Apr 28, 2023 - Politics

Primaries test union grip on Indianapolis Democrats

Yard signs say, "Union Yes" with a vote check mark and "David Ray, Indianapolis City-County Council."

David Ray is a union-backed Democrat running for City-County Council in redrawn District 16. Photo: Axios/James Briggs

An uptick in competitive primary elections will test labor union influence over Indianapolis politics.

Driving the news: All 25 City-County Council seats are on the ballot Tuesday, including 10 Democratic primary races, several of which feature union-backed incumbents facing strong upstart challengers.

  • Primary elections, rare in past cycles, are picking up steam because Marion County Democrats eliminated a party endorsement process known as slating, which had been used to ward off costly intraparty contests.

Why it matters: Union support traditionally has been an ironclad path to victory for Democrats, thanks to fundraising and boots on the ground, but a new wave of candidates is building competitive campaigns around social media, relentless door-knocking, sophisticated data analysis and community activism.

State of play: Labor-endorsed incumbents Kristin Jones, David Ray and Zach Adamson are fending off spirited challengers as they run for re-election to the Democratic-dominated City-County Council.

  • Matt Impink raised $44,000 to take on Jones, who raised about $69,000, in a race for District 18, which includes Fletcher Place and Fountain Square.
  • Andy Nielsen also raised $44,000 in a race for a redrawn east-side District 14, which includes Irvington. Ray raised about $96,000.
  • Jesse Brown, a Democratic Socialist, raised about $20,000 in an east-side District 13 race against Adamson, the council vice president, who has raised about $77,000.

What they're saying: Jones, who first won her council seat in 2019 after going through the Indiana AFL-CIO Path to Power recruitment program, said she experiences the energy of labor unions when she's out campaigning.

  • "Being at all the doors, folks are still going on strike, still dealing with wages and benefits and the right to collectively bargain," Jones told Axios. "As a candidate, fighting for those issues is the one thing that keeps me motivated and wanting to continue to be elected, because it does matter to my constituents."

Yes, but: Union membership in Republican-dominated Indiana dropped to 7.4% last year and there are signs rank-and-file Democrats no longer feel tied to organized labor when casting ballots.

Flashback: State Sen. Andrea Hunley, a Democrat, pierced the armor last year when she defeated Jones in the primary for a newly drawn Indianapolis Senate district.

Between the lines: A younger generation of Democrats has grown accustomed to community organizing outside the bounds of unions.

  • "The takeaway is go out there and work hard," Nielsen, a 32-year-old senior policy analyst for the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute, told Axios.
  • Nielsen's strategy has included using social media, knocking on doors and being a constant presence at events ranging from service projects to ice cream socials and neighborhood meetings.

Meanwhile, the old-guard union Democrats have financial advantages and support of establishment figures, with Mayor Joe Hogsett lending his name to the incumbents' campaigns.

  • Ray, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 481 since 2000, organized a recent cleanup at Ellenberger Park and brought several local unions, plus the mayor, with him.
  • "It's easy to identify with it because that's my life," Ray told Axios. "I wave that IBEW flag very proudly. You're not going to hear me say that unions don't still play a major role in politics."

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