A blue dog seeing red: Baron Hill wants another shot in Indiana’s 9th District

Baron Hill: hugs a supporter at Democratic HQ in Jeffersonville. Hill, a former Congressman in Indiana's 9th District, is trying to reclaim the seat from one-term incumbent Republican Mike Sodrel.  Photo by Angela Shoemaker

Baron Hill: hugs a supporter at Democratic HQ in Jeffersonville. Hill, a former Congressman in Indiana’s 9th District, is trying to reclaim the seat from one-term incumbent Republican Mike Sodrel. Photo by Angela Shoemaker

Former U.S. Congressman Baron Hill (D-Ind.) is fighting mad, and he wants you to do something about it. More precisely, he wants you to put him back in the same office that voters kicked him out of in 2004.
Two years ago, Hill lost by fewer than 1,500 votes, a defeat he blamed at the time on a series of hard-hitting billboards paid for by an out-of-town group aimed at exploiting gays, guns and God. The ads were stark, and effective.

This time around, his opponent, Rep. Mike Sodrel, keeps pointing out that Hill voted for the same war in Iraq that the former congressman now labels a disaster.
It’s enough to make Hill, a blue-dog Democrat, see red.
“Yes, I voted for the war. But I was lied to,” he told me in an interview for another publication last month. “I don’t pull any punches about it any more, not about the word ‘lied.’ I was lied to, pure and simple.”
Hill said he decided to vote for the war after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told him Iraq posed an immediate threat and was developing a doomsday arsenal of weapons ready to strike the United States.
Eric Schansberg, an Indiana University Southeast economics professor who is running for the seat as the Libertarian Party candidate, said last week that Hill’s changed tune smacks of “opportunism.”

“It’s a bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking,“ Schansberg told me. “And I don’t think it is very credible. He’s not owning up to any mistake, he is just saying, ’I was lied to.’”
Still, the message may be reaching voters. Schansberg thinks recent polling that shows Hill running slightly ahead of Sodrel is probably right, and he predicts a close election.

But the comeback bid is one of the hardest plays in politics, and Hill’s run is no exception. There aren’t many strategists like Richard “The New Nixon” Nixon and Bill “Comeback Kid” Clinton.
Hill has to do more than campaign harder this time, said former Jeffersonville Mayor Tom Galligan, who is considering a comeback race of his own in 2007. Galligan’s robust, take-charge tenure was interrupted in 2003 when Jeffersonville voters tired of his penchant for fighting with every dogcatcher in town.

“When you lose an election, you really have to re-evaluate everything you did before or you don’t win,” said Galligan, who’s equally famous for tantrums and break-through progress.
Hill, a former stockbroker and high school sports star with a politician’s straight back and ready grin, needed to soften his image, Galligan said. And like Democrats everywhere, Galligan said, Hill has to reclaim the values voters he lost in 2004.

“It’s going to be close, but Hill’s ads are a lot more user-friendly than they were before,” said Galligan, a Democrat who said he thinks highly of both Sodrel and Hill. “He stresses his Hoosier values, something that Mike has been doing from the beginning. That‘s smart.”
Having “Hoosier values” is a lot like being a “good American.“ What does it mean? Two years ago, it meant enough to cost Hill the election, said Barb Anderson, a longtime activist who for 21 years has run Haven House Services, which supports the homeless and working poor.

“I had been working for the Hill campaign doggedly,“ Anderson recalled last week. “I mean I was out knocking on doors every night. And everywhere I went, I’d hear people say they were for ‘Bush, (now-Gov. Mitch) Daniels and Hill.’ We were in good shape.

“But then something changed, and I started hearing about the  billboards.”
“The billboards” were a series of large, starkly black signs scattered throughout rural areas in the large district that stretches from nearly all the way to Evansville in the west, past Bloomington to the North, and east to within sniffing distance of Cincinnati.

Erected in the last weeks of the campaign, they were often simply white text on black backgrounds, and masterstrokes of subtlety. The one I remember seeing in the western part of the district said simply, “Baron Hill Supports Abortion.” Anderson recalls seeing one that read, “Baron Hill Supports Gay Marriage.”

(In Kentucky, by contrast, right-wing political operatives employed surrogates, not signs, to spread the message about “limp-wrested” Democrats, and along the way they defused a bomb that almost blew U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning right out of office.)

Sodrel campaign manager Cam Savage didn’t return a call seeking comment, but he has previously defended the 2004 campaign — which he stressed had not paid for the billboards — as one that focused on Hill’s positions.

So far the billboards have not reappeared in the 9th District. If they do, the Hill-Sodrel race might just show us whether voters, having seen what the religious right helped usher in, are ready for a change. Even if that change means giving Baron Hill a second chance.

Galligan predicted that one thing is likely to stay the same. “I think it is going to be close,” he said. “It might even be closer than last time.”  

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• This column has previously criticized Mayor Jerry Abramson for avoiding the annual gay pride parade. Well, fair is fair. Last weekend Abramson did himself proud, helping kick off Sunday’s Louisville AIDS Walk. It was a smart move, and the walk raised at least $155,000 — and counting.

PBS looks at Sodrel-Hill race
This week, “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” ran a story about the Sodrel-Hill race. To access it, go to www.pbs.org/newshour/ and look for “Choices ’06.”