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How Merritt’s Black agenda came to be

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When longtime Republican state Sen. Jim Merritt announced his candidacy for mayor of Indianapolis in January 2019, he and members of his campaign team began brainstorming an idea that would eventually help guide the election season and spark a conversation about Black Indianapolis many felt was overdue.

Interviews with Merritt and some of his former campaign staff, as well as Black leaders who were engaged with Merritt throughout the election, revealed a sincere attempt to capture the imagination of Black voters and show what a more equitable city might look like.

That idea ultimately became a Black agenda — the official document is called “An Agenda for the African American Community of Indianapolis” — which helped propel more conversations about Black issues than many remember from past mayoral elections.

According to Dountonia Batts, who did community outreach for Merritt’s campaign and was one of the chief architects of the Black agenda, the original idea was more broad and included “African Americans, poor and brown” people in an attempt to create an “all-inclusive Indianapolis.”

That shifted over time into a more specific Black agenda, thanks in part to meetings with the African American Coalition of Indianapolis (AACI), Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis and Baptist Ministers Alliance.

There were also the everyday encounters with people who influenced the agenda.

Merritt said in an interview there were places in Indianapolis he’d never been to, and Batts took him there, from the churches to the neighborhoods plagued by poverty.

“His face was literally in shock,” Batts remembered of some of the times they were out together. “… He could not believe that it was that neglected or that untouched, that people actually were living in the conditions that were described. To actually see it I think was a shock.”

That wasn’t necessarily a humbling process, Merritt said, but it was educational. He saw food insecurity, poverty, even hopelessness up close and decided those people weren’t being represented.

Bill Benjamin, former Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department deputy chief of investigations, helped construct the Black agenda. He also accepted Merritt’s offer to become police chief if Merritt had won.

Benjamin could not be reached for comment.

Whitley Yates, who served as Merritt’s press secretary and is now director of diversity engagement for the Indiana Republican Party, was also a central figure in developing the agenda.

The press secretary for the Indiana Republican Party, Holly Lawson, declined to make Yates available for an interview and did not respond to a request for a statement from Yates.

Despite making inroads with the AACI and Concerned Clergy and Baptist Ministers Alliance, despite broadening his community outreach to unfamiliar parts of Indianapolis, and despite being the only candidate to develop a Black agenda, Black voters declined the invitation for change and largely stuck with Hogsett.

An October 2019 poll from Indy Politics, conducted less than a month before the election, showed 85% of African American voters supported Hogsett, and only 3% supported Merritt.

“I don’t have the answer of why,” Merritt said. “I made contact, but I was not able to complete the deal. I told them what I stood for, I told them what I was gonna do, and we weren’t able to register their vote in my column.”

Most of the people interviewed for this story believe the most likely reason Black voters stayed away from Merritt was because he’s a Republican.

It didn’t help to have “that R by your name,” said Rev. David Greene, pastor at Purpose of Life Ministries and president of Concerned Clergy.

Batts thought it also could have been a lack of enthusiasm among middle and upper class African Americans, who she said “don’t necessarily identify with many of the issues that were contained in the Black agenda.”

If true, that would have been especially consequential in a city election that already doesn’t draw many voters (voter turnout was 24%, according to state data), and research suggests wealthier people are more likely to vote.

Batts also said it would have been better to start developing a Black agenda as much as year earlier in January 2018, rather than 2019, so fewer voters would see it as a ploy to get their vote.

Merritt, who was running for Senate reelection in 2018, said he was trying to recruit a Republican to run for mayor while he served as county chairman for the party and eventually decided he would be the one to do it, but that was in January 2019.

Merritt also said he doesn’t “see myself running again” for mayor in 2023.

Back in his role as a state senator, Merritt said he learned from his run for mayor about how to be a more effective lawmaker at the Statehouse.

“I think I look at legislation through different lenses today,” he said.

Merritt is one of the authors of Senate Bill 39, which would allow courts to grant driving privileges to those who have their license suspended so they can still get to work, for example. The bill passed in the Senate and is in the House of Representatives.

He is also a co-author of Senate Bill 67, which would require township trustees in towns with more than 10,000 people to place homeless residents in county homes or give them township assistance. The bill passed to the House.

It’s part of a post-campaign commitment Merritt said he’s made to those who helped shape his run for mayor.

Merritt met with Greene shortly after losing the election and said he “wasn’t gonna walk away from what he had promised,” according to Greene.

Marshawn Wolley, policy director for AACI and a columnist for the Recorder, said he’s continued to talk with Merritt since the election about issues including the unbalanced relationship between landlords and tenants.

“He said he wasn’t gonna leave the Black community,” Wolley said, “and from what I can tell, he’s not.”

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

Indiana Sen. Jim Merritt speaks to a group of ministers and other community members about his plans for African Americans in Indianapolis as a Republican candidate for mayor Oct. 14 at Central Library. (Recorder file photo)

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