Dan Canon

Dan Canon meets with Hoosiers at a 2017 event. 

In 2016, only one of Indiana’s Congressional House elections was decided by fewer than 20 percentage points: Republican Trey Hollingsworth’s win over Democrat Shelli Yoder in the Ninth District (13.6 percent). Hollingsworth and his father had shopped the country for a surefire race, and it’s not surprising they found one here. Our nine congressional districts are gerrymandered — especially the Ninth. Bloomington is canceled out by Indianapolis’s southern exurbs, and the South’s “Blue Belt” is spread thin across three districts. Add to that an uninspiring “that’s-a-serious-issue-that-needs-to-be-further-discussed” campaign by his opponent, and Hollingsworth was practically gifted a political victory.

Politics never stops though, and right now the only thing less popular than President Trump’s agenda is his character. Democrats therefore see an opportunity for big wins in 2018 — with districts like Indiana’s Ninth as pivotal. While the party’s nominee hasn’t been chosen yet — the primary isn’t until May 8 — the current front-runner is Dan Canon, a civil rights attorney born and raised in Southern Indiana. (Liz Watson, a Bloomington native and former congressional staffer, has raised comparable funds and has strong institutional support within the party. Look for a profile of her in next week’s issue of NUVO.) 

Canon’s appeal and early success are easy to understand. For one, he isn’t the Democrats’ typical Indiana candidate who just wades in political water hoping to get caught in someone else’s wake.

 “I think the Heartland has got to lead the way forward,” Canon told me after his speech to Our Revolution Indy in late December. “Here is all of America’s principles and collective values. We ought to be providing the conditions for people to lead their best lives, to become their best selves.”

This latter phrasing illustrates another reason for Canon’s growing popularity, even among moderates and otherwise straight-ticket Republicans: He doesn’t treat societal ills as political talking points.

Canon is well-aware that the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, worrying about how they’re going to pay next month’s rent, isn’t just a policy conundrum for think-tankers and politicians. Having been raised by a single mother, dropped out of high school, and then lived hand-to-mouth working various odd jobs, he has first-hand knowledge of all the petty humiliations and stresses poverty affords working people.

“I’m the only candidate who’s been here in Indiana, on the ground, providing real solutions to real problems that Hoosiers face every day. And I’ve experienced a lot of those real problems myself,” Canon said.

Canon is the populist type, and like most populists his tone can fluctuate abruptly from light-hearted to indignant. He and his staff playfully refer to Rep. Hollingsworth as “Tennessee Trey” — on account of Hollingsworth moving to Indiana from Tennessee just a month before running in 2015 — but stay on the topic for very long and it becomes obvious that Canon doesn’t find Hollingsworth’s political consumerism very amusing.

“Here’s a guy who’s a multimillionaire, who comes from multi-generational wealth, that had probably not set foot in Indiana prior to 2015, with him and his dad clearly fishing for a district to buy. It’s really hard for somebody like that to have any meaningful understanding of what people are going through in the Ninth District,” Canon said.

Canon’s policy proposals are comprehensive to say the least. He’s for legalizing marijuana and against the Electoral College. For nationwide healthcare and against private prisons. For automatic voter registration and against exorbitant interest fees. For labor representation and against state harassment of migrant workers.

Brazenly putting forward such progressive policies has earned Canon endorsement from some of the Midwest’s most left-leaning organizations, including Democratic Socialists of America’s Louisville chapter.

When I asked if he thought some of these endorsements might be used against him in the general election, he snickered a bit before answering, “Look, my opponent called Shelli Yoder a socialist. Shelli Yoder. That’s what they’re going to do. Anyone who wants the government to work better for working class people as opposed to wanting the government to work solely for rich people is gonna be called a socialist. So we’re gonna be called that and we know that. It’s gonna be better for us if we don’t run from that term.”

Being the primary’s most progressive candidate isn’t the only thing setting Canon apart for many voters though. There’s also his professional history as a civil rights attorney — where he’s represented just about everyone who you’d expect to get short-ended in a trial (refugees, workers, veterans, minorities) as well as worked the Supreme Court case that established gay marriage as a constitutional right.

In fact, Canon’s speech to Our Revolution Indy wasn’t about his campaign; it was on the gang of crooks and buffoons President Trump has nominated to judgeships. These judicial appointments, Canon told listeners, will decide “who gets justice and who doesn’t,” and they’re being selected not for their qualifications but for their willingness to serve the Republican’s political-economic agenda. And although appeals are possible, Canon knows from experience that for most people “justice begins and ends” in district courts.

To coastal pundits, Indiana is a “deep red state.” For them, anything outside Indianapolis or the industrial north is lost-cause land. Therefore the only Indiana Democrats that can hope to win those elections will really just be even-tempered Republicans.

Given this frame of mind, it’s easy to see why so many of them have found Canon’s thriving candidacy surprising. He represents the most ambitious wing of the Democratic Party, and he doesn’t shy away from issues (abortion, gay rights, racial equality) that we’re told are deal-breakers in the trailers of Tobinsport and the working-class suburbs of Clark County.

If Canon flips the Ninth District, it’ll probably have more to do with his heart than with larger political trends. Anyone can doubt the correctness of his politics, but only the intentionally deceptive would question his commitment to improving the lives of Americans. 

“I’m tired of seeing my people get hosed by right-wing populists,” Canon said as he coordinated with volunteers about getting a beer somewhere. As for those surprised by his chances? “People from outside Indiana don’t understand Indiana.” Canon’s honesty and directness are refreshing. If they turn out not to be winning political tactics, they at least have the merit of never pretending to be. 

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