The following profile was written by Indiana journalists Steve Hinnefeld and Barb Berggoetz for The Indiana Citizen.
October 14, 2022
Destiny Scott Wells might have the ideal resume for someone running for statewide office in Indiana.
At 38, she’s a veteran of Afghanistan who has risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel during a 19-year military career, an attorney and an entrepreneur as well. She grew up on a farm near conservative Martinsville.
The challenge? She’s a Democrat running for secretary of state, and Indiana hasn’t elected a Democrat to the office in 32 years – or any statewide office in the past decade. Polling sponsored by political commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz indicates that she has a fighting chance against a beleaguered Republican nominee, Diego Morales, but Wells’ campaign slogan – Indiana is “a purple state with a turnout problem” – highlights her dilemma. She needs to attract Republican and independent voters to win. She has to hold her party’s liberal base without alienating the state’s moderate and conservative majority.
“It’s been a bit of a line to walk,” she acknowledged in an interview – and it shows when Wells is asked what she would do about the “turnout problem.’’
Crucially, the secretary of state is Indiana’s chief election officer, but Wells has been cautious in pushing for the kind of bold changes that have helped to boost turnout in other states, such as automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting endorsed by the Indiana Democratic Party at the 2022 convention that nominated her. She says she needs to strike a balance between advocating for her party’s priorities and recognizing that any changes to election law would have to come from the Republican-dominated legislature.
In interviews and answers to a candidate questionnaire distributed to Wells, Morales and Libertarian candidate Jeff Maurer by The Indiana Citizen, Wells says she favors moving toward automatic voter registration and same-day registration, but says the changes first need serious discussion "with voters and the Indiana General Assembly."
Wells also says she will advocate to move Indiana to nonpartisan legislative and congressional redistricting in 2031 and prioritize efforts to increase Indiana’s voter turnout, which consistently ranks near the bottom of the states. They include expanding the types of voter IDs and making Election Day a holiday – measures which would also require legislative approval.
Wells said she’s “happy to be the spark” that helps make changes to spur turnout.
“But I also try to remember where I’m from,’’ she added, “be mindful of who I’m working with, understanding the majority of Hoosiers will be (more conservative).”
Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, says much evidence exists that Indiana’s voting laws are more restrictive than most other states and negatively impacting turnout here.
While the secretary of state can’t pass any laws, Vaughn added, the officer holder can “publicly challenge the General Assembly to address the problem with bold steps like Election Day voter registration and automatic voter registration.”
Indiana also needs a secretary of state who will “challenge county election administrators to get on the right side of voting access issues,” she said, adding that county clerks carry a lot of weight on these issues at the Statehouse, but they often oppose expanding voting or registration access because of staffing or financial concerns.
In Indiana and nationally, the possibility of “election deniers” becoming secretaries of state has become a campaign issue.
Wells has come out swinging against Morales on this issue. She called him an election denier who seemed to endorse Donald Trump’s false claims the 2020 election results can’t be trusted and called on him to disavow the Trump-supporting America First Secretary of State Coalition. Morales has since said Joe Biden was legitimately elected.
“There is one pro-democracy candidate on the ballot this year,” she said, “and that’s me.”
Nor has Morales hesitated to criticize Wells for what he calls her lack of support for strengthening voter ID laws and for expanding voting opportunities when Indiana already has plenty of opportunities for everyone to “get out there and vote.”
Wells now lives in Downtown Indianapolis with her husband Oliver, a lieutenant colonel in the Indiana Army National Guard, and their two boys, Owen, 11, and Harrison, 2. She talked about her campaign over the clatter of dishes and the whoosh of the espresso machine in a downtown Martinsville coffee shop, where she was waiting to walk in her hometown’s Fall Foliage Festival parade.
The Shabazz-sponsored poll has shown her with a slight lead with good support from women, middle-aged and young voters, although history shows younger voters are least likely to turn out. But the secretary of state is usually a low-profile office that gets little notice from typical voters.
Marjorie Hershey, Indiana University professor emeritus of political science, said Wells is a strong candidate and Morales has some vulnerabilities. “The question is, will people know that,” she said. “And that depends on how much money she’s able to raise and how much publicity is given to that race.”
Morales got a head start in fundraising and has had an advantage in campaign money on hand. But Wells partially caught up in the second quarter of 2022, and recently started airing ads on Indianapolis cable TV.
Can she gain the cross-party support she needs to win?
William Ellis, a former Monroe County Republican chairman and a member of the Ellettsville Town Council, is skeptical.
Ellis admitted that Wells has a “great, impeccable resume,” but he doesn’t think that will gain her support from Hoosier conservatives. The problem, he said, isn’t that she has a “D” beside her name. It’s that, in appealing to progressive Democrats, she’s turning away Republicans.
“She has hit every Democratic talking point and checked every box,” he said. “And the media seems to give her a pass time and time again on her policy points.”
Ellis is particularly upset that the Wells campaign has promoted attacks on Morales, including claims by two publicly unnamed women, both colleagues of Morales at the time, that Morales kissed and touched them against their will about 15 years ago. Morales has denied the accusations and called them “politically motivated.”
“To me, it’s very opportunistic,” Ellis said of the allegations. “It’s very dirty and underhanded. All of this stuff just galvanizes his supporters even more.”
But Wells’ supporters like Arielle Brandy, of South Bend, think people should take the accusations into consideration when voting. “Hoosiers want to feel safe and that they are listened to and there is someone who can get the work done. They don’t want to worry about personnel issues.”
Supporters say, too, they are impressed by Wells’ varied professional and military experiences. She has been developing contacts in Democratic circles for years and, more recently, reaching out to broader communities and stressing the importance of protecting democracy and the right to vote.
“I want someone in our state to be able to advocate for democracy,” said Brandy, who went through the Hoosier Women Forward program with Wells in 2020-21. The 10-month program helps Democratic women become more active in politics and communities at large.
“We need a forward thinker, someone who knows how to serve and who understands what’s at stake,” said Brandy, a Democratic political consultant. “She knows what the crumbling of democracy looks like and what it might look like here. She’s seen it firsthand,” she added, referring to Wells’ military service in Afghanistan.
Brandy also believes Wells can stand up under pressure and work well with Republicans. “She has the support of some Republicans across the state. She’s ready to work across the aisle and already having those conversations on both sides of the aisle.”
From early in her life, Wells has been around Republicans and she, in fact, cast her first presidential vote for George W. Bush in 2004. Wells grew up in Martinsville, where her father was a seventh-generation Indiana farmer who also worked full-time off the farm. Her family members were, and continue to be, Republicans.
“My family’s supportive because they know me and know I’m running for the right reasons,” she said.
At IU Bloomington, political science classes piqued her curiosity about war and international relations. She enlisted in the Indiana National Guard at the end of her freshman year at age 19, completed basic training the following year, and joined ROTC as an IU junior.
Wells said being a “farmer’s kid,” acutely conscious of the cost of college, helped motivate her to enlist. Also, her father worked for a business owned by Martin Umbarger, longtime adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard, so the idea seemed feasible. With the military paying her tuition and a campus job covering room and board, she graduated almost debt-free.
“I think it was three months after graduation when I had it all paid off,” she said.
Dr. Claire MacIntyre, a dentist in Fishers, met Wells when both were IU freshmen and members of a recreational gymnastics team. MacIntyre describes herself as a political independent who leans Republican, but her friendship with and admiration for Wells transcends politics. She believes Wells is motivated by a strong sense of justice. “She is one of those people,” MacIntyre said, “who will literally go to war for what she thinks is right.”
Wells did, in fact, go to war, eventually. She said she thrived in ROTC, and after IU, she spent two years as a recruiter for the Indiana National Guard. Then she earned a law degree at the University of Texas, consistently a top 20 law school. After briefly practicing law in Martinsville, she was deployed for a year to Fort Hood, Texas, where she supervised intelligence and security programs.
In 2016-17, she was deployed to Afghanistan, where she oversaw a Defense Department linguist services contract.
Ball State University economist Michael J. Hicks, a retired Army reserve lieutenant colonel who served in combat in Iraq, said the fact all three candidates have military experience offers a “clear and discrete” way to compare their qualifications.
Maurer enlisted in the Indiana Air Force National Guard in 2021. Morales enlisted as an infantryman in the National Guard during wartime, but some say his service lacked distinction.
“If he’s been in five years … those are periods of time where he could have been promoted at least once,” Hicks said. “You can draw some inference about his performance there.”
He said Morales and Maurer deserve respect for having enlisted and served, but Wells’ record stands out. She was promoted multiple times. She served in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer and attained a rank of lieutenant colonel, which says the military believes she is capable of leading a battalion of 800 to 1,200 soldiers, Hicks explained.
“You have one whose service clearly sets her apart from the other two,” he said, “in terms of experience and judgment and the perception by some people around her that she should be selected for responsibility.”
Hicks, who described his political beliefs as “center-right,” agreed with Wells that elections are a matter of national security. “If we have somebody running for office who is not willing to acknowledge the 2020 election was fair and properly executed, to me, that’s a national security risk to the republic,” he said.
After Afghanistan, Wells worked as a deputy Indiana attorney general and a lawyer with the City of Indianapolis. Jon Nagy was her supervisor at the attorney general’s office.
“She’s a worker,” said Nagy, now chief counsel for litigation at the Indiana Department of Health. “She took to it and really, quickly, became one of my most trusted deputies.”
“She was a really good teammate, always willing to answer questions,” said Nagy, also an Army veteran. “If other deputies needed help on their cases, she was always willing to take time to get them pointed in the right direction.”
He said Wells “has the required intelligence, good sense, maturity and professionalism to be secretary of state.”
Becoming involved in politics had been on Wells’ radar since majoring in political science at IU. That urge grew as she studied law, served in the military, and later talked to fellow Rotary Club members and others. After going through Hoosier Women Forward, she became deputy chair for coalitions and expansion of the Indiana Democratic Party in 2021.
Dayna Colbert, a market researcher for a small business in Fishers, said Wells’ leadership qualities, problem-solving skills and integrity were evident when she went through Hoosier Women Forward with her.
“She definitely has a presence,” said Colbert. “She is a very dynamic person. She came to class ready to work and really wanted to understand everything that was being presented.”
Colbert said she believes Wells possesses integrity, an important quality for a secretary of state, which is exemplified by her military service and oaths taken as an attorney. “I think she will fight for voters’ rights, which is very necessary in today’s climate,” she said. “And she would put country over party, if it came to that.”
Wells also has garnered the support of the Indiana Latino Democratic Caucus, a 15-year-old group under the Indiana Democratic Party. Its mission is to encourage Latinos to participate in the political and democratic process. Historically, the group has only endorsed Latino candidates. But president Cynthia Morraz, of Marion County, said members decided this year to also endorse Democratic candidates they feel support their community.
One of them is Wells. “She is a very competent candidate for this position and has been willing to engage with the Latino community and commit to the issues that are impacting our community,” said Morraz. She said Wells agreed to sign a pledge to support the group’s efforts, for example, to get “driving cards” and in-state tuition for the undocumented community.
She said she’s confident Wells will offer the Latino community a “seat at the table” and work to make voting more accessible to all, but she’s not sure about Morales’ positions. She mentioned Morales’ initial stance to cut in half the 28 days for early voting, although she recognized he later backtracked.
“It’s hard to keep track of what this candidate is for and against and how many retractions he’s made,” she said. “How confident can we be sure that this candidate is right for this role and will keep his word?”
Wells, asked what qualifies her to be secretary of state, cited her extensive experience, much of it in leadership, with the U.S. Defense Department, “the most bureaucratic, red-tape organization on the face of the planet.” She also cited her experience with and understanding of legal issues and litigation.
“Secretary of state is the top point for election litigation, and election litigation is everything at this moment right now.” she said.
“I’m really proud of our messaging,’’ she added “. . .What people want in this office is a professional first and a partisan second.”
Especially now, she said, having professionals in secretary of states’ offices is important in case they get that call to “find extra votes” or “mess with state electors,” referring to alleged actions in the aftermath of former President Trump’s defeat in 2020.
“I’m gravely concerned about the future of democracy, she said, “and the best thing we can do right now, at this point in time, is to take Indiana off the chess board as a possible piece in the game.”
Steve Hinnefeld is a freelance writer based in Bloomington. He formerly was an adjunct instructor at the Media School at Indiana University, a media specialist at Indiana University and reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Times.
Barb Berggoetz is a freelance writer based in Bloomington. She was a longtime government, education and health reporter for The Indianapolis Star and other Midwest daily newspapers and formerly an adjunct instructor at The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington.