Young tech executive could stir Indiana governor’s race

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This undated photo provided by the Josh Owens for Governor Campaign shows Josh Owens. The young tech business executive’s jump into the Indiana governor’s race could lead to a big shakeup in the campaign. Owens became this past week the second Democrat who’s formally entered the 2020 race seeking to unseat Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. (Josh Owens for Governor Campaign via AP)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A young tech business executive’s jump into the Indiana governor’s race could lead to a big shake-up in the campaign.

Josh Owens became this past week the second Democrat who’s formally entered the 2020 race seeking to unseat Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. The 34-year-old CEO of Indianapolis-based online retail strategy company SupplyKick casts himself as bringing new energy to the campaign with “a bigger, more inclusive vision” for Indiana’s future.

While Owens is a little-known candidate and has never held elected office, he already had hired several experienced Democratic campaign aides before posting an online video Monday announcing his campaign. Health care business executive and former state health commissioner Woody Myers is the other declared Democratic candidate so far for the May 2020 primary.

Holcomb has a big front-runner advantage while he seeks re-election with at least $6 million in his campaign bank account as Republicans hold all statewide elected offices and supermajorities in the Legislature. Holcomb, 51, has touted what he says are record hiring commitments from businesses since he took office in 2017 and numerous infrastructure investments while protecting the state’s top-level credit rating and $2 billion surplus.

But Owens said he would push an aggressive agenda on issues neglected by Holcomb, such as raising teacher pay, decriminalizing marijuana, expanding LGBT civil rights protections and seeking tougher background checks on gun sales.

“I think there’s actually a lot of hunger in Indiana for a diverse set of policies, policies that aren’t just exclusively about balanced budgets and lower taxes,” he said. “I am supportive of our balanced budget structure. I think a lot of what I’m talking about isn’t tax based, it is about our priorities.”

Before joining SupplyKick in 2015, Owens worked in marketing positions for Angie’s List and online retailer One Click Ventures, and taught economics and statistics courses at Butler University. After an unsuccessful 2014 campaign for an Indianapolis Public School board seat, he was appointed in 2015 by Gov. Mike Pence to the Indiana Charter School Board, serving as its chairman before his term ended this summer.

“I do think I bring a different set of experiences than others. That’s partly because I think I have accomplished a lot in a short amount of time,” he said. “I have been an educator, I have helped build a number of businesses and currently run one of the faster-growing businesses in Indiana.”

Holcomb’s campaign declined to comment on Owens, while the Myers campaign voiced skepticism about his entry into the race.

“We look forward to hearing how and why Josh now wants to serve everyday Hoosiers,” Myers spokeswoman Kate Shepherd said. “We have not yet seen him on the campaign trail nor seen him actively engaged with our Democratic Party.”

Owens, who is openly gay and married to his husband, could give the Democratic ballot a fresh face after the party has fallen short among voters with its experienced old guard in recent elections — including former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg’s unsuccessful 2012 and 2016 campaigns for governor and Evan Bayh’s failed 2016 U.S. Senate comeback bid.

The 65-year-old Myers has kept a mostly low profile since announcing his Democratic bid in July, with one of his few public appearances being at the unveiling of a historical marker honoring teenage AIDS patient Ryan White, whose right to attend school Myers defended during his time as state health commissioner in the 1980s.

Another potential younger Democratic candidate is 38-year-old state Sen. Eddie Melton of Gary, who has held several public meetings around the state since announcing in June he was considering a gubernatorial run. Melton has yet to formally enter the race.

Indiana Democratic leaders for many years have worked to avoid primary contests for statewide races, seeking to maintain party unity and preserve campaign cash for the November elections.

The weakened position Democrats face in the state could make this a good time to let more candidates step forward and put themselves before voters, said former Indiana Senate Democratic leader Vi Simpson, who was the party’s 2012 lieutenant governor nominee.

“We don’t have anybody with statewide exposure running, and so a primary kind of stirs the pot and gets people’s name out there in a hurry,” she said. “It forces you to prepare for a general election, for sure.”

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(This story was originally published on September 21, 2019)

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