Friday, January 18, 2013

Guest Voices: An Unusual Political Alliance

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2013 at 5:00 PM

Michael Reis, left, (shown here with freshman lawmaker Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, and Bonita Ewan) recounts "an unusual political alliance."
  • Michael Reis, left, (shown here with freshman lawmaker Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, and Bonita Ewan) recounts "an unusual political alliance."

An Unusual Alliance in Local Politics

By Michael Reis

Christina Hale was sworn to be State Representative for District 87 in the Indiana House of Representatives on November 20. On Election Day, Nov. 6, Hale defeated incumbent Cindy Noe by 51 votes. The tally was not certified by the Secretary of State until on Nov. 20, the deadline for certifying election results. This election was a result of an unusual alliance between Christina Hale and the deaf community in Indianapolis.

When Christina Hale announced her candidacy for District 87 last March, little did she know that she would step on a controversial issue. At her first fundraiser on May 26, half of the people present were deaf people — an unexpected development for Christina.

It turned out that her Republican opponent, Cindy Noe, in serving as Gov. Mitch Daniels appointment to the school board of Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD), had caused hard feelings among the deaf community in Indianapolis. To begin with, Noe was not a parent of deaf children, nor a teacher of deaf children; and she had no knowledge of deaf education issues. The deaf community was not pleased at this board selection.

Five months after her selection to the ISD school board, Noe authored legislation, House Bill 1367, that would relocate the Outreach Office from the ISD campus to the Office of Management and Budget. Noe did this action under advice of an advocacy group that wanted to ban sign language in deaf education, and to use speech and lip-reading skills. Noe did not consult with the parents and teachers at ISD about this bill.

The deaf community conducted outdoor rallies and letter writing campaigns against House Bill 1367 to no avail. The House and the Senate passed it, and Daniels signed it into law.

This experience inspired heavy turnout among deaf people at Christina Hale's first fundraiser. After the legislative setback, the deaf community was determined to support Christina Hale to defeat Cindy Noe in District 87.

However, several barriers existed: Christina Hale did not know American Sign Language (ASL), and she was not familiar with deaf education issues. Furthermore, it was Christina Hale's first attempt in local politics. In contrast, Cindy Noe had more than 20 years of political experience.

Likewise, the deaf community was a newcomer in politics, too. They had never endorsed and backed a political candidate before. They discovered that, due to their IRS 501(c)3 status, ISD's PTA organization and the Indiana Association of the Deaf (with a membership of nearly half a million Hoosiers) could not make donations and conduct political activities. The deaf community had much to learn about the rules and regulations of political activity.

On Sept. 5, the local deaf club in Indianapolis had its own fund-raiser for Hale. More than 100 deaf people came and raised $1,500 in less than three hours. With ASL interpreters nearby, Hale took the opportunity to meet many deaf people from different walks of life and to know their needs and dreams. On Sept. 23, the Hale campaign staff conducted a Sunday night blitz to plant Hale-YES yard signs throughout District 87. On this night, six deaf volunteers planted 69 yard signs in 90 minutes. The Jewish Community Center held a debate for local political candidates on Oct. 15, and 10 deaf people showed up to show support for Christina Hale.

The Hale campaign staff was operating on a shoe-string budget with no funds for weekly mailings and TV commercials. Her opponent had a budget of $500,000 with eight weekly mailings and TV ads. Noe's yard signs already outnumbered Hale-YES yard signs in many neighborhoods of District 87.

Yet the Hale campaign staff saw some signs of hope. The Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Hale on Sept. 13, followed by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce endorsement on Oct. 1. A big surprise followed on Oct. 22 when The Indianapolis Star gave Hale its endorsement. Such support from three major conservative-leaning institutions and organizations was quite remarkable for an inexperienced Democratic candidate.

The Hale campaign staff pressed on, continuing to knock on District 87 doors every weekend and pass out Hale brochures among the 27,000 residences.They had some creative innovations — they placed Hale brochures on car windshields in the parking lots during a sectional high school football tournament.

click to enlarge An ASL card Michael Reis for Hale promotion.
  • An ASL card Michael Reis for Hale promotion.

I personally had 6,000 special postcards printed with the 2013 calendar or the manual alphabet of the deaf. All of these postcards had a strong message, urging people to vote the straight Democratic ticket. It was felt that people would save the postcards for longer periods of time, in contrast to many political brochures, which are quickly tossed into the trash.

click to enlarge 2013calendar.jpeg

The final two weekends before the election on Nov. 6 were getting hectic. Deaf volunteers were pressed into service to knock on doors — at first they were reluctant to walk up to unfamiliar houses and hand out political brochures to total strangers. Communication insecurities ran high among the deaf people. An energetic deaf woman, Bonita Ewan, worked with me to arrange these weekend neighborhood efforts, making special accommodations as necessary. Deaf people could go out in pairs, some people brought ASL interpreters. Deaf people chose certain District 87 neighborhoods where they knew a friend or a coworker. The 2013 calendar postcards and the manual alphabet postcards made them feel more comfortable to hand out with Hale brochures. Ewan and I recruited 10 deaf volunteers for these two weekends; we knocked on more than 1,250 houses for Hale. Another creative innovation from the Hale campaign staff was to place Hale brochures and the two deaf postcards on car windshields on church parking lots on Sunday mornings.

Election Day on November 6 was a long day for the Hale campaign staff, who passed out brochures and the deaf postcards at the polling centers. The outcome of the District 87 election was not known till midnight. Hale defeated Cindy Noe by a tiny margin, but this outcome would not be certified till three weeks later.

Every little effort and every bit of energy counted in this unusual campaign. A political newbie with only two dozen volunteers and a small campaign budget was able to unseat a long-time political incumbent with more than 20 years of experience and the $500,000 budget.

Michael Reis is an independent researcher who has worked in the past twenty years on various histories of deaf people in Indiana. He once edited a statewide deaf newsletter, but is still involved with state and local deaf organizations.

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