When Randy Head resigned his seat in the Indiana Senate in 2019, he set in motion a six-candidate scramble to succeed him. Under Indiana law, it was up to Republican precinct committee officers throughout the five counties of Senate District 18 to choose the winner. Eighty-two of them gathered at the Miami County Fairgrounds on a Monday night in September. Endorsed by Head, Cass County Council member Stacey Donato was up against a group that included a former Miami County sheriff and a council member from the small town of Flora; it took 90 minutes and five rounds of voting before she got the required 42 votes.
Among Donato’s first bills in the Senate was one that would require the state Department of Education to evaluate training requirements for teachers and to report back to the legislature with recommendations for streamlining or reducing them. An accountant from Logansport, the district’s largest city, Donato identified funding for K-12 education as a legislative priority, and her first day in the General Assembly coincided with a rally of 15,000 teachers at the Statehouse. Their main demand was higher pay – which Republican leaders indicated would have to wait until 2021 – but the list also included fewer training requirements.
Donato said she met with about 50 teachers from her district who were at the rally. “I realized that the training has just been taken to a level that I’m sure they never intended it to go. So this really gives us a chance to step back and analyze what these teachers are doing,’’ she said in discussing her bill with CNHI, a chain with several newspapers in Indiana. “Education is my personal mission and having the teachers here was just a bonus. Then I went to as many schools as I could get to in my district and met them on their turf to see what they were talking about.’’
It’s not unusual for legislators to win their seats by party caucus rather than public election due to the resignation or death of an incumbent; about one in five got to the General Assembly that way. What was unusual about the party caucus that selected Donato, though, was that it represented the first time that any state Senate candidate in the district faced a vote of any kind in more than a decade.
That last happened in 2008 when, running for his first term, Head faced a Democratic opponent in the general election. In 2020, Democrats fielded a candidate, Cass County schoolteacher Laura Fred Smith; Donato won with 73% of the general election vote. – Kevin Morgan