eternity,” says one Indianapolis Democratic insider. “Much like the current perception of Indy’s downtown, people have made the mistake of thinking Joe’s political career is dead. I wouldn’t bet against either.”