Election 2020 Politics

In the race for Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, the Republican incumbent is squaring off with a former longtime city councilman.

U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth is seeking a third term representing a district that comprises 13 counties, extending from just south of Indianapolis to the Ohio River. The 37-year-old moved to Jeffersonville from Tennessee in fall 2015, securing the Republican nomination and ultimately a House seat the following year. If elected, he has said this would be his final term.

“First and foremost, I am focused on building a better economy and making sure that we empower individuals to live better lives by virtue of them being able to take advantage of the opportunities we have right here in the Hoosier State,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s hugely important to me. And the reason I’m able to do that better than anybody else is because of my business background.”

Hollingsworth describes his career as one built on growing small businesses and investing in American employees through his multimillion-dollar development company with his father.

But Democratic challenger Andy Ruff, 58, is hoping his Hoosier roots and working-class background will win over voters. Ruff, a Monroe County native, is an academic advisor at Indiana University who previously spent 20 years on the Bloomington City Council.

J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Congressional candidate Andy Ruff sits in front of a billboard for his campaign at Billy Herman Park in New Albany.

To Ruff, this election represents the cultural battle between “ordinary” citizens and big money, and he points to Hollingsworth’s status as one of the wealthiest members of Congress with a net worth exceeding $50 million.

“We’re losing our government as a representative government of ordinary people,” Ruff said. “Big money has so intensified, so strengthened its stranglehold on policy-making and on electoral politics.”

Ruff describes himself as an “anti-establishment Hoosier progressive” who is willing to reach across the aisle to find common ground with conservatives. Hollingsworth has logged a voting record that falls closely in line with President Donald Trump, who won 61% of the district’s vote in 2016.

COVID-19 Response

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb recently pushed the state into Stage 5 of its reopening plan, allowing restaurants and other indoor venues to operate at full capacity. The state’s mask mandate, however, is in effect until Nov. 14.

Earlier restrictions saw most public spaces shut down for several weeks, and the original mask mandate included a misdemeanor charge that Holcomb later removed.

Hollingsworth has criticized Holcomb’s use of executive orders to implement restrictions during the pandemic, arguing that the process should be left to legislators.

“Ultimately, we create laws by virtue of a process,” he said. “And the state legislator that lives the farthest from the capital is three-and-a-half hours away. In the last five months, they haven’t met once. The governor hasn’t called them together to say, ‘The things that we’re doing, are they the things that reflect the will of Hoosiers across this great state?’”

Hollingsworth added that he advocated against imposing a criminal penalty for failure to comply with the mask mandate if it wasn’t passed through the legislature.

Ruff said the coronavirus is unlike anything seen in recent history, and navigating through it requires trust in health experts.

“We’ve got to listen to the public health officials, the scientists, the doctors and the experts who are giving guidance and direction on this,” he said. “For example, if they tell us that masking is important and works and is one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves, and more importantly other people, then there should be a mask mandate. There should be a mask mandate with enforcement tied to it.”

Since entering Stage 5 on Sept. 26, COVID-19 cases have surged in Indiana. Despite the uptick, neither candidate supports reverting back to a full shutdown.

Hollingsworth said he is skeptical of the effectiveness of large-scale shutdowns, citing mental health and educational concerns. Previous stages of the reopening process, he said, showed that some aspects of life could continue normally with proper precautions.

“We didn’t stop the coronavirus,” Hollingsworth said. “We continue to see that out there. But ensuring that those Americans who are least susceptible are able to continue on about their lives — able to go back to work, able to go back to school — is really important while inputting as many safeguards as possible, listening to our scientists, listening to our researchers.”

J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

U.S. Rep Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana’s 9th Congressional District.

Ruff agreed there are employment and recreational environments that can operate safely if health guidelines are followed, but he said the reopening of businesses and other public spaces should be done on a case-by-case basis.

Economic Safety Nets

The candidates disagree on whether enough has been done to assist Americans impacted financially by the pandemic.

Ruff criticized Trump and Senate Republicans postponing another stimulus package. With so many Americans unemployed or working limited hours, he said providing adequate financial support is critical.

“It’s shameful and tragic and sad and sick that the Senate has prioritized things like the Supreme Court hearings over addressing another relief package for the economy, for ordinary people,” Ruff said.

Meanwhile, Hollingsworth commended Trump’s August decision to give out-of-work Americans $300 a week for six weeks in unemployment benefits, half the amount provided under the CARES Act. 

Hollingsworth blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the lack of another relief package, calling her proposals partisan “boondoggles” that he voted against.

In addition to direct aid to citizens, Ruff said he believes it’s important to explore options that guarantee health care, housing and employment, including a New Deal-style plan that would create jobs through public projects.

Racial Justice Demonstrations

When asked about protests that have erupted in response to the high-profile killings of Black men and women by police, Hollingsworth said he worries about demonstrators’ “demonization” of law enforcement. He said he believes most police don’t treat citizens differently based on race.

“The last thing I want in this country is for anyone to be sitting somewhere and think that they can’t do something simply because of the color of their skin,” he said. “And I don’t know any police officer that doesn’t feel that same way.”

Ruff said American discourse around racism is often used to advance political agendas instead of focusing on the underlying problems, and that racism is “deliberately fomented” by those in power to divide lower- and middle-class citizens.

He suggests uniting the working class and ensuring economic and social stability for all as a means of addressing racism.

“We can make great progress in the race issue by addressing these fundamental dysfunctions and disparities,” Ruff said. “We provide health care as a right to everybody. We provide people with an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. We start treating our election process like a true democratic process. Then, a lot of the race issues, I think, will be dramatically reduced.”

J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Congressional candidate Andy Ruff sits in front of a billboard for his campaign at Billy Herman Park in New Albany.

Ruff supports racial justice protests that have taken place across the country — including large demonstrations in Southern Indiana. None of those resulted in property damage. Protests in Louisville have been largely peaceful, with some incidents of vandalism and violence.

Hollingsworth acknowledged that the United States has at times fallen short in ensuring equality, and he commended those who are working to create more opportunity. But he said “rioting” cannot be tolerated as a means to reach that goal and “we have to draw the line at destroying public property.”

Ruff said it is inappropriate to judge protesters as a whole based on the actions of a few.

“It’s totally hypocritical of someone to attack protest as a fundamental, constitutional right in the country because there are a few examples of bad apples who escalate things into violent protest or looting,” he said. “How is that any different from saying we should just really totally crack down on guns because we have a few people who do mass murders with guns? What’s the difference?”

Police Reform

Both Hollingsworth and Ruff expressed support for law enforcement, though to differing degrees.

“I’ve been a huge advocate from day one in ensuring that we have a robust, strong police force in this country that’s able to eradicate crime where it’s committed,” said Hollingsworth, who supports providing more resources and tools for police, including physical equipment.

But he added officers could benefit from further training on how to interact with certain people, specifically mentioning those who struggle with substance abuse or who have neurodegenerative conditions.

What Hollingsworth doesn’t want to see is a “defunding of police.” While social workers play an important role in community outreach, he doesn’t want money diverted from police to that sector.

Ruff does not support calls to “abolish police,” which he said is “clearly ridiculous.” But there are some aspects of policing that can and should be “defunded,” he said. Unlike Hollingsworth, he believes outside social service agencies could take over certain responsibilities currently handled by police.

Ruff also said use-of-force protocols should be re-evaluated, and that some tactics, including chokeholds that could lead to death, should be banned. Police departments should push officers to intervene when fellow officers are “crossing the line” with their authority, Ruff said, and he wants to see officers held accountable for misuse of force by ending qualified immunity.

Election Day is Nov. 3, and early voting is underway in Indiana. You can find your polling station and early voting dates and times here.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.