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Hogsett, Merritt square off in first mayoral debate

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Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indiana Sen. Jim Merritt talked about inequality, public safety and roads, among other issues, at the first mayoral debate Aug. 29 at Crowne Plaza.

Hogsett, the Democratic incumbent, laid out a vision for Indianapolis that includes incentives for an $18 an hour minimum wage and a so-called commuter tax to help road repairs, while Merritt, a Republican, cast himself as the solution to Indianapolis’ homicide problems and shied away from proposals that he said would put the city at a competitive disadvantage with neighbors.

A recently released IndyPolitics.org poll showed Hogsett leading Merritt 55% to 27%.

Here’s what the candidates had to say about major issues they discussed at the debate, which was moderated by Indianapolis Business Journal city government reporter Hayleigh Colombo.


Hogsett highlighted his plan that would require an $18 an hour minimum wage for businesses that apply for tax incentives as something that could help bring Indianapolis residents out of poverty. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 20% of people in Indianapolis live below the poverty level.

“It’s not enough just to support underserved aspects of our city,” he said. “But rather we must be about the business of changing outcomes. Until those outcomes change, systemic racism will still exist, and we’ll fight it.”

Merritt said he was skeptical of an $18 minimum wage because he’s worried that would make Indianapolis businesses less competitive with suburban neighbors, as well as other cities around the country. He mostly talked instead about education as a pathway out of poverty.

Asked about census data that show Black workers make 56 cents on the dollar compared to white workers, Merritt said he would partner with Indianapolis Public Schools because “the idea of an achievement gap breaks my heart.”

Speaking with reporters after the debate, Merritt said his campaign would develop a “Black agenda” but didn’t give specifics. Hogsett was asked the same question and said his proposals — including the incentive for a higher minimum wage — would help African Americans.

Public safety

Indianapolis has set homicide records four years in a row, representing perhaps the darkest stain on Hogsett’s administration and his biggest hurdle to being reelected. Hogsett pointed to a reduction in 2018 for overall violent crime as a sign of progress.

“That’s not to say one homicide is not morally unacceptable,” he said, “but the point is progress is being made.”

After the debate, Hogsett said he supports police body cameras for Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, an initiative partly funded in his 2020 spending plan.

This is where Merritt zeroed in on Hogsett in a debate where the candidates were asked to address the crowd and moderator, not each other.

“Mayor Joe, it hasn’t worked,” he said. “… You’ve had three-and-a-half years. What you’re doing is not working.”

Merritt said he would add a deputy mayor of public safety to oversee public safety agencies and said his administration would “make the criminals miserable” by putting more police in areas that are “hot” with crime.


Hogsett’s campaign claimed recently that Merritt is proposing turning busy roads such as Binford Boulevard into a toll road, but that only captured half of the story. Merritt talked at the debate about his plan to create a “hot lane” on such roads, where drivers could pay a toll and avoid the crowded lanes. That would in turn create revenue to fix Indianapolis’ roads, which are notoriously bad, especially after the snow and ice melt in winter.

Hogsett’s idea to fund repairs is through a so-called commuter tax, where Indianapolis would capture a portion of income tax from nine surrounding counties that would go toward road projects. The Indiana Business Research Center estimates 161,500 people who work in Marion County commute from surrounding counties.

Hogsett was criticized for the way he rolled out the plan at his state of the city address, since surrounding mayors seemed to be caught off guard by the idea and weren’t supportive.

Neither candidate is proposing a tax increase on Marion County residents to pay for roads projects.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.


Mayor Joe Hogsett (l) and Indiana Sen. Jim Merritt (r) debated Aug. 29. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

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