Herald Times: Local issues, national politics will influence voters in 2018

Combating an ongoing opioid epidemic. Justifying the adoption of a controversial 1 percent food and beverage tax to help fund the expansion of the Monroe Convention Center. Better representation on township boards to ensure residents have fire protection service they want.

Those are just a few of the issues local party leaders expect to be on voters’ minds during the 2018 elections.

Along with a couple of congressional races at the top of the ticket, voters in Monroe County will also decide on who should represent them at the Statehouse, at the county level and on township and school boards.

"I look forward to a spirited competition in the general election," Monroe County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Fraley said. "In the primary election, there is already excitement around many races that have drawn several engaging and qualified candidates."

Monroe County Republican Party Chairman William Ellis said local constituents’ No. 1 issue going into the 2018 election season is addressing the opioid epidemic. He said Monroe County has made strides to get the conversation started about the crisis, but further legislative action is needed. Ellis said this will take collaboration among law enforcement, courts, elected officials, nonprofit organizations and others.

Fraley said Monroe County voters want to see concerted action to address the opioid crisis; however, such issues cannot be tackled only at the local level. He said voters will also be looking to state legislators to take aggressive measures on the issue.

Ellis said the Republican-controlled Statehouse and governor's office have a tall order in front of them on addressing opioid abuse.

"How we address that in the next decade will be a crucial issue from the local level all the way up to the federal level," Ellis said.

At the local level, some of the more controversial issues, such as the food and beverage tax and increased property taxes related to the Northern Monroe Fire Protection Territory, are bound to influence voter decisions in local races.

After decades of trying, the county council adopted a countywide food and beverage tax by a narrow margin, 4-3, in December.

The tax goes into effect Feb. 1 and applies to food or beverages sold at restaurants, prepared food items from grocery stores and food truck sales. The purpose of the tax is to help finance the expansion of the downtown Monroe Convention Center.

Ellis, who was a vocal opponent of the tax, said there is still lingering animosity among residents living outside city limits regarding the vote.

“I think our representatives have forgotten that the city of Bloomington does not equal Monroe County,” Ellis said about the vote.

As such, he expects that the county council members who voted for the food and beverage tax will have to defend their votes during their potential re-election campaigns.

Another issue in 2018 is likely to be fire protection. Ellis said he expects it to be a hot topic for the townships in the Northern Monroe Fire Protection Territory. He said residents in Washington Township were upset about the property tax increases and ceding control of the fire protection budget to Bloomington Township.

National politics have bearing on local races

Both local party leaders anticipate the political climate in Washington, D.C., to have some bearing on local elections next year.

"There is no separating local concerns from the actions of the federal government," Fraley said.

Ellis said it will be difficult for Republican candidates to differentiate themselves from actions at the federal level. He said there is strong pushback against President Donald Trump that can potentially spill over into more local races.

An Indiana seat in the U.S. Senate and the Indiana 9th Congressional District seat are two big races next year that are already garnering attention.

Fraley said the U.S. Senate race, in which Democrat Joe Donnelly is hoping to retain his seat, is especially crucial, with a number of GOP measures in the Senate having failed by very narrow margins, mostly along party lines.

"Our local party will play a huge effort in mobilizing voters to benefit Democratic candidates up and down the ballot," Fraley said. "As a Democratic stronghold, we know that Democrats must turn out huge in Monroe County in order to be successful."

On the other side, local Republicans are eager to show their support in order to flip that U.S. Senate seat from blue to red.

"Just because he is tone deaf does not mean he is courageous," Ellis said of Donnelly.

Ellis said U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita have established themselves as the two candidates to choose from to challenge Donnelly in the general election. Ellis said the number of voters who vote in the primary in the Indianapolis precincts may well determine how that race will swing.

Another congressional race that party leaders are watching is for Indiana's 9th District. Freshman Republican congressman Trey Hollingsworth will be hoping to keep his spot in Congress next year.

"The race for the 9th District congressional seat will be hard-fought in both the primary and general election," Fraley said. "The Democratic candidates are generating tons of excitement and energy."

The following Democrats have announced their intent to challenge Hollingsworth: Brandon Hood, Bloomington lawyer Liz Watson, Indiana University instructor Tom Pappas, New Albany civil rights attorney Dan Canon and Robert Chatlos, a Bloomington truck driver.

Ellis said unseating Hollingsworth will be no easy task. While local Democrats may criticize the congressman for not listening to his constituents in Bloomington, Ellis pointed out the 9th District is much bigger than just the one city and said Hollingsworth has been representing those constituents.

That does not mean, he said, that local Republicans can stay idle regarding the 9th District race.

"We are looking at a blue flood if we do not communicate our message out there well enough," Ellis said. "We have to contribute to win."