Derris Ross heard President Donald Trump was coming to town. He responded by leading a rally at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. An April 2016 photograph shows Ross, who goes by Dee, protesting against Trump’s visit by shouting into a red bullhorn, his left index finger pointing to the sky.
Belinda Drake is a former intern for U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, an Indianapolis Democrat. She served on the executive board of the Indiana Stonewall Democrats, an organization that advocates for gay rights, and she holds the Democratic leadership position of precinct committeewoman.
Both of them felt secure in their Democratic bona fides — until this month when they were told they are not members of the party. Not officially, anyway, because of a technicality in how affiliation is determined in Indiana. And, soon, maybe not even in spirit.
As grassroots liberals rise nationally, the prospect of two young African-American activists running against the Democratic Party in November has strained relationships and poured salt onto old political wounds. It also is fueling arguments by independent-minded candidates who want to shake up the way political parties nominate candidates in Indianapolis.
Some Democrats say the system keeping Ross and Drake on the sidelines has inherent disadvantages for black candidates. But the Democratic Party has endorsed two other African-American candidates, La Keisha Jackson and Keith Graves, in the districts that Ross and Drake are vying for.
Party leaders insist this story is simple: Ross and Drake made disqualifying mistakes in their failed attempts to run as Democrats. Critics, including Ross and Drake, say their exclusion is an example of how party politics shut out new ideas and faces.
Their dismissal raises existential questions about the nature of democracy and whether someone can grow up in poverty, shake off the systemic challenges of a high-crime neighborhood and run for local office without being anointed by a political party.
“It seems like the old establishment doesn’t really want the change that they claim to embrace,” said Brishon Bond, who was listed as Ross’ treasurer in campaign filings. “Because if you were to do a ‘Weird Science’ creation of everything that you would want in a new, young progressive, it would be Derris and Belinda.”
Why primary voting matters
That newness — or, more to the point, the lack of familiarity with an arcane process — is the reason why Ross and Drake will be on the sidelines for the May 7 Democratic primary.
Ross, 28, sought to challenge Democrat La Keisha Jackson in the primary. He leads a nonprofit organization called the Ross Foundation, whose mission is to improve life for residents on the far east side, particularly those who have been affected by violence.
The Marion County Democratic Party says Ross and Drake each made two errors that put their would-be candidacies in the hands of leadership: They did not vote in primary elections, an action that legally determines party affiliation in Indiana, and they inaccurately indicated on campaign forms that they had voted as Democrats in primaries.
Ross acknowledged he hasn’t voted in primaries, but Drake disputed that assertion, telling IndyStar she has requested her voting records to prove she has participated in the past. In the meantime, she’s baffled about the party’s decision — and other actions that have been taken, including her removal from the Stonewall Democrats board.
If both Drake and Ross did sit out primaries, they were not alone. Only about 8 percent of eligible Marion County voters went to the polls in the 2015 primary, the last municipal election cycle, and 16 percent voted in the 2018 primary.
Political parties have discretion to certify candidates even if they did not vote in recent primary elections — and they have in the past.
“Maybe we’re not politicians,” Drake said. “But, at the grassroots level, you should have people the constituents can relate to, that the constituents believe are leaders. I have proven to be a leader within the party. I can’t understand why I wasn’t certified.”
Democrats and Republicans interviewed by IndyStar said they could not recall the primary requirement being strictly applied to candidates in the past. But Kate Sweeney Bell, chairwoman of the Marion County Democratic Party, said the party chose to enforce the rule this year.
“There are other Democrats who are running for the offices (Ross and Drake) are seeking who meet that very, very minimum requirement: voting in a primary,” she said. “That is not a very high bar in my book. If there was nobody else who was running, yes, I would think about (letting them run) if they had asked. They didn’t.”
Although the circumstances involving Ross and Drake have captured the most attention this year, access to ballots is a contentious issue in every Indianapolis election cycle.
That’s in part because of slating, a term that refers to the unique-to-Indiana process in which Marion County political parties select candidates. The parties endorse candidates during slating conventions that are held in February, essentially settling most intraparty contests long before voters go to the polls for primary elections in May.
Candidates who participate in slating are urged — some say compelled — to donate thousands of dollars to their parties, equivalent to 10 percent of the annual salary of the position they are running for. Parties also require candidates to make a legally nonbinding commitment to stay out of the primary race if they lose the slating contest.
On the Republican side, for example, voters will not have the chance to retain Danielle Coulter on the City-County Council. That’s because Coulter, who last year was appointed to replace Scott Kreider in a south-side district, lost to Paul Annee in the Feb. 2 Republican slating convention.
Proponents of slating say it avoids costly primary elections and gives the party discretion to support candidates who are committed to the platform; critics argue it raises money for parties while placing an insurmountable burden on political newcomers.
Because slating does not carry the weight of law, though, some candidates skip the process and run in the primary, knowing they will run without their party’s support. In the district Drake wants to run in, for example, Democrat Deandra Denise Yates is running in the primary against Graves, the party’s slated candidate.
Patrick Wagner, another Democrat, also has eschewed slating and is running in the primary for a Downtown council district that includes Fletcher Place and a portion of Fountain Square.
“I’m motivated by the principle that one person should result in one vote. I am ferociously against any motive that tries to undermine that,” Wagner said. “I think an example of that is the slating convention. I think it’s a large fundraiser for the Democratic Party when, in reality, there are folks in my district who have significant difficulty keeping their lights on or putting food on the table.”
Yates and Wagner are exceptions, running in the Democratic primary at a time when fewer than half of the 25 council seats will have races in May. Wagner said he was inspired by Jared Evans, a Democrat who ran against the slate in 2015 and eventually won a council seat that represents a west-side area including Indianapolis International Airport.
Evans’ upset victory — in a district that would support Donald Trump for president a year later — gave Democrats a majority on the council.
Evans in an interview said he thinks the Democratic Party has made progress since his first run for public office and he wants to help make the system fairer for new candidates.
“Regardless of the arguments for or against slating, the perception is that it is corrupt, and that is a problem,” Evans said. “Perception in the political world is reality. So, as an elected official, I believe it’s upon me, as well as other elected officials, to push to re-examine this process and make sure this lines up with our values.”
Evans cited Sweeney Bell’s leadership as a reason he feels better about the party this year.
“I think she has tried to make things fairer,” Evans said.
For Democrats, another rift
Friction over Ross and Drake is causing perhaps the worst rift among Indianapolis Democrats since Clay briefly partnered with Republicans to become council president in January 2018. He resigned from leadership six weeks later, after he had been expelled from the Democratic caucus.
The party appears to have healed since then. Only one of the five Democrats who supported Clay for council president last year lost in the party’s slating convention this month. John Barth defeated Joe Simpson and received the party’s endorsement.
Most Democrats interviewed by IndyStar said they are satisfied with the job Sweeney Bell has done as chairwoman during the past two years.
“Kate Sweeney Bell is a more honest person than other people who’ve been chair. I think she’s in a pretty tough place to preserve the outdated slating system, and she’s doing her best to do it,” said Mike Oles, who has been a consultant to Democratic candidates, including Evans.
Yet, the party’s handling of Ross and Drake has injected new tension into the 2019 elections.
“If I was chair, I would have let Belinda and Dee run as Democrats and not made a big deal about it,” Oles said. “They obviously have the resume that shows they’re real Democrats.”
Ross and Drake say the party has used aggressive tactics to keep them out of the 2019 elections and protect handpicked candidates. Ross in an interview said Sweeney Bell threatened to sabotage a $60,000 crime prevention grant his foundation received from the city last year if he ran as an independent. Sweeney Bell vehemently denied that allegation: “Absolutely not.”.
Drake said she thinks Sweeney Bell, a fellow board member on Stonewall Democrats, which considers itself the “LGBTQ constituency caucus of the Indiana Democratic Party,” would not let Drake run, in part, because of her lifestyle.
“It’s hard for me to believe that she cares for me as an individual when she’s referred to me as a cross-dressing lesbian and said she’s not sure how voters would take that,” Drake said.
Sweeney Bell acknowledged she might have used those words during an October meeting, but insisted she would not have meant them in a disparaging way.
“I suspect it was along the lines of, ‘Be prepared for this. You are a cross-dressing lesbian, and somebody may try to attack you for it,'” Sweeney Bell said.
Whatever the intended context, Drake said, she felt “extremely insulted” by the remark.
The experience has left her determined to win a council seat as an independent, Drake said.
“I’m still a Democrat,” she said. “I just think we need to do better with our leadership. We shouldn’t apply rules and abuse power to manipulate it and exclude people.”
Party leaders counter that Drake hurt her own chances of running as a Democrat, because they asked her to wait to file candidacy paperwork until they had a chance to help her. She declined, they said.
Sweeney Bell said her decision regarding the candidacies of Ross and Drake is solely based on applying the rules fairly to everyone.
“I want them to be active members of the party because they’re passionate and they have ideas,” she said.
‘Hurts to the heart’
The party’s decision regarding Ross and Drake has raised concerns that the average black candidate has a more difficult barrier to entry than someone who is white or has better political connections.
Marshawn Wolley, a community leader, wrote a column in the Indianapolis Recorder that black candidates “don’t get the benefit of the doubt, so we have to know the processes and dot our Is and cross our Ts — especially if we don’t have the right last name in this city.”
Wolley, in an interview, elaborated and questioned the political process in Indianapolis.
“There needs to be some kind of rationale if other populous counties have figured out how to do this without having this kind of a system,” Wolley said. “Clearly, it’s creating some challenges for both the party, as well as frustration in the African-American community.”
State Rep. John Bartlett, an Indianapolis Democrat who is black, for years has filed bills that would ban slating in the state. His bill died without a vote this month after a testy committee meeting in which state lawmakers relitigated Drake’s candidacy and other past local political battles.
Sweeney Bell noted that the candidates representing the Democratic Party in the districts Ross and Drake want to represent are also black.
Ashley Gurvitz, a national committeewoman for the Young Democrats of America, said the conflict between Ross and Drake and her party “hurts to the heart.” Gurvitz has worked with both of them, she said.
“It’s hard for the outside eye. It looks like we have this big issue; it’s disenfranchising young individuals, it’s racial,” Gurvitz said. “I’m saying, as a young African-American female, that is not the case at all. Where both sides’ feelings are hurt, what it has exposed is (the need) to assure all education is done well in advance to ensure there are no issues like this in the future.”
Ross, though, insisted his candidacy could have been part of that education process if the Democratic Party had been more welcoming. Ross said he grew up in a neighborhood where there is little outreach, beyond voter registration drives, from the Democratic Party. If the party had given him the benefit of the doubt, he said, it could have been an example to other people that they can make a difference.
“I grew up in a poverty neighborhood, 42nd and Post, where (there) is a lack of voter education,” Ross said. “I could help bridge that gap throughout Indianapolis, going into high-crime areas and educating them on the process.”