Republican candidates vie for 59th District seat

Most of the Republican candidates for the 59th District seat in the Indiana House of Representatives say they are willing to consider redistricting reform.

Supporters of redistricting point to voter trends compared to the balance of power in the state legislature. Republican Donald Trump carried Indiana in the 2016 presidential election with 57 percent of the vote, to 38 percent for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But the makeup of Indiana voting districts has resulted in Republicans having an even stronger hold, with a 70-30 majority in the state House and a 41-9 majority in the state Senate.

The five Republicans actively seeking the District 59 seat in the state House — John D. Counceller, JoAnne Flohr, Ryan Lauer, Allen K. Smith II and Lew Wilson — shared their opinions on redistricting as they seek to replace Milo Smith, a six-term lawmaker from Columbus who did not seek re-election. A sixth Republican candidate, Benjamin Chastain, has dropped out of the race, but too late to have his name removed from the ballot.

Flohr, co-owner of Flohr Quarter Horses and the Ohio Township trustee, is among those who favor redistricting reform.

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“I would support improving the manner by which redistricting is conducted, so long as the process is fair, constitutional and a truly independent body can be constructed to take excessive partisanship out of the process,” she said.

Wilson, who currently serves as Bartholomew County assessor, said the foundation for redistricting should be the first consideration.

“An independent panel is preferred, but only after groundwork has been laid to ensure an unbiased outcome. I support State Sen. Greg Walker’s legislative efforts to lay that foundation,” Wilson said.

Senate Bill 326, which was authored by the Republican senator from Columbus, would have established criteria for the 2021 redistricting process. It passed the full Senate 42-6 but died in committee after Milo Smith, chairman of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, refused to schedule a hearing. Rep. Smith also refused to schedule a hearing on a second proposal that would have created an independent redistricting committee.

Lauer, a former president of the Bartholomew County Council, also said he supported Walker’s legislation on redistricting reform in this year’s General Assembly.

The bill would have stopped gerrymandering and drawn district lines fairly and without bias, said Lauer, who is seeking the District 59 seat for the third time.

But Lauer’s comments also came with a warning.

“Other states which have delegated this constitutional responsibility to independent panels have become breeding grounds for lobbyists, corporations and partisans stacking the deck and returning to gerrymandering in a new form,” he said.

Rep. Smith had said it would be best to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a Wisconsin gerrymandering case before creating new redistricting criteria for Indiana, and Counceller agreed.

“We should wait until the court has issued their decision on the open cases, which will allow us to know what the courts find to be the requirements,” said Counceller, president of First Metals and Plastics Inc. in Columbus.

Candidate Allen Smith, who was Bartholomew County coroner from 2009 to 2013, said the state legislature has a set of federal and state requirements that guide redistricting.

“These requirements should remain the basis of any redistricting,” Smith said. “This would in hopes eliminate the need for an independent panel.”

Help for teachers

The candidates also shared their opinions on ways to retain and attract good teachers as Indiana experiences teacher shortages, especially in courses tied to science, technology, engineering, math, commonly known as STEM, and special education.

Flohr said education in Indiana starts and ends with its teachers.

“Our school funding system needs to maximize the dollars that actually go to the classroom, as opposed to administration and bureaucracy, for teacher salaries, training and recruitment of great teachers in STEM and other important subject areas.”

Counceller said that STEM courses and special education are entirely different subjects, adding that better pay is the answer for both.

“There needs to be a way for non-education majors with proper education to enter the teaching arena,” he said.

One example is an engineer who has the knowledge to teach such courses, while a person with a degree in psychology should have the basics for special education, Counceller said.

Wilson offered several solutions, including better pay for teachers, especially those who teach STEM courses, in addition to providing educators in all grades with needed classroom supplies.

He also suggested providing incentives that entice teachers at all levels to further their professional development through continuing education, and ways for STEM teachers to improve their teaching skills.

Lauer, whose parents were educators, said good teachers should be recognized with merit pay and more freedom from state and federal dictates. His solution is to let good teachers teach and have government get out of the way.

“A great teacher will positively affect the lives of countless children over their careers,” Lauer said.

Smith pointed out that the starting average salary for teachers in Indiana is $33,574. With college student-loan debt averages rising, benefits and wages need to be improved.

Increasing financial incentives would also help retain current teachers, Smith said.

Workforce development

Candidates also shared their opinions about what the state should do to improve job training and workforce development.

“State workforce development programs need to identify the skills that employers need today and over the next 10 years to fill jobs, then build the training program to match the need,” Flohr said. “Indiana must accelerate how quickly we are ramping up these programs because there is a major need right now.”

Counceller said expanding access to job-training and partnering with specific employer groups to help fill their needs is among the steps the state should take.

Wilson said he thinks the state needs to adopt the Community Education Coalition program that has been developed in Columbus and southeastern Indiana.

“The CEC has brought together leaders in industry, education and interested organizations to increase enrollment and develop curriculum that will enable students to connect more successfully with better-paying jobs,” Wilson said.

Lauer believes allowing more opportunities to students seeking skilled careers through internships and vocational training in high school are among the steps the state should take.

“We should encourage additional workforce development and retraining partnerships between colleges, trade schools and businesses,” Lauer said.

Smith said he thinks the state should look at the affordability of post-secondary education, coupled with creating more local campuses such as the Columbus Learning Center. and focusing on the trades and skills that are coming in demand for the future.

Coming Friday: Meet the Democrats

Learn about the candidacies of Mary Kohen and Dale Nowlin, two Democrats seeking a spot on the November general election ballot for 59th District representative in the state legislature.

Find out where they stand:

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or