IndyStar: How Christina Hale attempts to win Republican voters using empathy
By: Kaitlin Lange
When 5th Congressional District Democratic candidate Christina Hale went to college at Purdue University Northwest, her parents expected her to get a degree. Instead, at age 19, she discovered she would be coming home with something else: a baby boy.
As a single young mother, Hale, now 49, had to balance school and being a parent as she worked her way through college, taking jobs as a waitress, reporter and as part of work-study programs — jobs that sometimes did not provide enough money for her to break even with the cost of daycare.
At one point, before she was able to get her son Owen into a reliable daycare program, Hale jokes that he was learning his colors from the Power Rangers at a baby sitter’s house with just too many other children. But Hale knew she needed that degree.
Throughout much of the 1990s, Hale said she didn’t have health insurance, and when she got something as routine as strep throat, the bills for the doctor’s visit and medicine added up. She fell behind on her car payment.
It’s that time in her life that Hale points to when campaigning as proof that she understands the plight of those in the 5th District as they struggle with the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus and deal with costly health care.
She’s running on empathy.
But there’s a potential glaring difference between her and the majority of people in the 5th District: She’s a Democrat in an area that has historically elected Republicans, from President Donald Trump to Congresswoman Susan Brooks.
She’s already boasted endorsements by former President Barack Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, two political names that likely don’t have much of a moderate Republican following in Indiana, and in the latest attack ad from conservative Club for Growth, she’s been labeled “just another liberal politician.”
In November, Hale will run against Republican Victoria Spartz, who local political scientists say still has the upper hand, and Libertarian Ken Tucker, to fill Brook’s seat upon retirement.
Democrats, who have been all but left behind in Indiana politics as they have experienced loss after loss in statewide and federal elections, are putting their hope behind Hale. That includes those who once ran against her in the primary and insinuated she wasn't progressive enough.
Indiana's 5th Congressional District candidate: How Victoria Spartz's Ukrainian roots influence her conservative values
There is evidence the district could be shifting and Hale has experience working across the aisle, but it’s unclear if that will be enough.
“There have been a lot of Republicans and Democrats here that have recognized the good work that I have done,” Hale told IndyStar. “But I think the problems that we're experiencing now apply to everyone, and healthcare isn't progressive or moderate or conservative. Healthcare is a human problem.”
'Determined to make something of her life'
Hale, a Cuban-American and the daughter of an attorney and a nurse, grew up in Michigan City. When she told her family she was pregnant, she said her brothers told her she would always be a loser. She was going to prove them wrong, for the sake of her son and herself.
Hale graduated with a degree in liberal studies after a brief stint studying in Wales with her son made possible by a Rotary club scholarship.
To this day, she attributes much of her success to the Imagination Station program in Michigan City that enabled her to enroll Owen in quality childcare for a reduced price.
Even back then, Hale was a go-getter, said Deb Chubb, who at the time was a fellow single mother who had enrolled her children in the same daycare program and eventually became the program’s executive director.
“I could tell that she was super smart and she was really ambitious and just determined to make something of her life,” Chubb said. “And to do it while she was also being a great parent to Owen. She really was a standout.”
Hale,who has since married Chris McElwee, landed a job in the Indiana Department of Commerce after college and spent her adult life here in Central Indiana. She worked in a number of government jobs under former Gov. Frank O’Bannon, before she moved to a job at Kiwanis International, a global community of clubs headquartered in Indianapolis with the mission of improving the lives of children throughout the world.
She had dabbled in politics before with an internship under former Congressman Tim Roemer and as campaign manager for former House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, both Democrats, but it was her time working for Kiwanis that inspired her to run for a Statehouse seat.
Hale led a project focused on eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus, a deadly disease usually caused when the umbilical cord is cut with an unsterile instrument.
“I came back here in Indiana, and it made me want to set my hair on fire when I would read about the outrageous rates of infant and maternal mortality here in happy wholesome Indiana, and I just thought this is unacceptable,” Hale said. “Why is nobody dealing with this problem that we have here?”
There were other problems in Indiana, too, such as high rates of sexual assault. So she decided if she wanted to see solutions to these problems, she needed to offer them.
‘You have to try’
Just like this election cycle, Hale faced a tough up-hill battle when she ran for the Statehouse in 2012. In fact, Hale said most people told her not to run.
If she could win in 2012 some Democrats say, she can win again this year.
In that 2012 general election she was attempting to replace Republican Cindy Noe, who had served in office for a decade in District 87, and had routinely easily beat her challengers.
Located in the northeast corner of Marion County, the district, which had just been redrawn after the 2010 census, leaned Republican at the time.
By the time Hale entered the race, at the suggestion of friend and former party chairman Kip Tew, Noe had roughly $7,000 in the bank and a decade of name recognition while Hale was a political outsider who had to start mostly from scratch.
“Most of the advice that I got was that it was impossible and I shouldn't bother trying,” Hale said. “But I just couldn't accept that. I thought, 'you have to try.'”
Hale ultimately claimed a narrow 51-vote victory. It was close but it was still a win, and it allowed Democrats to get their foot in the door in that district and keep it after Hale left.
"Republicans drew it to be a Republican seat and we took it away from them," Tew told IndyStar. "The smart Republicans knew it was trending away from them slowly. I don't think they thought it was going to happen when it did."
Hale, he said, accelerated that process as an attractive nontraditional candidate initially and as a lawmaker who was not focused on party lines later on.
When Tew thinks about Hale's ability to win in the 5th District, he thinks about that 2012 race.
"She's proven she can win a difficult district," Tew said. "The dynamics are heading in the same direction. The question is, is it heading there quickly enough or is there enough rural voters that have not changed their minds about being Republican voters."
Time in the Statehouse
Once elected, Hale became an advocate for victims of sexual assault and a go-to lawmaker on related children’s issues. Those issues by nature ended up being supported by both parties.
During her time in the Statehouse, Hale was involved in legislation extending the time frame for prosecuting some rape cases, expanding the definition of sexual conduct and prohibiting sex offenders from entering school grounds.
Because Hale was in the minority in the House and in the Statehouse in general, if she wanted a bill passed, she had to work with Republicans.
“I have done a lot of work to protect children and vulnerable populations from violence,” she told IndyStar. “This is not a Republican issue, this is not a Democratic issue. This is something that everyone who cares about children wants to protect them from this kind of dire violence.”
Those types of issues were attractive to women such as Suellen Reed, a former Republican State Superintendent of Indiana known for her ability to work with governors from both parties and a family friend of Hale's. She will vote straight Republican come November, except for in the 5th District.
"I think Christina will be one that we can send to Washington that won't march strictly along party lines, but she will be willing to find common ground for people to be able to work," Reed said. "Right now that's what we really need."
Of course, Hale still often voted along party lines, even if the issues she was most vocal about weren’t split by party. For example in 2015 she voted against the budget bill, which is routine for members of the minority party, and in 2016 she voted against the Republican-supported, yet controversial bill that banned abortions sought due to disability, gender or race. She also voted against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
But, as a testament to her ability to earn respect from both sides of the aisle, during her 2014 reelection Hale was endorsed by both the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, two groups that often find themselves endorsing different candidates.
Likewise in 2016, now-Vice President Mike Pence's campaign spokesman, Marc Lotter, said Pence "has a lot of respect" for Hale. Not surprisingly, though, Pence already endorsed Spartz.
In 2016, Democrat John Gregg also chose Hale as his running mate in an unsuccessful bid for governor, touting Hale's ability to work with both parties to pass legislation.
"To be perfectly honest, this is not a call I ever thought I would get," Hale said at the time.
“The whipped cream on top of the sundae is she’s personal, she’s charming, she’s very much a conversationalist. She could rub elbows with CEOs or rub elbows with people picking up litter on the side of the road,” Gregg told IndyStar. “The party faithful loved her and the average citizen that met her at fairs and events like that just really liked her.”
After the pair lost, Gregg told Hale to get back on the bike. She was too young and had too much to offer to quit politics. And for the next few years whenever party insiders discussed open statewide or Congressional seats, her name was in the mix.
Can she win?
Since then, Hale returned to Kiwanas where she worked as executive director of youth programs, until last year when she left her job to focus on her campaign for Congress.
This district may be the Democrats’ best shot of a victory this year, with money and endorsements already pouring into the race. It's the only race that's received much attention — and with that attention has come money from national Democrats.
There are signs the district, which stretches from northern Marion County to the city of Marion, might be changing. Take for example the 2019 municipal election. Democrats — one in Carmel and two in Fishers — were elected to their respective city councils for the first time since either entity became a city. Historically Republican Zionsville elected its first Democratic mayor.
Down in Marion County, Democrats picked up six seats, four of which at least partially sit in the 5th District.
Democrats aren't just overly optimistic. This summer, two well-known political analysis groups Sabato's Crystal Ball and Cook Political Report announced they now consider the race a toss-up.
Gregg considers Hale an ideal match for the district.
“I think people in that district look beyond party labels,” Gregg said. “If they look beyond party labels and they start looking at what people stand for, they’re going to see it’s Christina Hale.”
Laura Merrifield Wilson, a political science professor from the University of Indianapolis, said the 5th District could turn, but it’s not inevitable. She still gives Spartz the advantage. The district, she said, likely can only be flipped by someone willing to move more toward the center ideologically-wise.
“Hale holds many liberal policy positions, particularly when compared to the conversative status quo of the state, but her work in the state legislature seemed to focus more on policy outcomes than steadfast ideology,” Merrifield Wilson said. “The challenge with any candidate from the minority party is attracting not just your own party base but also the moderates from the other party and in Indiana, that means moving to a center sometimes beyond the traditional Democratic comfort zone.”
In the primary election, Hale's opponents were able to sell themselves as more progressive candidates, whether it was regarding climate policy or gun control. Democrat Jennifer Christie, for example, called herself "the only progressive running" on Twitter. She advocated for such things as a universal living wage or Medicare for All. Hale didn't.
Still, Hale appears to not have pushed away people like Christie, who after Hale claimed victory, tweeted that Hale has her "full support."
Right now there are two names on the ballot in the general election and we need to make a choice for the best candidate between these two people," Christie told IndyStar. "That best candidate is Christina Hale."
That's not surprising to Merrifield Wilson, who said being picky about policy could cost the Democrats in this district.
"Democrats really see this as a winnable race," she said, "and there aren't a lot of those opportunities across the state."
To whatever degree people view Hale as pragmatic, her views align with the Democratic party on many fronts, especially here in Indiana. She considers climate change a threat, she favors abortion rights and she believes everyone should have a public health insurance option if they prefer it over private insurance. Those stances could alienate the more conservative voters in the 5th District.
But when Hale sat down for an interview with IndyStar last month, she referenced Republicans she had worked with on bills. There was the bill to prevent serious sex offenders from entering school grounds with Republican Rep. Ben Smaltz and a bill on work study programs with Republican Rep. Ed Clere.
Neither responded to IndyStar calls.
She also named Indiana moderates Republican Richard Lugar and Democrat Birch Bayh as politicians she admired.
However, in a state that has seen moderate Democrats such as former Sen. Joe Donnelly and former Sen. Evan Bayh lose key statewide elections in the last five years, selling herself as a moderate doesn’t guarantee a win either. In Indiana, Democrats hold zero statewide positions, only two Congressional seats, and fewer than 30% of state legislative seats.
Hale is hopeful people will look past party in the 5th District.
"I hope people just take me on my own merits and pay attention to my record," she said. "Families here are facing a lot of problems right now and I think this is a real opportunity to connect with them and then let the voters decide."
Education: Bachelor's degree in liberal studies from Purdue University.
Previous work experience: Executive director of Youth and Service Leadership Programs at Kiwanis International, served two terms as a state representative.
Family: Husband, Chris, and one son.