Election 2020

Five Democrats are running in the primary for Indiana’s Ninth District Congressional race. They hope to be the one to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, a Republican who has held the office since 2017. 

WFPL News spoke with the Democratic candidates ahead of Indiana’s June 2 primary. Here are excerpts from those conversations. 

Liam Dorris

Liam Dorris, 41, is a metrology technician at Catalent Biologics in Bloomington, Indiana. He says he “grew up doing normal things,” such as the Boy Scouts and high school sports. Following high school, he joined the United States Marine Corps, working in metrology, the scientific study of measurement. He says he went to Iraq for a year “as a contractor and supported the troops there… until I got tired of being in a war zone.”

Courtesy D. Liam Dorris

Since returning to his home state of Indiana, he says he’s continued to work with veterans.

From a veteran myself, there’s a lot of other veterans out there who are feeling isolated,” Dorris said. “Whenever you’re a veteran, you start to speak a different language than what you previously spoke and sometimes communication can be hard and in the way you’ve learned how to deal with things a lot differently than the standard person out there.” 

He’s also into science fiction, professional wrestling, gaming conventions, science and politics — he says he’s volunteered for President Barack Obama’s campaign, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

On why he’s running for Congress, Dorris said “there are a lot of bad things happening to people in the working class.” 

He points to a colleague’s experience as an example. The colleague had a young child struggling with some speech issues, but he couldn’t afford speech therapy, even with insurance.

“One day he comes in and kind of rundown, and I’m like, ‘what’s wrong, buddy?’ And he’s like, ‘I just donated blood… because it’s going to pay for this deductible for my kid,’” Dorris says. “This guy is a guy that I’ve worked with for a while, and I love him like a brother. I just don’t think that was something that he should have had to do. That was probably my trigger point… People in the working class are all my brothers and sisters and they’re no different from my friend at work, and I want to go out and champion for them.”

When asked about a key issue in this race for him, Dorris says he has three, “and the problem is, one of them has to take precedence over the other two.” 

“Medicare for All is a huge dilemma and would be my number one priority because people deserve to be in good health and not go bankrupt trying to be so,” he said. “My second issue is climate change… If we don’t have the right people in there, making the right decisions we’re going to leave our children with planet Mad Max… I want to do everything I can to stop that. Those two issues are stuck in the muck right now and this brings me to the precedent problem, which is anti-corruption.” 

He believes that “billionaires putting money into the pockets of politicians” is a big problem.

In regards to what he thinks Indiana needs to recover economically from the pandemic, Dorris says he would move away from “giant bailouts from the government” for big corporations.

What I would like to do is first cut that off,” he said. “I’m not a big believer in crap capitalism, but I am a big believer in commerce and trading. Even if you do believe in capitalism, if they can’t manage to do the right thing and make the right investments and have to survive off of doing the wrong things then we shouldn’t bail them out.”

Brandon Hood

Brandon Wesley Hood, 38, lives in Bloomington, Indiana and has been a resident of the Ninth District for nearly two decades. For the past 15 years, he’s been an independent contractor remodeling homes. 

Courtesy Brandon Hood

He says he’s been working class his whole life and has learned by “experience, self-education and “just interacting with people in the community.”

My mom and father both lived paycheck to paycheck and I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck my entire life,” he said. “And recently in the past five or six years, I became involved in the activist/advocacy community, to empower those around me to seek real change in whatever endeavors they’re shooting for you.”

On why he’s running, he says he wants “to see real representation.”

It seems a little cookie cutter, but I tell everyone the same thing,” Hood said. “Obviously, Trey Hollingsworth is a fat cat in Washington. He’s making choices for people that are of low means and forcing them back into work [during the pandemic] at which I deem to be a little too early by about a month or even more. And it’s deplorable. Instead of making sure that the wealthy had their pockets lined, we want to make sure that people had someone to actually look at the issues and try to represent them on those issues.”

For Hood, issues like climate change, health care and education are critical, but his key issue is criminal justice reform. 

We know that there’s serious racial issues across the board in all of the prison industrial complex,” he said. “And I myself have been incarcerated. So when it comes down to it, I’ve seen the worst-of-humanity decisions and the best-of-humanity decisions. My reason why I want this to happen is because we’re ruining people’s lives objectively without even thinking about it. With an entire system of lawyers, of probation officers, of judges, of mandatory minimums, of bail bonds, we all know what the justice system is doing.”

Public records show that Hood has had a number of run-ins with law enforcement over the last couple of decades. Most recently in October 2019, he faced charges of resisting law enforcement, possession of marijuana and public intoxication. According to Indiana court records, the first two charges were dismissed and he entered into a plea agreement for the third.  

Hood has also been accused of sexual harassment and assault by a volunteer on his campaign. Indiana Public Media reports that both his campaign manager and campaign organizer have left their positions following the allegations; campaign organizer Alex Goodlad wrote a long post on Facebook outlining the incident. Several of the other candidates are also calling on Hood to withdraw from the race, including Mark Powell, Andy Ruff and D. Liam Dorris. As of May 28, all of Hood’s campaign social media accounts were removed.

James C. O’Gabhann III

James C. O’Gabhann III, 69, is a fourth-grade teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District in California, and a spokesperson with the district confirmed that he’s worked in the district for 20 years. He says, prior to working in education, he worked as a legislative analyst on the Hopi Tribe Indian Reservation.

Courtesy James O

As to why he’s running for office in Indiana, he says he’s a “native of Indiana farm lands” and he feels this year’s race is a critical one. 

“I want to make a contribution, at both the local level and the national level, in terms of a Rural New Deal for Indiana,” he says. “That means bringing more attention to rural areas in the areas of internet access for students, healthcare, roads and different types of economic development that are in industries that are carbon neutral.”

The U.S. Constitution requires a candidate live in the district they’re running to represent by the general election, but there’s no requirement to be a resident during the primary. O’Gabhann says if he gets the nomination, he’d move back to southern Indiana in June. He’d move back sooner, but doesn’t think he’d be able to run for public office on a teacher’s salary in Indiana. 

He says the key issue in this race is health care and a single-payer plan,” and to have health care and support systems for our working families in southern Indiana so that they’re not stressed.” 

In regards to what Indiana needs to recover economically from the pandemic, O’Gabhann is proposing automatic stabilizers for programs like unemployment benefits, food stamps and Medicaid, referencing a kind of fiscal policy meant to counterbalance economic see-sawing.  

“That would relieve the stress of our working families and at the same time, it would allow policy people to look at the long term solution to what we’re in the middle of now,” he says, connecting it to his key issue. “Stress is a contributor towards disease and we want the stress level to be as low as possible so that everyone’s immune system is strong.”

Mark J. Powell

Mark J. Powell, 60, is a Lutheran pastor living in Johnson County. He says for nine years he’s focused on hospice ministry, as a hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator. 

Courtesy Mark Powell

He’s also been a radio broadcaster and worked in politics, including as a legislative assistant with the Kansas House of Representatives in the 90s and with the Michigan House of Representatives in the early 2000s.

“I have a history of being an independent thinker,” he said. “I voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, then I voted for Mr. Trump in 2016… I believe in social capitalism and the political philosophy of Christian Democracy… I think in the United States, we just need to be more socially conscious of everybody, we need an economy that’s going to be empathetic and is going to be for the common good of all of our citizens and not just the 1%.”

On why he’s running, he says the answer is simple: “the middle class needs a voice.”

“And if there’s nobody from the middle class that’s speaking up for the middle class, the multimillionaires and the billionaires will get all of the benefits of representative government,” Powell said. “We need debt relief for the middle class… And also for congressional health insurance. People have been talking about Medicare for All. The heck with Medicare for all, Congressional Health Insurance for All.” 

For him, that’s also the key issue in the race, “the survival of the middle class.”

“The middle class is going to be destroyed under the current circumstances,” he said, pointing to the stock market’s uptick early last week despite how many are struggling financially due to the pandemic. “We have an economy that has no monetary velocity. There’s no money going around. And yet we have the stock market going up… that’s just impossible given the logical laws of the economy… If people think that this economy is is going well, then in their mind, they buy into the illusion, but it is an illusion and it is a bubble and this is the worst type of thing because after [the pandemic], there’s going to be a drastic change of how we live in this country because we won’t be receiving additional unemployment benefits. The working class, the middle class will be the first ones to suffer.”

Bloomberg News attributes the May 18 upward swing to optimistic news on a possible coronavirus vaccine, the Federal Reserve talks of potential additional recovery support and more states allowing businesses to reopen.

In regards to what Indiana needs to recover economically from the pandemic, Powell says he would look at micro-financing to help those who might not have access to financial services. 

“When you don’t have a banking system that aids rural America, or small town America, which much of the Ninth Congressional District is, we have to think of ways like that can provide financing into that,” he said. “That’s not only a rural problem, it’s also an urban problem… So the way we look at our banking system has to change.”

Powell also addressed a post he authored in late 2008 that was against same-sex marriage. He says his position has changed over the last decade and solidified in recent years. 

Powell says he was a victim of clergy sexual abuse and, for a long time, “I was blaming the wrong people.” It took him having a heart attack last year to “kind of go on a spiritual retreat and start thinking about why I survived that because I did think I was going to die.” 

“I think religion gets in the way of a lot of things and it gets in the way of people living a loving life the way they feel they need to live it,” he said. “I’m all for free will choices for people to exercise their freedoms… as long as it doesn’t hurt others… I think that’s the greatness of America.”

Andy Ruff

Andy Ruff, 57, is an academic advisor at Indiana University. He says he grew up in Southern Indiana and raised his own family there with his wife, Susan Bollman. 

“I’ve been here my entire life, except when I did a few years away for my undergraduate,” Ruff said.

Courtesy Andy Ruff

He’s an avid outdoorsman: “fishing extensively and canoeing streams in Indiana is probably my primary recreational activities, interests and hobbies.” Ruff is also a “semi-professional” country music musician, and performs with his band The Dew Daddies.

Ruff served on the Bloomington City Council for 20 years as the at-large city representative. He also worked for the former Indiana 9th District Congressman, Baron Hill, during Hill’s final term. He also taught high school and worked for the Monroe County planning department. 

On why he’s running for Congress, he says “why not?”

“Why wouldn’t I step up and run when I feel like I’m connected to the district and have a lifetime of connection to the district,” Ruff said. “It angers me and frustrates me that people in communities of the Ninth District are not getting the representation from our current congressman that we desperately need and deserve.” 

Ruff says Hollingsworth “represents the interests of the ultra-wealthy, corporate interests and his own interests very well, but does not do a good job of representing average ordinary Hoosiers.” 

“American health and well being and competitiveness doesn’t depend on bailing out corporations and giving massive tax breaks to already extremely wealthy [people],” he said. “It depends on… the productivity of ordinary Americans. And that depends on a strong public education system, people being able to access healthcare, and on an infrastructure that connects us.”

He says all of those things are declining in this nation. The different communities within Indiana’s Ninth District have different needs and challenges, he says. But when asked about a key issue in this race for him, Ruff says that’s “stopping the flood of big money… corrupting our politics, our elections and drowning out voices of regular people.”

“I think that until we are able to release the stranglehold that big money interests have on our elections and on our policy-making… we can’t make progress on healthcare. We can’t make progress on getting living wages and getting working people more of a fair share of the economy’s gains and having a broader prosperity,” he said. “We can’t address climate change and our environmental emergency, we can’t strengthen public education.” 

He believes that the federal government should play a significant role in helping Indiana, and other states, recover economically from the pandemic. 

“There’s no other entity with the commands and the resources at the level required to weather this storm and get our economy and our society back on track,” Ruff said. “So what I would do differently is instead of directing sums of money at corporate bailouts, we need to provide regular ordinary people with the resources they need to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. And doing that sustains the level of demand… So we have to provide what people need, what individuals need to get through this period.” 

He says he’s not opposed to aid relief for small businesses that is “directly connected to keeping employees on payroll and to meet their basic payments, like rent… businesses that don’t have the depth that these large corporations have in terms of capital backing.” 

This story has been updated.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.