The Republican nominee, former Congressman Todd Rokita, will square off against the Democrats’ choice, former Evansville mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel.
When Hoosiers elect their next attorney general Nov. 3, they are doing more than just choosing the state’s defense lawyer.
The attorney general has the power to influence health care, abortion rights and the way laws are enforced in Indiana and nationally.
Take Curtis Hill, Indiana’s outgoing attorney general. Hill locked horns with fellow Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb over the governor’s mandatory mask mandate back in July by issuing an advisory opinion against it. That stance, plus pressure from law enforcement and leaders in his political party, likely influenced Holcomb to reverse course on issuing criminal penalties against those who didn’t comply.
Hill also is representing Indiana in a multistate lawsuit against the federal government that, if upheld by the Supreme Court when they hear the case this November, would topple the Affordable Care Act.
So whether you cast your vote for Republican Todd Rokita or Democrat Jonathan Weinzapfel, the two candidates vying to replace Hill, you will be deciding the direction in which the arc of Indiana law will bend.
Former Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, a Republican, will face Democratic nominee Jonathan Weinzapfel, a former mayor of Evansville, in the Indiana attorney general race in 2020. (Photo: Provided photos)
“Over the last 15 to 20 years attorneys general have been playing a much more prominent role even in national politics,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University. “For that reason both parties would love to have the position because it gives them another tool in national politics and for being a player in making sure what’s important in the state.”
Both Rokita and Weinzapfel are Midwest natives — Rokita hails from Chicago, and Weinzapfel from Evansville. Both studied law at the Robert H. McKinney School of Law at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
But their political trajectories and interests are markedly at odds.
Rokita, 50, is a veteran of Indiana government. He was secretary of state from 2002 to 2010 before going on to represent Indiana’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2011 to 2019. The independent political website GovTrack.us ranked Rokita as far more conservative than most of his Republican colleagues in the House.
Weinzapfel, 54, spent four years as an Indiana state representative before going on to become mayor of Evansville for two terms from 2003 and 2011. At the heart of his attorney general campaign is a push to remove Indiana from that multistate lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.
If he beats Rokita he would become the first Democrat to hold the attorney general role in Indiana since 2001.
The winner will come into the office following an embattled incumbent. Hill was a political firebrand who used his role to uphold conservative values in the state while chiming in on heated political issues across the country through his regular columns for Fox News.
On top of representing Indiana in the Affordable Care Act lawsuit, Hill also has defended the state’s attempts to strengthen its abortion laws and limit who can vote by mail in the November election.
He did not win enough support from Hoosier Republican delegates during the Indiana Republican Convention this year to win the nomination. His time in charge was roiled in controversy after a state lawmaker and three other women accused him of inappropriately touching them at a party in March 2018. He denied any wrongdoing and was not criminally charged, but the Indiana Supreme Court suspended his law license for 30 days and party leaders called for him to resign.
IndyStar reached Rokita and Weinzapfel by phoneto hear how they would steer the office of attorney general as they embarked on their final month of campaigning. Here’s what they had to say about the issues:
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Rokita, who was endorsed Oct. 2 by Indiana’s Right to Life political action committee, said that the state’s abortion laws “will be defended by me because that’s the legal philosophy that I bring to the office.”
“I know that the people of Indiana believe in a culture of life,” Rokita said, “not the culture of death that is Jonathan Weinzapfel.”
Indiana’s many legislative attempts to strengthen its anti-abortion laws over the past decade have attracted lawsuit after lawsuit alleging that the legislative changes break with the U.S. Constitution. The state paid more than $3 million to the ACLU of Indiana between 2011 and 2020 over lawsuits challenging Indiana’s abortion laws, according to the Times of Northwest Indiana.
Former congressman Todd Rokita (left) reflects on the unsuccessful Carmel mayoral campaign of Fred Glynn (right) on May 7, 2019. (Photo: Doug McSchooler/For IndyStar)
“If they’re going to write a law relating to abortion or anything else, the goal would be to write it from the beginning as narrowly crafted and constitutionally permissible as possible,” Rokita said. “I think that would be ultimately the most efficient and least costly in terms of dollars from the state of Indiana.”
Weinzapfel said he recognizes the legal importance of Roe v. Wade, the paramount Supreme Court ruling that protected women’s right to choose abortion in the United States. “We have to trust women to make the right decision,” Weinzapfel said.
If elected attorney general he said he would fulfill his legal obligation to defend Indiana’s laws. “However, if the General Assembly is considering legislation that is patently unconstitutional, I believe as attorney general I have to get involved in the legislative process and make sure they are aware of the consequences of their decisions.”
On the Affordable Care Act
Weinzapfel said his first step as attorney general would be to pull Indiana out of a multistate lawsuit against the federal government that would topple the Affordable Care Act. Hill led Indiana’s effort, and Rokita has promised to keep backing that lawsuit.
“If Curtis Hill and Todd Rokita are successful this will do huge damage to health care in the state of Indiana,” Weinzapfel said. “There are about 2.7 million Hoosiers with some kind of preexisting condition, whether that be diabetes, high blood pressure, a positive test for Coronavirus.”
Weinzapfel said that if the lawsuit, which is set to be heard by the Supreme Court after the November election, goes forward, then people with preexisting conditions “are going to have a very hard time finding insurance in the future or they’re going to be paying exorbitant rates.”
“What will happen is that we will go back to pre-2010 where insurance companies could discriminate against individuals in offering them insurance.”
Rokita stands by his critique of the Affordable Care Act. “Government-run health care is a disaster,” he said.
He said he wants to see a mix of private sector and state health insurance programs cover any gaps in coverage that might arise if the Affordable Care Act gets struck down.
Rokita currently works as the general counsel and vice president of external affairs for Apex Benefits Group, a benefits broker that works with employers to offer health and other insurances.
“We’re doing great work in the private sector,” Rokita said. “The private sector can deliver health care in a much more efficient, much more compassionate way than the government, bureaucratic, federal level ever can dream of.”
“And then when there’s gaps, we have the states and communities.”
While he opposes the Affordable Care Act, Rokita said he supports keeping one of its key components alive in Indiana. He wants the state to continue guaranteeing that Hoosiers with preexisting conditions can get coverage through the Healthy Indiana Plan, a Medicaid-funded state insurance initiative available to lower income families.
On criminal justice reform
Both Weinzapfel and Rokita are against calls to defund the police or otherwise redirect police funds toward other public services.
Weinzapfel said he led the effort to reform policing in Evansville by acquiring body cameras for officers. He said he would use his position as attorney general to push body cams for all Indiana officers and to improve police training in general.
“I think those are two things that would make a big difference in trying to make sure we restore community trust. Because it’s in everybody’s interest,” said Weinzapfel. “Every profession has a few bad apples.”
Rokita feels the same.
“I want to defend the police, not defund them, not reimagine them, not reallocate things,” he said.
“I think voices should be heard in terms of police training and practices, and we should evaluate what training is like before a knee-jerk reform of anything.”
He also said that the state’s overpopulated jails have more to do with people committing crimes than structural issues with the criminal justice system.
“To the extent that there is general overcrowding is really a comment on our society, and how people are being brought up, what’s being taught and not taught in our schools,” Rokita said. “It’s a much bigger issue.”
He specifically pointed out cash bail as something to preserve. The practice requires arrested individuals to pay a certain amount of cash in order to be let out of jail. That money is then returned to them once they have attended their court appearances.
Cash bail has been criticized by criminal justice reform advocates for criminalizing poverty. They say not everyone who gets arrested has the financial means to purchase their own freedom — a predicament faced by those in jail even before they have been convicted of a crime. But Rokita said it keeps people honest.
“If you’re putting up your own money, your family’s money, in order for you to come back to court for justice, that’s an accountability measure. That makes sure that you come back to be brought to justice,” he said.
Weinzapfel sees marijuana as an issue that, with the right reforms, could lead to a sea change in Indiana’s criminal justice system. “I think we ought to decriminalize it as a state and approve its use for medicinal purposes under a doctor’s supervision,” he said, adding that veterans and people with chronic pain who also suffer from opiate addiction use marijuana to alleviate their symptoms.
He supports Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears’ decision, announced last year, to not prosecute cases in which an individual’s only arrest charge is possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. “Having a felony on the record of a lot of young people because of possession of small amounts of marijuana makes zero sense,” Weinzapfel said.
When asked whether he would support the decriminalization of marijuana in Indiana, Rokita said he would stand by the state’s lawmakers in his role as attorney general. “Whatever the General Assembly comes up with is what I will defend, on this issue or any others.”
He also said he would not interfere with the way local prosecutors decide to mete out justice.
On Indiana election laws
Indiana has faced multiple lawsuits this year over its election practices. One contentious issue has been whether the state would expand mail-in voting for the November election after all Hoosiers were allowed to vote by mail during the June primary.
Federal judges with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month decided that it was not unconstitutional for the state to put limits on who could vote by mail, a decision that aligns with Rokita’s beliefs on the matter.
2020 elections:Problems with your absentee ballot in Marion County? Here’s what voters need to know.
Rokita, once the state’s chief election officer as secretary of state, is a strong believer of voting in person. His campaign told IndyStar that the Indiana election system is built around in-person voting and that if it is safe enough for people to go to the grocery store, then it’s also safe enough for them to go out and vote.
Weinzapfel supported the idea of making mail-in voting as an option for all voters this November.
“Folks believed people wouldn’t have to choose between personal health and their right to vote,” he said, referring to the Indiana Election Commission’s decision to remove restrictions on absentee voting for the June 2020 primary. “The situation in November is no different than the situation in the primary.”
Early in-person voting in Indiana for the November election began Oct. 6.
Call IndyStar courts reporter Johnny Magdaleno at 317-273-3188 or email him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @IndyStarJohnny
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