Loss Leader: Joe Hogsett and the Indianapolis Mayoral Race

This month, Joe Hogsett begins what many see as an inevitable march to the mayor’s office. Never mind that he has lost almost every race he has ever run.

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Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

It was still a week before Valentine’s Day, but Joseph Hogsett offered a kiss to nearly everyone who crossed his path. Inside a convention center on the city’s south side, the candidate grinned and gripped and smooched his way through a maw of Marion County Democrats. They were eager to give the former federal prosecutor their blessing as the man who could reclaim the mayor’s office after the Dems’ eight-year exile, ushering the party back onto the City-County Building’s 25th floor.

As the candidate made his way through adoring conventioneers, Hogsett kissed a woman in a blue-and-yellow United Automobile Workers sweatshirt. Then an elderly woman. Later in the morning, out in the hallway, a short, middle-aged party activist requested a photo with Hogsett. “Last time, I had to share you with your wife,” the woman told him, referring to a previous shot of the trio.

After posing, Hogsett turned back toward his advisers and volunteers. But the woman made it clear she wanted a kiss like the others had received. So Hogsett squatted like a lineman on his way into a three-point stance, grabbed the lady’s arms, and kissed her repeatedly on the cheek to overcompensate for any perceived slight.

Back inside the convention hall, Hogsett mugged for photos onstage among other candidates, signing credential cards. He pressed his lips against another cheek. Meanwhile, his campaign manager, Thomas Carl Cook, paced offstage. He knew Hogsett had a meeting across the street but recognized his powerlessness to compete with the candidate’s kisser.

“See you, Mr. Mayor!” a woman hollered at Hogsett, as Cook finally managed to steer him out of the convention center. “Run, Joe, Run!” yelled another. Hogsett approached them. Lips and cheeks smacked again.

Despite his recent reputation as a severe and scolding federal prosecutor, grabbing headlines for nabbing a range of bad guys from the Outlaws motorcycle gang to conman Tim Durham, Hogsett is regarded by old-school Democrats as one of the most talented politicians Indiana has ever produced. On the campaign trail, his charm is “absolutely irrepressible,” says longtime friend Bill Moreau, a Hogsett campaign aide back in 1990. “He’s especially good with older women.”

Anyone watching Hogsett work that room ahead of this month’s Democratic primary could be forgiven for assuming that a win in the November election is inevitable. One could easily forget that Hogsett has lost almost every race he has ever run.

 

A native of Rushville, Hogsett grew up in what he describes as an apolitical household. His father was an Allison aeronautical engineer, and his mother was a college-educated social worker. He arrived at Indiana University in 1974 as a Republican—most people in Rushville were. At IU, though, he met a young Evan Bayh and interned with U.S. Representative Phil Sharp, a Democrat. In 1978, he earned bachelor’s degrees in history and political science. After graduating from IU’s School of Law in 1981, Hogsett would later pursue three master’s degrees—in English at Butler University, in divinity at Christian Theological Seminary, and in history at IU. “I try to be as curious about as many things as I can possibly handle,” he says.

Hogsett landed work at the downtown firm Bingham Summers Welsh & Spilman, and he quickly fell in with a group of young like-minded Blue Dog Democrats with wide eyes and big ambitions. He bonded with Bayh, who worked at the same firm, and became Bayh’s campaign manager for a successful bid for secretary of state. Once Bayh claimed office, Hogsett served as his deputy. Two years later, he managed Bayh’s campaign for governor. When Bayh won that race in 1988, he appointed Hogsett secretary of state—a launch pad for what was shaping up to be a bright political future.

Just two years later, Hogsett found himself in his first political fight. Hoping to keep the office to which Bayh had appointed him, he ran against the formidable Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut. Even as an incumbent, Hogsett started out in the polls 33 points behind. “I never saw a poll in 1990 that showed Joe ahead of Hudnut,” says Bill Moreau, who had come to Hogsett’s campaign after meeting him in Washington, D.C. But Hogsett continued to pummel Hudnut in the press for raising taxes some 20 times as mayor. On election night, Hogsett awaited the results in a room at the Embassy Suites downtown. As results came in from Marion County, Moreau realized his candidate was down only 3,000 votes—a feat for a Democrat in what was a reliably red county at the time. Moreau sprinted to Hogsett’s room, pounded on his door, and screamed, “You’re only down 3,000 in Marion County! You’re going to win!” Hogsett grinned. He had won the first political race of his life. Little did he know he would go 25 years without winning another.

In 1992, with two years left in his term, Hogsett decided to battle Dan Coats for the Republican’s U.S. Senate seat. The incumbent aired an ad accusing the then 35-year-old Hogsett of using the office’s $8 million budget as “one big perk” and another one that featured an actor outside of a vacant secretary of state office, asking, “Where’s Joe Hogsett?” Coats cruised past Hogsett on election day with 57 percent of the vote. Hogsett even lost his own Rush County by four percentage points. Early that evening, Hogsett conceded. “I am pleased to report I have been doing such a fine job in the secretary of state’s office that the people of Indiana want to keep me,” he told Democrats gathered at the Indiana Convention Center, who clapped and laughed.

Undaunted, Hogsett didn’t wait long before running for office again. As his first term as secretary of state neared an end, news broke that Phil Sharp—the congressman Hogsett had interned for in D.C.—would retire. Hogsett says he was urged by party leaders to run for Sharp’s job. Before he even filed, Hogsett took fire from Republicans, who released a preemptive ad attacking him: “In 1990, Secretary of State Joe Hogsett promised he wouldn’t use his office as a stepping stone,” the voiceover said. “In 1991, with three years left in his term, he broke his promise and ran for the U.S. Senate. Hoosiers remembered, and in 1992 Joe lost in a landslide. Last September, The Indianapolis News reported that Joe had ruled out any bid for office in 1994. But now Joe’s running for Congress. Can we believe anything Joe says?” The red tide of 1994’s Republican Revolution, led by U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, washed away any chance Hogsett had of winning.

Hogsett didn’t return to politics until 2003, when Governor Frank O’Bannon installed him as state party chairman. Less than a year later, the Democrats had no candidate for attorney general. Days before the party’s convention, Governor Joe Kernan, who had been sworn in after O’Bannon’s sudden passing, persuaded Hogsett to run against Republican Steve Carter. But the conservative easily polished him off in the general election, winning 58 percent of the vote.

Having suffered three straight losses, Hogsett took a long break from politics to practice labor and employment law. In 2010, Bayh recommended him to President Barack Obama’s administration for a plum federal appointment: U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana. Hogsett’s three-and-a-half years in that job would prove to be the most fruitful of his career as he reinvented himself as a law-and-order candidate.

When he took office, he posted a sign behind his desk that read “Because we’ve always done it this way,” the words encircled by a “no” symbol—an announcement that he would not settle for entrenched bureaucracy. In 2011, Hogsett unveiled his signature Violent Crime Initiative. Aimed at cracking down on gun offenses, the project resulted in the Southern District leading the nation in average length of sentences imposed on criminals. That year, Hogsett slapped federal charges on 442 defendants, a 204 percent increase over 2009 numbers. After the shooting death of a Terre Haute police officer in July 2011, Hogsett spent nearly a year tracking down and prosecuting the former felons who sold Shaun Seeley, the shooter, the 9mm pistol he used. The sellers pleaded guilty to illegally possessing and selling the firearm—a conviction that Hogsett is quick to tout while campaigning. His office also targeted public corruption by going after government officials such as former Indianapolis City-County Councilman Lincoln Plowman.

Hogsett trumpeted those successes in a blitzkrieg of press conferences, leading many to speculate that he would seek higher office. In the year leading up to his run for mayor, the prosecutor’s aides sent 112 press releases touting Hogsett’s crusades. Last August, Marion County Republican Chairman Kyle Walker accused him of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity on the job. “Joe Hogsett has been effectively running for mayor for two years,” Walker told reporters, “most of which he had been the U.S. attorney at the time.” Not surprisingly, Hogsett shrugged off the claim, chalking it up to political gamesmanship.

Along the way, Hogsett ran a spartan operation. He reduced his district’s spending every year he was in office, a move that rankled some of his employees. He increased their caseloads while reducing staff expenses. “I don’t think I’ll go down in history as the most popular United States attorney, because I demanded much of the office,” he says, adding that some of the cutbacks came from the federal government. “That’s exactly what I’m going to demand out of city government.”

 

Following his campaign event in February, Hogsett left well-wishers at the convention hall and walked across the road to McDonald’s. Even though he was running late, he couldn’t resist chatting with an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer idling in a cruiser in the parking lot. Inside McDonald’s, about a half-dozen off-duty cops and a captain greeted him warmly. After his stint as a federal prosecutor, Hogsett feels comfortable around police—whether joining them for a ride-along or attending a memorial service for fallen officers. (At a political fundraiser, Hogsett once referred to himself and Democratic Prosecutor Terry Curry as Batman and Robin. Curry was Batman, he insisted; Hogsett, with his parted brown hair and still-boyish features, was Robin.)

“Pretend I’m your mayor,” Hogsett told the group around the table. “What do I need to know?” Over the course of an hour, the cops told him that the force didn’t have enough manpower to police their zones. Instead of hoofing neighborhoods and getting to know their territory, they said, they spent much of their time traversing it in their cruisers and working with outdated technology. Hogsett furrowed his brow, nodded his head, and swigged his coffee.

Finally, Hogsett floated the idea of hiring more officers to “allow IMPD to return to beat staffing levels”—perhaps the most concrete policy proposal he’s offered in the campaign so far. “Is that going to solve all the problems?” he added. “Of course not.”

The cops gathered seemed pleased. As the meeting ended, Hogsett thanked them for their time. “I appreciate your candor,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe I won’t win. But it will make me a better candidate.”

Hogsett hasn’t always charmed Indiana voters the way he won over those officers, but people close to him attribute that more to timing and misfortune than poor candidacy. His first loss in the 1992 Senate race, they say, was an example of a very young politician making a reasonable gamble that didn’t work out. In 1994, he succumbed to political headwinds as Republicans trounced Democrats at ballot boxes nationwide. And in 2004, Hogsett was the good soldier—a warm political body when Indiana Democrats needed one at the last minute. As his longtime friend Bayh puts it, “He took one for the team.”

This fall, Hogsett will have no such excuses. He will spend the next six months trying to win the first race in which he is seen as a frontrunner in a field that so far includes Republican Chuck Brewer. Despite hauling in a record $1.4 million in contributions last year, Hogsett admits he is more nervous than he has ever been about what November may hold. “I have a great sense of foreboding,” he says. “I’ve never run a race where I haven’t been 30 points behind.”

 

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