Since the 1960s, Indiana House District 37 has been home to the state’s most transformative growth – in development, in population, in affluence and, of late, in diversity. It centers on the Hamilton County community of Fishers, a farm town of 340 in 1960, now a city of 93,000 with an emerging skyline. With neighboring Carmel, it ranks among Indiana’s most wealthy with average household income over $100,000. And while hardly a melting pot, Fishers has begun to resemble its suburban Indianapolis neighbors to the south, with an increasing African American population that exceeds 5% of the total.
The growth has made for interesting politics. Through the 1980s, ‘ 90s and well past 2000, District 37 sent Democrats to the Indiana House, elected from the union communities of Madison County northeast of Fishers. By 2012, a redrawing of district lines toward suburbia made the district so reliably Republican that first-time political candidate Todd Huston was elected without Democratic opposition, as he was again in 2014.
Huston’s professional background is in education policy, and the issue – along with his meteoric rise into leadership and consistent hawkishness on fiscal restraint – has helped to define his five terms in the House. When elected, he was best known in the Statehouse as former chief of staff to state schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, whose single term in office – a teacher uprising foiled his bid for a second – saw the enactment of the nation’s most expansive private school voucher program, a merit pay system for teachers and a push for state takeover of low-performing public schools. As a freshman legislator, Huston co-authored HB 1003, which expanded eligibility for the voucher program.
By 2019, he was House Ways and Means co-chair and led the writing of a state budget that shifted more than $500 million to state education spending while prompting criticism that none of the increase went specifically to increasing teacher salaries. Huston also carried HB 1015, the state’s broadest expansion of gambling since its legalization 30 years before; he delivered the closing argument for its passage only to return to his desk and vote against his own bill, indicating later that he was concerned over the costs of last-minute compromises made to ensure its passage.
During the 2020 session, Huston became speaker of the House, an office rivaled only by the governor’s during legislative sessions, controlling the flow of legislation to committees and on the House floor. He also co-authored HB 1007, which shifted unexpected state surplus funds toward onetime payments on university building projects and K-12 teacher pension funds – again amid criticism that the $270 million should go instead toward increases in teacher pay. In a widely circulated op-ed, Huston replied that it would be “unsustainable for state government to spend onetime money on ongoing programs.’’ At the time, it was expected that Republican leaders might back teacher pay raises in 2021, a budget-writing year, but the coronavirus-triggered economic downtown seems likely to complicate that process.
Huston’s rise through the legislative ranks seemed almost as effortless as his first run for office, but his home turf is changing again. Donald Trump won Hamilton County in 2016, but Hillary Clinton ran strongest in Fishers, winning several precincts. With its ever-larger and more diverse population – along with a national political realignment, particularly among suburban women – District 37 is nominating increasingly competitive Democrats. Huston’s share of the vote shrank to 54.5% in 2018. It was thought that the state’s most powerful legislator might find himself in an even closer race in 2020, and his reelection bid was the most expensive in the House, reporting more than $400,000 spent by mid-October; Huston was able to increase his share of the vote to 56%. – Kevin Morgan