Trish Whitcomb, left, talks to Jane Cocquerille, chair of the Jennings County Democratic Party, at the kickoff to Whitcomb’s 2024 campaign for the Statehouse. (Photo by Marilyn Odendahl)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

August 18, 2023

Indiana Democratic stalwart Trish Whitcomb borrowed the campaign slogan from her father, the late Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, and launched her 2024 bid for the Indiana General Assembly Thursday, telling her supporters in Seymour, “I won’t be bought, I’ll listen to you and I will never, ever forget where I came from.”

Whitcomb, 70, is making her first run for elected office. While she has been involved in dozens of campaigns across the state and served as campaign manager for Democrat Glenda Ritz during her surprise 2012 win for superintendent of public instruction for Indiana, Whitcomb’s race for House District 69 will likely have her challenging the long-serving and controversial Republican lawmaker Jim Lucas.

However, in starting her campaign Whitcomb did not focus on her potential opponent. Instead, she championed economic development for rural communities, treatment for mental health and substance abuse, and representing the interests of the constituents rather than the lobbyists.

 “My slogan is ‘Win with Whitcomb,’” Whitcomb told the crowd. “It was my dad’s slogan, and he served Indiana with the sensibilities that come from growing up in southern Indiana. Those are things like helping your neighbor, respecting the rights and freedoms of others, and supporting local businesses.”

She had planned to make her announcement in Mellencamp Plaza, a pocket park in downtown Seymour nestled next to a music store. But a late afternoon summer shower forced the event to move across the street to The Pacey Apothecary, a boutique that sells purses, jewelry, framed pictures and clothes, among other items. Volunteers hustled to set up metal folding chairs as a steady stream of people came through the front door and squeezed into what became a tight space.

White t-shirts with “Win with Whitcomb” printed in blue were available along with campaign stickers and buttons. The crowd of mostly middle-aged and older adults talked to one another while Whitcomb greeted her supporters and posed for pictures.

Eventually, she stepped onto the window sill, stood in front of a microphone, and said the causes her father championed – education, mental health treatment, infrastructure, support for local law enforcement and jobs – were still struggles for Indiana communities. She attributed the state’s nagging troubles to “limestone fever.”

The fever sets in, Whitcomb said, when senators and representatives go inside the Statehouse, which is made of Indiana limestone, and forget the people who elected them. Instead, the politicians think their constituents are the lobbyists, other legislators and “big-moneyed interests who need special laws to make outrageous profits or pay little to no taxes.”

“That’s not public service, that’s self-service and it’s got to stop now,” Whitcomb said as the crowd burst into applause.

Jane Cocquerille, chair of the Jennings County Democratic Party, attended the kickoff event even though her county was drawn out of House District 69 in 2021. She came to support her friend Whitcomb and do what she can to help to boot Lucas from office.

“We are so sick of Jim Lucas,” Cocquerille said. “We are just exhausted.”

Lucas first won his legislative seat in 2012 and has trounced his primary and Democratic opponents in subsequent elections. He sailed through the November 2022 contest with 78% of the votes.

Inside the Statehouse, his legislative record is thin. He has championed the expansion of gun rights and the legalization of marijuana but in 2020, 2021 and 2022, none of the bills he authored became law. And in 2023, only his bill allowing teachers to receive firearms training passed through to the governor’s desk.

Party officials at Whitcomb’s launch said the key to her winning in November of next year is increasing voter turnout.

Convincing Hoosiers in the 69th district to go to the polls will be difficult, said Ross Thomas, chair of the Bartholomew Democratic Party, because gerrymandering has left voters feeling their voices do not matter. Yet, Thomas believes Whitcomb can win by connecting with not just Democrats but also moderate Republican voters who have grown weary of Lucas’ antics.

There are “people who say, ‘Look, I might like low taxes, but I don’t like racism; I might like less regulation, but I don’t like somebody who’s irresponsible,’” Thomas said. “You can reach those people if you have a real campaign, and I think she’s going to do that.”

Indiana Democratic Party Chair Mike Schmuhl also emphasized Lucas’ behavior and, while not mentioning Whitcomb specifically, called for a change.

“The people of House District 69 deserve to have a new voice in the Statehouse,” Schmuhl said in a statement. “Jim Lucas has been one of the most extreme members of the supermajority. Instead of tackling issues affecting working families like childcare and stagnant wage growth, Lucas has embroiled himself in constant controversy. He’s engaged in victim blaming, quoted a Nazi on social media, and suggested the Uvalde massacre could be a ‘false-flag’ attack. Next year, voters can send a message by replacing Lucas with someone who will find real solutions for Hoosiers.”

Neither the Indiana Republican Party nor the Jackson County Republican Party responded to requests for comment.

Governor’s daughter

Whitcomb was 16 when her father started his term as governor in 1969. Having moved from Jennings County to Seymour 11 years earlier, the family stayed in the southern Indiana community while the elder Whitcomb commuted every day to the governor’s office.

 Sitting in the Jackson County Public Library the day before her campaign launch, Whitcomb recalled her childhood with her three sisters and one brother. They all swam and participated in the Methodist Youth Fellowship. She was a Girl Scout and spent many afternoons toggling between the library and the Boys and Girls Club.

Whitcomb earned a degree in education from Butler University, but she built a career being involved in politics, usually behind the scenes. Her experience running the Ritz campaign, serving as special advisor in the Indiana Department of Education and working as the executive director of the Indiana Retired Teachers Association are among the achievements Whitcomb’s supporters highlight.

Asked what she learned from the Ritz experience, Whitcomb hesitated and was reluctant to talk about that time. Ritz’s term was marked by a public dispute with then Gov. Mike Pence, and the legislature deciding to make the state superintendent an appointed position.

Whitcomb said Ritz saw herself as “chief teacher” and struggled with the politics.

“If a person is an elected official, they need to know two things,” Whitcomb said. “No. 1, they were elected by people to do something and they’re dealing with people over here who were elected by people to do things. But in the middle there, the politics are still lurking. If you’re not good at politics, you won’t be good.”

Whitcomb believes she can be most effective in the legislature by fostering collaboration. She wants to connect the communities in House District 69 with state and federal programs, initiatives and dollars that would bring more resources to grow businesses and quality of life which will entice young people to stay and raise their families rather than move to larger cities.

“Southern Indiana is just such a very special place,” Whitcomb said. “At the same time, there are many things I feel could be made better with more collaboration with local leaders and people in the Statehouse. I don’t see that happening.”

Lydia Risley, 28, was among the few young adults at Whitcomb’s campaign launch. She admitted she does not normally pay much attention to politics but she worries about school shootings now that her 6-year-old daughter is in kindergarten and she is concerned about paying for her daughter’s health care.

“I just think I should probably use the voice I have to make the world something that’s a little more hospitable to her,” Risley said.

‘District deserves better’

Missing from Whitcomb’s campaign speech was any mention of Lucas.

A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp. and a small business owner, Lucas has drawn considerable attention for his activity on social media. He posted a picture of himself wearing a pair of pantyhose over his head to protest the governor’s mask mandate in 2020. That same year after he posted a meme that was decried as racist, House leadership removed him from two study committees and demoted him on a standing committee.

In May, he was arrested for driving allegedly under the influence, crashing into a guardrail and then driving the wrong way on an interstate ramp. He failed multiple field sobriety tests and was later found to have THC, the active ingredient in marijuana in his system, according to the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

Lucas pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident. The lawmaker turned to social media and said he “made mistakes and exercised horrible judgment.”

Speaking the day before she officially launched her campaign, Whitcomb said Lucas’ “unfortunate incident” convinced her to run.

“I thought this district deserves better,” Whitcomb said.

However, she declined to further discuss the incident because of the painful memories it stirred about her late son, John. At mid-life, she adopted the then 6-year-old boy, moved back to Indiana from California and set up a home as a single mother.

John struggled with drugs and alcohol as a young adult but finally got into recovery after going through a couple of programs. Whitcomb saw the change, noting her son was not lying or fighting with her about little things. But in 2021, at the age of 26, John died of a heart attack in his sleep. A subsequent toxicology report showed he was “completely clean.”

Talking about her son caused Whitcomb to pause, look away and wipe the tears that welled in her eyes. She remembered the really great years she had with her son but, she said, they also had some tough challenges.

“That’s why Jim Lucas can do what he wants to do,” Whitcomb said. “He doesn’t think he has a drinking problem. I happen to think he does, but it’s not for me to tell him what to do.”

Cocquerille, the Jennings County Democratic Party chair, acknowledged Whitcomb may not want to run a mudslinging campaign, but “you’ve got to put a little of that in there” because of Lucas’ headline-grabbing behavior. Unseating Lucas will be difficult, she said, because even while the constituents are exhausted by Lucas, many voters do not know his record in the Statehouse and his opposition to legislation that passed and has since benefited Hoosiers.

“People in Indiana and in these small counties vote against their best interests every year,” Cocquerille said.

Risley was not ready to look past Lucas’ accident and arrest. Her dad was incarcerated for several years “because he did the same thing,” and her friend was killed by a drunk driver.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but he fled the scene,” Risley said of Lucas. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that at all. … It’s very irresponsible.”

After Whitcomb’s speech, the atmosphere was upbeat with supporters and friends talking optimistically about the 2024 campaign. Slowly they poured onto the sidewalk into an evening that had turned sunny, taking home their Whitcomb campaign materials.

“Don’t send me to the legislature because I can’t get limestone fever,” Whitcomb had said. “Although I can’t, I want you to send me to your Statehouse so I can be your person in the Statehouse and represent your interests.”

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