An interview with Democrat candidate for governor, Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick at her campaign kickoff. (Credit: Jennifer McCormick/Twitter)

May 25, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS — Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Hoosier voters have selected true partisans as their governors. These have been White men who worked their way through the Republican and Democrat establishments, serving as party chairs, at the White House, legislators or as members of Congress.

Jennifer McCormick is seeking a distinctly different path. The former Republican state school superintendent who declared for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination earlier this month is, in reality, not only a rare female contender, but a true swing voter. Or as 5th CD Republican Chair Judy Buck observed of McCormick’s primary voting history, “She has voted in primaries as a Democrat more than as a Republican. Needless to say, she has not truly switched parties … only returning to her roots.”

Republicans, like then GOP Chairman Jeff Cardwell, acquiesced around McCormick, then a school superintendent at Yorktown. By the time she arrived for the 2016 Republican convention, she won an easy first-round victory against Dawn Wooten. She was viewed in that prism as an establishment Republican, gaining financial support from Betsy Wiley of Institute for Quality Education, Christel DeHaan, Robert Enlow of EdChoice and the Indiana Chamber CEO Kevin Brinegar. “She is her own person,” Wiley told Chalkbeat, and not “Tony Bennett 2.0. A lot of the big reforms are done.”

McCormick voting record chart
McCormick’s voting record chart.

In a Howey Politics Indiana interview on Tuesday, McCormick readily acknowledged what she called “my checkered past” when it comes to her voting record. “When I got into office, I ran as a Republican,” she said at Starbucks on North Keystone Ave. “There was much conversation about my checkered past. When I got in I just quickly learned about the values they were using or at least talking about [what] they were using for policy just did not align with the values I just took with me to office.”

Before we sat down for this interview, Democratic State Rep. Carey Hamilton entered the coffee shop and greeted McCormick before meeting with a constituent. “She’s the real deal,” Hamilton said of McCormick. 

After wandering the political desert since Glenda Ritz and Joe Donnelly were the last two Democrats to win statewide in 2012, Hoosier Democrats seem open to rallying around a former Republican for governor. In 2019, McCormick participated in a series of town halls with state Sen. Eddie Melton, now the likely next Democratic mayor of Gary. Another Gary Democrat, state Rep. Vernon Smith, has endorsed McCormick.

Two years after she was elected, Superintendent McCormick announced she would not seek a second term, citing “politics” interfering with public education. McCormick told HPI that she had been summoned by a group of Republican state senators to a meeting with a national group in 2018. “They asked me if I had a classroom library,” McCormick said of her days as a teacher. “Their reason I had a classroom library is that was where I hid my porn.”

McCormick is now the lone Democrat seeking the gubernatorial nomination. Reminded that the late IUPUI pollster Brian Vargas said 20 years ago that Indiana wasn’t ready to elect a female governor, McCormick responded, “It’s time. When the people say there’s no way a female, there’s no way for a Democrat … I’ve heard it all, but I tell them, ‘I respect your opinion but you’ve got to get out of my way.'” 

And in an approaching political cycle where post-Roe abortion restrictions and an epidemic of school and societal massacres will shape the issues landscape, McCormick cites the “mom factor” in her candidacy.

“The mom factor is huge,” McCormick said. “We’ve not had a mom in the office, we haven’t had a female in the office.”

Here is our HPI Interview with Jennifer McCormick: 

Jennifer McCormick
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jennifer McCormick at an interview with Brian Howey at a Starbucks on North Keystone in Indianapolis. (Credit: HPI Photo by Brian Howey)
HPI: Are you expecting any other Democrats to run? Are you hearing of any other names?

McCormick: No, I have not. We got out. We had a great launch. We’ve had a lot of great energy, but I’m not hearing any other names for having a primary in my race. I’m not aware of any.

HPI: Are you surprised you’re the only Democrat running at this point?

McCormick: Like many, I’d heard some names out there but I’m just staying focused on what I need to do and I’m going 100 mph at it. It’s great to have a lot of great candidates out there so people can have options. That’s democracy, right? That’s always a positive thing. But now I’m focused on who’s going to be out there for the Senate race and who’s going to be out there for the attorney general’s race. I’m just looking at the lay of the land and what the top of the ticket will look like.

HPI: I’m interested in your journey in politics. You began running for state superintendent in 2015 seeking the Republican nomination.

McCormick: My voting record … is very checkered. I didn’t grow up in a hugely political family. We talked about people doing it for the right reason. We just got behind good people who gets work done and you can stand behind their values. That’s what I did as a voter. When I got into office, I ran as a Republican. There was much conversation about my checkered past. When I got in I just quickly learned about the values they were using or at least talking about [what] they were using for policy just did not align with the values I just took with me to office. I think they (Republicans) have just become more extreme. They seem out of touch, outdated. With supermajorities, they don’t have to compromise, they don’t have to listen. There’s no reason for them to do any of that. That doesn’t make it right, but under supermajorities that’s where we are.

HPI: We’re in an unprecedented era. Since the two-party system came into being in 1856, I cannot find another era where there have been five consecutive supermajority General Assemblies. Now Gov. Holcomb has signed a book ban bill and one of the most far-reaching abortion restrictions in the nation. From your perspective, what are we seeing?

McCormick: A lot of that is coming from a national lens. ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is a big one. They are a big player in this. Many of them are getting in an alignment to what their marching orders are. There’s a lot of money and power flowing right now. Those national agendas are huge right now. We’re seeing the negative results. So many people, even Republicans, have said, “What I see at the Statehouse doesn’t reflect on local Republicans and what they want.” They want public schools to be strong, they want good infrastructure, and they want us to stop talking about litter boxes and porn in the libraries and get back to getting good teachers. Let’s have good health care, let’s take care of our neighbors. I’m hearing that everywhere across the state.

HPI: Let’s talk about vouchers. When you ran and won in 2016 you had the backing of Betsy Wiley and Christal DeHaan, and now we’ve seen a big expansion in vouchers with legislation that Holcomb signed earlier this month.

McCormick: I would say it is expanding at a pace that is very concerning. When I went into office, the school choice agenda was already underway. It’s not going to go away because you’re not going to change minds, you have to change people. That will take decades. That movement has started, it’s already moving and it’s just pretty difficult to stop that train once it’s on the tracks. When I got in early on there was more of an appetite to putting some quality parameters on it as far as who gets approved, the accountability, the transparency of it, the admissions of kids, the enrollment. There was more of that kind of conversation. We’re going to have choice, but we’re concerned about the quality of choice. Now it’s like a free-for-all. It’s choice for the sake of choice under the umbrella of parental rights. I think the underlying piece of what’s happening is the defunding of public schools. The way to do that is to privatize and push that movement.

HPI: If that movement was to continue unabated over the next eight to 10 years, what happens? Some Democrats say there’s an overt move to defund public education. Are we that close to the brink?

McCormick: Yeah. How long it will take I don’t think anybody knows. I will tell you that to sustain what public schools are doing, particularly the small rural schools and the big urban machines at the rate in which choice is happening is very, very problematic. My county, Henry County, is pretty rural. You’ve got New Castle but then you have a number of rural schools and within that we’re losing over a million dollars a year and this has been going on since 2010 to choice, and very few kids are using that option. It’s just an incredible amount of fiscal loss.

HPI: How many students are there in Henry County and how many are using vouchers?

McCormick: I don’t know the exact number of how many students are in Henry County schools, but the number who take (vouchers) is less than 20 in the county, but we’re still losing $1 million a year.

HPI: Less than 20 students are using vouchers?

McCormick: Yes.

HPI: The Washington Post reported that after Holcomb signed HEA 1447, Indiana librarians could face jail time and $10,000 fines for have ‘obscene’ books. What are we seeing on that front and will that be an issue for your campaign?

McCormick: Nothing happens overnight. I remember when I got into office in my second year I was asked by a group of senators if I would meet with a group. I did and I got lectured by this group as I was a teacher for 10 years, I taught sixth-grade language arts and was a special education teacher and they asked me why I had a classroom library. I said, “Yes, I have a classroom library. There are times when you don’t want to send a kid to the library library because you’re trying to get things accomplished.” There’s a lot of reasons why you have a classroom library. Their reason I had a classroom library is that was where I hid my porn. That was early on and that was the first sign of this rhetoric that teachers are hiding porn. It just snowballed and snowballed. None of that is happening by accident. It’s a national movement, it’s coming from national groups and Republicans across the nation, a lot of them but not all, have jumped on to that movement, whether it is litter boxes or the furries, or critical race theory. It’s all a distraction and it’s distraction because they know that the distractions go up and the resources go down. That’s a perfect recipe for school closures. The name of the game is defunding public schools. 

HPI: And then what happens?

McCormick: That’s a great question for our community members. So as I go across Indiana and I do a lot of listening, nine times out of 10 they see their local schools as the centerpiece, the front porch of their communities. It’s the community center. It’s the community pride and they really are not well-informed. I’m not being critical. It’s so nonsensical and it’s so against what our communities stand for that they wouldn’t think that’s what the end goal is. That’s why that governor’s position is so important because you can inform people differently and get out and use that platform …

HPI: The bully pulpit.
Jennifer McCormick
Jennifer McCormick (Credit: HPI)

McCormick: It is the bully pulpit and using it for the good to save our public schools is pretty important.

HPI: I’ve written extensively about how Indiana has become a one-party state, that 90% of county commissioners are Republican, that nine out of 11 congressional seats are Republican, the General Assembly supermajorities, that they hold all the Statehouse Constitutional offices. And now we are watching what some call an extreme agenda ending up into law. Are Republicans concerned about these laws?

McCormick: It’s been interesting. The Democrats are all fired up and energized and they feel like yes, let’s go. So they’re ready. The independents are really paying attention. The Libertarians are really paying attention. For Republicans, I’m very open. I say, “If you want to hear what I have to say, if you want to help with the campaign, if you want to donate, I don’t care what party you’re affiliated with, if you’re aligned with our values and want to help, let’s go.” Republicans I have had conversations with are all trying to find a home. They don’t recognize what’s going on, they don’t appreciate it. Some of them still want to be labeled as a Republican because of the tradition in their family, but they don’t like the actions that are happening. They are very concerned. They didn’t like what happened with Trump, they don’t like what’s happening in our Statehouse and so they are just trying to find their way. For those folks, I’m a real good option because they see me as common sense, bipartisan, calm, not extreme, not throwing things out and seeing if they stick. There are some real issues we need to solve and that’s why I am doing this.

HPI: We’ve become a weaponized society and we’ve had 220 massacres already this year as of this interview. How are you going to approach the issue of school shootings and arming teachers?

McCormick: The gun violence we are seeing now is real. People will link it to all different kinds of things. It’s here, it’s real and it’s getting worse. My son is 25 years old and I still tell him, “When you go out, be aware of your surroundings.” No one should have to do that. My parents never had to tell me “Be aware of your surroundings.” It’s very scary, it’s sad, it’s frightening, it’s frustrating. The whole gun violence piece, you shouldn’t have to be scared about where you shop. You shouldn’t have to live like that, not just here in Indiana, but anywhere in the world. Making sure we’re working with our experts, making sure we’re taking steps in the right direction, we have a red flag law, so let’s make it stricter. We need safe (weapon) storage. There are a lot of sensible laws that even gun owners can get behind. You have to have the willingness to move and if the governor’s not speaking up, the supermajorities are not speaking up; the statewides and the congressionals are all supporting the NRA coming to town; someone has to speak up and say, “Here’s the problem, we’ve got to take some steps toward some solutions.” To act like it’s not happening or being afraid to offend an organization is ridiculous.

HPI: What do you think about arming teachers?

McCormick: I rarely run into a teacher who supports that, or an administrator. Or a school board. There are a lot of insurance problems. More than that, I had 30 kids in my classroom and I didn’t have time to worry about where’s my weapon. I’m trying to teach a lesson plan, not being a part of a SWAT team. There are people who could probably be trained, but they need extensive training. I have law enforcement that say that’s a really, really bad idea. Do you know how many hours of training we’d have to have? And they don’t have 30 to 60 kids looking at them. In my opinion it’s a bad idea. Why aren’t we paying for and providing the resources for those who are trained, more SROs, police officers to do that job. It’s sad we’re in that situation but that’s where we are.

HPI: Rep. (Carey) Hamilton is in there talking to a constituent about rising property taxes. One of the things I’m going to be working on over the next six months is connecting the rise in property taxes to school referendums that are funding the hardening of schools in the wake of all these atrocities. Washington Township has just passed two referendums, Clearwater Elementary School was just built and I’m sure it’s hardened, and our property taxes have risen. Does anybody know how much taxpayers are paying to harden schools?

McCormick: I want you to start thinking about this. We put our tax money in, right? And those dollars that you’re putting into your school are flowing out of your school into schools that aren’t even necessarily in your area. They are not even under the same safety requirements that the rest of us are under. So for a public school, your money is being sent in for some of our most at-risk students, more at-risk environments per se, and the money is flowing out not for that purpose. And then they ask the community, “Hey, you need to run a referendum and raise your taxes.” It’s outside the tax caps but you’re still raising your taxes. Because the money you just paid into that is going outside of your area. You’ve already spent that money to secure your buildings. Now you have to do it again because that money went elsewhere. A lot of that money is heading out of Indiana. It’s not just going to other schools, it’s flowing out of Indiana. 

Jennifer McCormick
Jennifer McCormick speaking at the Indiana American Federation of Teachers convention on May 6, 2023. (Credit: Jennifer McCormick/Twitter)
HPI: Where do you stand on the abortion issue here in this post-Dobbs, post-Roe environment?

McCormick: So we’re waiting to see what comes out of the courts. It’s sad. I’m frustrated. We turned back time, so that’s a scary thing for a lot of people. I’m hearing from women, from young girls, I’m hearing from men who are dads and neighbors and grandfathers and husbands who are saying, “This is ridiculous.” I’m not hearing from a whole lot of people who are supportive of Indiana having one of the first bans out of the gate. They are not supportive of a ban at all. I do support the standards that were set by Roe. I support a woman’s right to choose. Those are our freedoms, our liberties, and a lot of factors play into that. It should be my body along with whoever I feel like whether it’s someone of faith, a medical professional, someone in my family. A woman should be responsible enough but also have the rights, the liberties and the freedoms to say, “This is who I’m going to make my decision with for a lot of different reasons.”  Who are we as government officials to know better? I don’t support that. I know the lieutenant governor was proud about casting that last vote and I’m like, shame on her. Shame on her. She just turned back 50 years of women’s rights and freedoms. We’re not fooling anybody. Everybody’s aware of it. Very few people are in favor of it. 

HPI: Because this has become such a Republican state and if you’re nominated by the Democratic Party, would you consider a Republican running mate on a unity ticket?

McCormick: I’m not ruling anything out at this point. There’s a lot of time, still, to consider. I’m starting to formulate a list of people I think would be really great to add to a ticket. But I’m more concerned about the person. I’m concerned about what they can bring to the State of Indiana, I’m more concerned about making sure I’m doing it for the right reasons, that they understand the difference between a politician and a public servant. I think we’ve lost that in Indiana. 

HPI: How do you win?

McCormick: Yeah! What’s my path to victory? The first thing I hear people say is, “What are you thinking? No Democrat has a chance in Indiana.” And I say, “I respect everyone’s opinions, but can you keep it to yourself and just get out of my way because I tell people that if I’m in this race, I’m in it to win. I’m going to be real smart about the path to victory. I know where I need to shave off votes. I know the resources I’m going to need. I know the team I’m going to need. I know the volunteers and the ground operation. I know the policy planning that goes into it. I know the experts I need to reach out to who have been ignored for decades. I’m going to win, but it’s not just going to be me doing it, it’s going to be a team of people doing it because that’s [the] way it should be. It’s going to take a lot [of] people to move Indiana. It’s going to take a lot of us to change the direction we’re going in. So I’m the person on the ticket but there’s a lot of people on the team. We’re going to get it done; we’re going to win.

HPI: When Glenda Ritz upset Tony Bennett in 2012, he had a five-to-one money advantage. Do you believe you can compete moneywise? What do you think you need to raise?

McCormick: It’s going to be an expensive race. I know I’m going to need north of $10 million. I also understand that people in the race on the Republican side are not going to have some of the challenges I’m going to have. They worked hard; they have their money, but that’s not my situation. I’m an educator, my husband is an educator. My family is not super wealthy.

Jennifer and Trent McCormick
Jennifer and Trent McCormick. (Credit: Jennifer McCormick/Twitter)
HPI: Tell me about your husband?

McCormick: Trent is a superintendent. He was a chemist turned science teacher, then an athletic director and now a superintendent at Blue River. It’s one of those rural schools in Henry County that is getting hammered by this situation. There’s so much pride there. They have one of the best ag programs in the nation and one of the best business official programs in the nation. They are the spirit of that community, out in Mooreland and Mount Summit, Indiana. You take that away and what’s left in some of those communities? It’s frightening, so I do know what I’m up against.

HPI: Is the Democratic Party funding infrastructure still there? Or are you going to have to recreate it?

McCormick: Yes and yes. There are parts of it that are still there. Yes, we’re starting to look at things a little differently. But I’ve been one to say I understand the top of the ticket and the importance of that, how it helps everybody down the ballot. I’m hoping all candidates will benefit from some of the measures we put in place, to launching the Democratic Party forward so we have a better shot at things down the road. I’ve been totally transparent that we need to share resources and we need to get things moving. The money, and I’m not going to pretend, is going to be a challenge. But I’m going to work really hard and I’ve had so many donors. The quantity of donors is humbling. I’ve had people come up and say, “I’m going to give you $20.” And I say, “That $20 is perfect. If you believe in me enough to give me $20 I’ll take it.” It’s the same as someone giving me $20,000. No amount is too small. That is their pledge to say, “We’re getting behind you.” Many of them are first-time donors. It’s been humbling, the total number of donors, and it just keeps going up. 

HPI: Anything you want to add that I didn’t ask?

McCormick: What I don’t get asked a lot about that I think is important is the mom part of me. I am a mom, I have a 25-year-old son, a military kid.

HPI: A West Point graduate?

McCormick: He’s a West Point graduate and he serves in the military. I’m extremely proud of him. The reason I bring it up is I think it’s important for the mom Lens that is something fierce. I understand what it’s like to have kids first and to make sure someone is going to be a champion for your kids and I think the power of that mom factor cannot be underestimated for the moms of Indiana. The mom factor is huge. We’ve not had a mom in the office, we haven’t had a female in the office. 

HPI: There was an IUPUI pollster who said about 20 years ago that Indiana wasn’t ready for a female governor. 

McCormick: It’s time. It’s time. There’s so much excitement, not just from women and girls but from a lot of men as well. They have told me it’s time to have a different perspective. It’s time to have someone with different experiences. It’s time. When the people say there’s no way for a female, there’s no way for a Democrat. I’ve heard it all, but I tell them, “I respect your opinion but you’ve got to get out of my way.” 

HPI: Have you thought about “It’s time” as your campaign slogan?

McCormick: Yeah. 

Brian Howey is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

Header Image: Jennifer McCormick at her campaign kickoff. (Credit: Jennifer McCormick/Twitter)

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