The Indiana Citizen

The Crossroads of Civic Engagement

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Indiana’s 7th Congressional District poses as stiff a challenge for a challenger as most of the eight others in Indiana. It contains all but a Northside sliver of Marion County, and takes in some of the most heavily Democratic precincts in Indiana. Democrats have held the district and its predecessors dating back to 1974, when Andy Jacobs defeated soon-to-be Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut to take back the seat he had lost in an upset two years before.

There have been no upsets since. Jacobs held onto the seat for another 12 years, and family friend and former aide Julia Carson held it for another 12 before dying in office. Her grandson, Andre Carson, has held it for the past 12, winning reelection by increasingly wide margins; in 2020, he had 62% of the general election vote over Republican Susan Marie Smith.

An occasionally outspoken progressive and active in the Congressional Black Caucus, he has pursued national security issues at the Intelligence Committee. As a Muslim, he has been a sharp critic of the travel ban that President Donald Trump imposed on several majority Muslim nations.

Originally interested in the priesthood, Carson converted to Islam and became the second Muslim elected to Congress. Carson also had an artistic side. He wrote poetry as a young man and performed as a rap artist under the name “Juggernaut.” With a career in law enforcement in mind, he got a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice management from Concordia University and a master’s degree in business management from Indiana Wesleyan. Carson spent nine years as a plainclothes officer of the Indiana Excise Police, which enforces alcohol and tobacco laws. “I loved law enforcement,” he told Esquire magazine in 2010. “But this job sure beats sitting and waiting for something bad to go down at three in the morning.”

He recalled that his political interest began in 1984, at age 10, when he attended the Democratic convention in San Francisco and heard civil rights leader Jesse Jackson speak. Carson said his thinking was transformed by reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and he attended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995. In 2007, at age 32, he won a seat on the Indianapolis City-County Council, his first elected office.

After Julia Carson died in December 2007, her grandson faced significant opposition for the Democratic nomination in the special election to fill the remainder of her term. At the January 2008 Democratic caucus, he won a bare majority with 223 of the 439 votes. State Rep. David Orentlicher, a lawyer and doctor, got 123 votes, and Marion County Treasurer Michael Rodman came in third with 27 votes. Against Republican state Rep. Jon Elrod, a lawyer, Carson received extensive assistance from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He called for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, endorsed tax cuts for working families, and said companies should have incentives to keep them from sending jobs overseas. He won, 54%-43%. Carson has faced minimal opposition since, though his vote percentage in the general election has been relatively small compared with most other Black Caucus members.

In the House, his voting record has been mostly liberal. He placed near the center of House Democrats in the Almanac vote ratings for 2017. He initially opposed the $700 billion bailout of financial markets in 2008, but switched his position after Barack Obama, then the Democratic presidential nominee, urged him to support it. Carson has been a senior whip on Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s team. Before the final vote on the health care overhaul in 2010, he claimed that angry protesters outside the Capitol hurled racial epithets at him and civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.

As the first Muslim to get a seat on the Intelligence Committee, Carson’s selection produced protests from some conservative activists. He has won committee approval of his amendments to increase the transparency of government efforts to counter violent extremism at home and abroad, calling it “critical that we maintain strong oversight of these programs to protect American privacy and civil rights.” In May 2018, the House passed Carson’s amendment to the defense-spending bill to require mental health assessments for service members who have been deployed.

As ranking Democrat on the panel’s Emerging Threats Subcommittee in 2018 when the GOP controlled the House, Carson criticized committee Republicans for shutting down the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election; he said they were “putting our country’s national security interests and democracy at risk.” He said Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran was “illogical, shortsighted and extremely dangerous.”

His biting rhetoric has sometimes gotten Carson in trouble. At a town hall meeting in 2011, Carson said that some members of the tea party movement in Congress would love to see blacks “hanging on a tree.” In March 2018, Indianapolis Star columnist Tim Swarens attacked Carson for failing to criticize Farrakhan for anti-Semitic comments in a speech. “How much hatred must Farrakhan spread before Carson and other prominent Democrats disavow and distance themselves from him?” Swarens wrote, adding that Carson said he opposed anti-Semitism but that he failed to include any mention of Farrakhan.

During the 2016 campaign, Carson voiced concern about what he called Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. “That saying about ‘Make America Great Again’ is a form of meta-messaging to a certain segment, we’re talking about our white brothers and sisters, largely blue collar,” he said.  When the Supreme Court in June 2018 upheld a modified version of the travel ban in a 5-4 decision, Carson called it “a shameful sanctioning of discrimination.”

As one of only two Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation, Carson emerged as its leading voice against the Trump administration and its policies; in December 2019, he and 1st District Rep. Pete Visclosky cast the delegation’s only votes in favor of both articles of Trump’s impeachment.  As the only Black member of the delegation, Carson also has emerged as its leading voice in the wake of the death of George Floyd. – The Almanac of American Politics