Eric Doden is running from behind but hopes his ‘bold vision’ will propel him forward

Eric Doden tours Danville with Greg Irby, Hendricks County GOP vice chair, and Kelly DiBenedetto, executive director of Danville Chamber of Commerce, on Dec. 19, 2023. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of profiles of the candidates running for Indiana governor.

DANVILLE, Ind. (Dec. 19, 2023) — Eric Doden had some advice, the type he couldn’t share in front of a reporter. 

Doden spent the early part of his campaign for governor visiting communities in all 92 counties — a lot of them small towns just like 11,000-person Danville. And on this cold December day, local leaders picked Doden’s brain about how to redevelop the city’s aptly named Main Street as they showed off their downtown. 

A local business owner was willing to unload his historic building only for a high price, but Doden had some strategies to get around that. If there’s something Doden knows, it’s how to break through barriers to redevelopment using whatever tactics he can, even if it means making some enemies. 

Most of Doden’s campaign days so far have looked just like this as he meets with local leaders around the state. That’s where Doden, a developer by trade, thrives: conversations surrounding the economic success of Indiana cities and towns. 

In a crowded Republican primary, Doden is trying to stand out by pitching himself as the candidate with a bold vision for all of Indiana — including small towns like Danville. And he is campaigning everywhere. That has meant less time spent talking about red-meat social issues and more on economic development.

But trying to shine in a field of candidates with far more name recognition has been challenging. He faces U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, former Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers, former Attorney General Curtis Hill and Indianapolis mother Jamie Reitenour. 

Doden, 54, has little name recognition outside of northeast Indiana, where he lives in Fort Wayne. He was the president of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation under then-Gov. Mike Pence from 2013 to 2015, but since then he’s been based in Fort Wayne, where he primarily focused on redevelopment projects.

A December poll conducted by Mark It Red for Braun’s campaign ranked Doden in fifth place with only 3% of the vote. Doden’s campaign hasn’t released any of its own internal polling to refute those numbers but emphasized the poll is now outdated and no longer useful. He similarly underperformed in a recent low-turnout 6th Congressional District straw poll

The bottom of the pack ranking, though, is not for lack of money or effort. Doden, who is often referred to as persistent, tenacious and at times aggressive, was the first to enter the campaign in 2021, three years before the primary election. He’s now visited all 92 counties.

Plus, his father Daryle Doden and his wife have shelled out nearly $3 million for his campaign, including contributions from Ambassador Enterprises, his father’s investment company. Doden and his wife, whom he shares five kids with, have put $300,000 of their personal money into the campaign too.

‘Where there is no vision, the people will perish’

Earlier that December day, Doden spoke with outgoing Danville Town Council member David Winters while eating a sandwich at The Beehive, a local cafe. Or rather, Doden, sporting a casual zip-up sweater and sneakers, was mostly listening while Winters ticked through his concerns, from the inability to fix state-owned local roads to “wokeism” in public education. 

Doden says he likes to listen 70% or 80% of the time during these one-on-ones rather than doing the talking himself and sometimes asks his team afterward how much he spoke during a given conversation.

Gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden talks with outgoing Danville Town Council member David Winters on Dec. 19, 2023. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

“I can just tell you the experience my daughter had: This wokeism, really pushing an ideology on our students, teaching them what to think versus how to think,” Winters told Doden. “We’ve got to get schools to focus more on the fundamentals — reading, writing, give parents more control.”

In response, Doden seamlessly pivoted to talking about his plan to repeal the state income tax for teachers to encourage more people to get into the field.

“When I talk to teachers, especially the ones that are just really trying to teach, they’ve been struggling feeling more like social workers, and it’s starting to create challenges to keep and retain the talent that are really good gifted teachers that are called to that,” Doden said. “Just to be clear, those teachers are teaching the basics.”

Doden certainly has socially conservative ideals, but those aren’t the economic development issues he’s built his campaign around. For example, asked about Gov. Eric Holcomb’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — an issue that has led to some Republican distrust of Holcomb — Doden said he doesn’t “like to spend a lot of time litigating the past.”

Still, he’s garnered support from some Republicans like Winters who have socially conservative values and are skeptical of Holcomb. 

It’s no secret Doden is religious — arguably more vocal about religion than any other candidate. He is the grandson of a preacher and a graduate of Hillsdale College, where he received a bachelor of arts in business finance and Christian studies. Now his family attends Blackhawk Ministries in Fort Wayne. 

During his campaign, Doden has managed to focus primarily on economic issues while also making his Christian faith central to his image.

“By leaning into religion he doesn’t have to talk about the other social issues, because they are so often just tied together,” said Andrew Downs, director emeritus of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “Because he’s not spending airtime talking about pro-life and books in schools and [school choice] vouchers, he gets to spend more time talking about economic development.”

Just take one of his campaign ads

“The Bible says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people will perish,’ ” Doden says while sitting in a small-town church pew, quoting Proverbs 29:18. “As governor, we’ll deliver a better, bolder vision for our future.”

Sometimes that means taking a different approach to the same socially conservative values other candidates have. His answer to his “100%” anti-abortion stance, for example, is to implement zero-cost adoption. 

“I’m a conservative, but we want ideas that bring people together,” Doden said. “We can sit here and debate all day long, and I’m not really going to convince, generally speaking, somebody that’s on the other side, but we can find policies that we all can agree to.” 

And he’s concerned about state government overreach, but he’s talked less about COVID-19 and more about a disdain of government overreach when it comes to economic development initiatives, such as the controversial LEAP Innovation District in Lebanon. He’s the kind of guy who seems to trust the private sector far more than the government — so much so he didn’t know who the mayor was in a small city he helped redevelop. 

Doden’s platform and views have resonated with Winters. 

“Faith is important to me. Pro-life views are important to me, and I know that he possesses all of those qualities,” Winters told State Affairs. “So when I think of a constitutional conservative, he’s got all the bona fides on that.”

‘He really wants to lift the entire state’

This summer, before all of the candidates had announced they were running, Doden crouched in the basement of a half-finished building. Wearing a yellow vest and orange hard hat, he showed reporters one of his biggest accomplishments: The redevelopment of dozens of old buildings in downtown Van Wert. 

Gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden shows off the ongoing redevelopment in Van Wert, Ohio. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

It’s an 11,000-person Ohio city just across the border from Fort Wayne and, perhaps more important to Doden, his mother’s hometown. His grandparents are buried just two miles outside the town limits. 

It was Doden who bluntly delivered the bad news to Van Wert leaders that they had a problem with their crumbling buildings, said Seth Baker, chief executive officer of the Van Wert County Foundation. Through his company Pago USA, Doden pitched a plan to redevelop Van Wert’s downtown in 2019, centered on restoring dozens of dilapidated downtown buildings.

The project is ongoing, but already dozens of residential units have been leased and the project attracted a new-to-Van Wert coffee and chocolate shop. 

“There’s just a lot of hope about our future and excitement,” Baker said, “kind of a we-believe and can-do attitude.”

For Doden, this community is a microcosm of what can be accomplished in Indiana through his Indiana Main Street Initiative proposal, which would create a $100 million fund to spur private investment-driven redevelopment projects in communities of 30,000 people or fewer. The initiative was the subject of a book Doden co-wrote

So why is Doden so focused on small towns? He was born in Butler, a small city northeast of Fort Wayne, where he was told the only way to make it was to leave and not come back. 

“I don’t want the next generations of people to have that same statement made to them,” Doden said. “They should have the option to live and grow in their small town and start a business.”

Doden credits much of his interest in the redevelopment of towns and cities of all sizes to the growth he witnessed in Valparaiso between when he graduated from law school in 1997 and when he returned more than a decade later.

“It inspired me to say, ‘Well, look, if they can do that in Valparaiso, we should be able to do that in Fort Wayne,’ ” Doden said. 

So he ran for Fort Wayne mayor in 2011. He lost badly in the Republican primary, coming in third with 18% of the vote. 

Two years later, then-Gov. Mike Pence chose him as president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. By then, Doden had some experience under his belt working for his dad’s company Ambassador Enterprises and launching a private equity firm, Domo Ventures LLC. 

Jim Atterholt, Pence’s former chief of staff, nicknamed him a “force of nature.” 

“He was extremely determined,” Atterholt said. “He did not accept the status quo just because it was the status quo. He was a change agent, and he was bound and determined to push the boundaries.”

While serving under Pence, Doden traveled the state and helped launch the Regional Cities Initiative, a state plan to incentivize private regional development using state dollars. When lawmakers dramatically slashed the budget for the idea during the legislative process, Doden was on the frontlines urging business leaders to contact their lawmakers. 

(Holcomb still uses a variation of the program, now known as the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative). It’s a plan Doden hopes to reinvent should he become governor. 

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas has known Doden for decades, but it’s Doden’s work on Regional Cities that stands out to him. 

“It created a new paradigm of state government really partnering with local government and the private sector to fund key projects that can move communities forward,” said Costas, who plans to vote for Doden in May. 

“He really wants to lift the entire state,” he added, “not just a few regions.”

Doden hopes voters can tell the difference between his and Chambers’ vision, even if their backgrounds are similar. Both have prioritized economic development in their campaigns. But while Doden touts Regional Cities as his biggest achievement while leading the IEDC, Chambers’ IEDC legacy will likely center on the LEAP Innovation District. 

Getting Doden’s message out to Republican primary voters who don’t know him personally may be the challenging part. 

Even convincing news outlets to devote resources to covering the campaign can be difficult. For the visit to Van Wert, Dodens’ campaign borrowed a Mercedes-Benz van — outfitted with massage chairs — and invited members of the media to tag along with Doden to Fort Wayne and Van Wert for tours. 

Only two Indianapolis-area reporters showed up, leaving most of the multirow van empty. 

‘I’m a hyper-competitive guy’

Doden admits his biggest shortcoming is that he likes to win. He once admitted he would do “whatever it takes to win — unless it’s illegal or immoral” 

“I’m a hyper-competitive guy,” he told State Affairs. “When you’re hyper-competitive, sometimes you can focus so much on winning that you’re forgetting the why.”

That attitude has at times won him some enemies, particularly in Fort Wayne from 2015 to 2018 when he was the CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the local economic development organization.

Gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden helped city leaders and a developer sign a deal to redevelop the former General Electric plant in Fort Wayne. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

His crowning achievement during that time was successfully pushing for the redevelopment of the former General Electric factory in Fort Wayne. The company employed 10,000 employees in Fort Wayne at its peak in the 1940s, but its numbers had dwindled after decades of job cuts. Finally, in 2015, GE eliminated its roughly 90 remaining Fort Wayne jobs, leaving the 39-acre campus and more than a dozen historic buildings vacant. 

Doden helped a developer and city leaders ink a deal to turn the buildings into a mixed-use campus known as Electric Works, relying on $65 million from the city. But at times, Democratic and Republican leaders in the city alike questioned Doden’s tactics — and were concerned about the hefty price tag associated with the project.

“When you have to turn something around, it takes a lot of energy and a lot of effort, and you have to be firm and you have to keep on track,” Doden said. “Sometimes, especially if people weren’t sure we should do something, they don’t like that. They don’t like assertive.” 

Eighteen Allen County elected officials — all Republicans — in 2016 signed a letter to Doden questioning whether Greater Fort Wayne Inc., an organization that receives some city money, should be lobbying for a sales tax. Despite the rebuke, the organization continued to exert public marketing pressure on city council members and Democratic Mayor Tom Henry, including for fully funding the Electric Works project. 

“Eric is aggressive. He can be confrontational, but as I mentioned earlier, once he envisions something that he feels would be an appropriate investment, he goes after it with everything he’s got,” said Henry, who shared that Doden’s “stubbornness” only occasionally bothered him. “His assertiveness can sometimes be abrasive to people. ... He gets so passionate that he’s almost brash.”

To that point, Doden isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers. His campaign was the first to go critical this election cycle, targeting Braun for pushing a bill in the U.S. Senate to reform qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement officers from liability while performing official duties.

“I think voters deserve to be reminded where people stand on the issues,” Doden said. “That’s part of the process. Each one of us as candidates should be challenging each other.”

But can this candidate who loves winning, win the crowded Republican primary election when he’s coming from behind in name recognition? 

Gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden plays basketball while visiting Danville, Indiana on Dec. 19, 2023. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

As Doden wrapped up his tour in Danville, he found himself on a basketball court — as any true Hoosier candidate does — flawlessly making nine baskets in a row, around-the-world style. 

If only winning a campaign were as easy as picking up a basketball.

Downs emphasized it’s only February and Doden has the money to be a credible threat. But if internal polls are correct, not only does Doden have to close the gap between him and first place, but he’s also got to beat three other candidates. 

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Will everybody make mistakes?’ He’s got to make up that gap and pass people,” Downs said. “He has a chance, but he’s going to need everything to go well.”

About Doden
  • Age: 54
  • Hometown: Butler
  • Current home: Fort Wayne
  • Education: Bachelor of arts in business finance and Chrisitan studies from Hillsdale College; juris doctor, Valparaiso University School of Law
  • Family: Married to Maci with five kids, ages 17-23
  • Job: President of Pago USA and founding partner of Domo Development LLC and Domo Ventures LLC 
  • Work history: CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. from 2015 to 2018, president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. from 2013 to 2015, director of investments for Ambassador Enterprises LLC from 2008 to 2010

Read this related story: Suzanne Crouch positions herself as a ‘different’ candidate for the voiceless

https://stateaffairs.com/indiana/elections/suzanne-crouch-governor-candidate/

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