EMILY STYRON had herself a week. The Democratic first-term mayor of Zionsville, who won her November 2019 election in the ruby-red suburb by a mere 88 votes, went on an expletive-laden Facebook tear in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting that claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers last week.
“Fuck you,” she told a commenter. “I am so sick and tired of the stupid, useless rhetoric by jack asses like you when it comes to gun regulation. Fucking sick and tired of mass murders if (sic) OUR OUR FUCKING CHILDREN, It’s time for the majority who know that gun permits and banning automatic weapons is COMMON FUCKING SENSE.”
When the commenter asked whether she was an English major in college, Styron replied: “english and political science. And the fucking mayor of this town.”
Guy Relford, a right-wing gun advocate and Zionsville resident, himself no stranger to F-bombs, took a dig at the mayor’s language.
What happened next: People reflexively took to their partisan corners. Indiana GOPers tried to make hay of her comments, finding a political target ahead of her re-election bid next year, pointing out they violated the town’s own social media policy. “The comments from the mayor are disgusting and beneath the office she holds,” Luke Thomas, a spokesperson for the Indiana Republican Party, told The Indianapolis Star. (This, after years of never similarly calling out former President Donald Trump for his language.)
Local reporters at nearly every outlet swarmed Styron for interviews. Then the nationals called: The Washington Post and The New York Times. One influential Indiana Democrat told me they wanted Styron’s words printed on a T-shirt.
On Wednesday, running 20 minutes behind schedule because of media interviews, Styron sat down with me to talk about the imbroglio that followed, whether there’s a double standard when it comes to women cursing in political speech, and whether Democrats nationally have a so-called “wokeness problem,” as James Carville has said. The Democratic strategist is headlining Hoosier Democrats’ biennial Big Dem Weekend on June 17–18 at the Indiana Convention Center.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you and what were you doing when you posted these comments?
I woke up. I really didn’t sleep well the night before, to be honest, and I just woke up raging mad—just at everything.
My oldest child was just getting out of elementary school when Sandy Hook happened. My youngest child is just getting out of fourth grade.
Fundamentally, I feel like our country has got to fix this long-standing issue with what does it mean to have sensible, safe gun ownership in our communities.
I’m a mom. I’m a mayor. I think about the community that I serve. And I think about that mayor of that latest community in Texas and how horrific it is to not have more tools in our toolbox to prevent senseless tragedies like that from happening.
I’m a passionate person. I’m not a demure wallflower kind of person. And I came to work just really, really, really mad. And all I could think of was: How do we make this the last time? How do we make their lives mean something in terms of actionable policies and legislation that introduce more sensible requirements for gun ownership and help make everyone in our churches, our schools, and everywhere safer? And I had posted some things on my personal Facebook account.
I had a local business owner who was also posting similar kinds of things and I just reacted to that. And then, you know, posts from another person with that narrative that I can’t tolerate much anymore: It’s mental illness that kills them. It’s not guns and blah, blah, blah, blah.
I responded with all of that anger, rage, and frustration, at that moment. I responded like a mom, like a mayor, like a human who is just completely at the end of listening to these old tired excuses for why we don’t protect our communities better from gun violence.
Where were you?
I was in Zionsville in my office.
Had you had any interactions with the commenter before? Is there some backstory?
No idea who he was.
And what was your first reaction when you saw Guy Relford’s Twitter post?
I don’t know that I ever saw that. And I don’t know who that guy is. What does he do?
He’s a Zionsville resident and radio host and gun advocate.
But on which station?
He’s the Gun Guy at Emmis-owned WIBC on Saturdays from 5–7 p.m. He’s used language similar to yours on social media before. Do you think that there’s a double standard about what a woman can’t say in political speech that a man can?
There are perceptions of what women should be in all ways that are different from perceptions of what men should be. I think that is probably ingrained in our DNA. I don’t really fault folks too much for it.
I grew up in North Carolina. I had the best dad in the world. I’ve worked in police departments and fire departments. I’ve worked in a lot of places with men. I was in an IT company where, for a long time, I was the only woman on staff. I don’t have any trouble having good conversations with a lot of different men and a lot of different positions that are more tailored toward men in general.
I think that I want to be really clear. For me, my strong reaction that day is all surrounded by what happened in Texas and what has happened for years and years and years and years and years. I reacted from a point of just extreme anger at our inability to elect politicians and legislators who are going to implement sensible gun sense laws across our country.
I want to read you the statement of an Indiana Republican, Mark Warner, a former staffer for Mike Pence. On Twitter, he wrote: “I promise you if this was an Indiana Republican Mayor, the Dems and the media would be calling for his/her resignation, but so far I’ve seen them celebrate and encourage it. It’s disgusting and isn’t needed, especially from our local leaders.” What’s your reaction to that?
Well, my reaction is: How did he feel about President Trump’s language? What I suspect is, they see the enormous outcry of support for what I said, and that makes them nervous. So they’re working to try to create divisiveness in our community and further inflame emotions. And that’s unfortunate, but they’re politicians. What if this had been at Eagle Elementary here in Zionsville, right up the road? What would the appropriate response have been?
Now I’ll read you a text that I got from a fellow prominent Indiana Democrat about your comments: “She’s a good person, she probably went too far. But the other side are bullies. So, it was about time someone smack them.” I also heard from another Indiana Democrat who said that they want what you said on a T-shirt.
There has been such a widespread concurrence to the sentiment, not necessarily the language, but the sentiment.
Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, a fellow Democratic mayor who is running against Republican Sen. Todd Young for the U.S. Senate in 2022, is a former Navy submariner. I asked him this week who could win in a swear-off between you and him.
I actually kind of love you. That’s fantastic.
He told me he thought, given his Navy background, he could win.
I concede to the statesman from the North.
Closer to home in Zionsville, you have a tough re-election fight next year. You’ve butted heads with the Republican City Council there. Does this Facebook post put you at risk in a Republican-leaning town?
I want to say that I am a human being and a mom before I’m a politician. I’m also a damn good mayor. And you can quote me on that. I am going to let the voters of this fine town decide which direction they want to move.
In Indiana, local officials like you are preempted from instituting firearm restrictions. Should that change?
I think it’s tricky to have the type of real substantive legislation that would bring a safer community at a community level, at a local level. I think if there’s change, it has to happen at a higher level than the municipal level. What I have called out for is that we elect policymakers at the state and federal levels who can actually create potentially meaningful legislation to reduce gun violence in our country.
In July, a new Indiana law allows most people over the age of 18 to carry a handgun in public without a permit. What’s your position on that?
I agree with the state police chief, and it’s ridiculous. It makes our local public safety officers’ jobs more dangerous and more complicated. It is—I won’t say any expletive—but it is a really dumb thing that the state has done.
You’re a blue mayor in a red county in a red state. Some national Democrats believe your party has a wokeness problem, taking politically correct positions to a degree that alienates the average voter, even sympathetic ones. Is the party doing a good enough job meeting voters where they’re at?
I am going to say I think both parties are always vulnerable to drinking their own Kool-Aid. And that any public servant, any politician who serves their constituents, their constituents are all the people in their district—not just the ones that voted for them. I believe that mayors are much better at serving in that capacity because we deal with the nuts and bolts of government service.
I have great rapport with the Republican mayors who are here in Central Indiana. I’ve learned a lot from them. We need people willing to make compromises and reach across the aisle. I think of [the late Indiana Republican] Sen. Lugar and his peer [former Rep. Lee Hamilton]. They were amazing statesmen who represented our state so remarkably, and they were friends. Why can’t we have more of that?
I worked for a Republican mayor in the ’90s—former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith—as deputy director of Indy Parks. He was a wonderful leader. He didn’t ask, “What party are you in?” or “How do you vote?” He just said, “Are you ready to do the work?”
Let’s talk about Zionsville. There’s speculation that Carmel, its neighbor to the east, is the real-world equivalent of the fictional Eagleton from NBC’s Parks and Rec—the snootily wealthy town to more blue-collar Pawnee. But isn’t that more Zionsville than Carmel?
No, Zionsville is 100 percent Pawnee. I mean, for God sakes, I just told you I was deputy director of Indy Parks. I am Leslie Knope.