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The Main Street Politics of Courtney Tritch
“Real solutions don’t fit in a meme”
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Doesn’t 2010 seem like a million years ago?
Back then, after four years of a Democratic controlled Congress and two years into President Obama’s first term, there was an upsurge of voter anger from conservatives and independents, furious at not only a left-leaning government but incumbents from their own party who they felt were failing to deliver on campaign promises or stand up for their (usually conservative) principles.
Voters were, in short, mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore, and indeed incumbents, and especially Democrats (there were more of them, after all) took a “shellacking” in the 2010 mid-term elections.
In 2018, we’re told that all the outrage is on the other side of the political spectrum, and if the results of various special elections that have taken place since President Trump took office (not to mention the low approval ratings of the President and Congress) are anything to go by, the pundits, pollsters, and trend-watchers may be right.
As the narrative goes, huge numbers of Americans have “woken up” to how tenuous our rights and freedoms — and the institutions set up to protect them — really are. And supposedly it’s not just Democrats or progressives who feel this way; people who were never involved or interested in politics before are realizing that it really does matter who we elect to public office.
At a first (superficial) glance, Courtney Tritch, who is running for the Democratic nomination for US Representative for Indiana’s 3rd district, seems to check some of the boxes for the type of opposition candidate we’re supposed to see in 2018.
A political newcomer, Tritch was partially inspired by the 2016 general election to “do something.” She describes herself as a social progressive, concerned with issues like equity and inclusion. She also has a professional resume that demonstrates her bona fides for public office, including a long history of community involvement and decades in economic development (more on that in a bit).
But that’s a very small part of the picture. What’s striking about Tritch as a candidate — where she doesn’t fit the stereotype — is that anger and outrage don’t seem to be motivators when it comes to her candidacy. She’s certainly passionate, and an energetic and inspiring public speaker, but there’s a discipline and focus there that “firebrands” don’t have. Tritch’s message is that it’s not political ideology that solves problems; its engagement, it’s being aware of the issues facing your particular community and tackling those that make for effective leadership.
With several months on the campaign trail behind her, Tritch has received a very enthusiastic response, especially from Democrats, who see her as the first serious contender for the conservative 3rd district in a long, long while.
And Democrats in the district need a little hope — the last several election cycles have been tough ones for them. Not since 2006, when former Fort Wayne city councilman Tom Hayhurst captured some 45% of the vote against incumbent Mark Souder, have they even come close to winning the seat. Democratic candidates since then have failed to crack even the 40% mark, including Hayhurst, whose second try for the seat in 2010 against Marlin Stutzman couldn’t overcome the strong conservative backlash of that election cycle.
2016 was perhaps the nadir, when Tommy Schrader — an unemployed man who by many accounts suffers from mental illness — nabbed the nomination. We’ll probably never know whether that happened through complacency, ignorance, or someone’s idea of a joke on the part of the voters, but whatever the cause, it was an embarrassment to Democrats in the third district.
And if Tommy Schrader wasn’t enough of a wake up call for 3rd district Democrats in 2016, the results of the general election certainly were.
Tritch is new to actually running for office, but she’s hardly a political neophyte. She has the qualifications, and it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who has met or worked with her that’s she had been encouraged several times over the years to run. Her professional experience and strong skills as a public speaker — and a reputation as one of those people who just seems to know how to “get things done” — seemed to make her a natural for politics.
But Tritch always said no. When it comes to problem solving, Tritch likes to hear differing opinions and ideas, gather data, consult experts, work towards a consensus… it’s probably no surprise that she didn’t see much of that thoughtful approach in the current political landscape. The idea of running for office certainly interested her, but… “I always just politely declined,” she says. “I just wasn’t sure that (politics) was for me.”
A series of very difficult personal events made her re-think things. She lost a younger sister to pancreatic cancer, and then, in the summer of 2016, her mother passed away. She took a leave of absence from the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, where she had been for seven years. She eventually left to form her own consulting company, but she says the losses she faced in 2016 left her “breathless.”
“When anyone has a grief experience like that, it helps them realize what’s important, and what’s worth fighting for,” she says. “As I was coming out of this fog, I was watching the November election evolve, and I kept thinking about what my mom would say, that you don’t have a right to complain unless you’ve stood up and done everything you can to change it. All things coalesced for this to be the right time for me to say yes.”
This is also the first time Tritch has even declared a party. She describes herself as a lifelong independent, focused on economic development issues, fiscally conservative and socially progressive. “So where does that put me? With most of America,” she laughs. “I’ve been told my interest in equality and inclusion — whether that means equal pay, or civil rights — is a ‘liberal’ agenda. That surprised me, because I don’t feel those should be a partisan issues.”
“20 or 30 years ago, maybe the Republican party would have been a good fit for me,” she says of her decision to run as a Democrat. “But I feel the Republican Party of today is not the Republican Party of yesterday, and I think it’s left a lot of Republicans behind. The Republican Party today prioritizes ideology over the economy, and that is not of interest to me.”
The phrase “fiscally conservative and socially progressive” is one Democrats running in red-leaning districts often evoke (we’re assuming conservatives in left-leaning areas say the same thing), but Tritch’s extensive professional career in community and economic development gives weight to the words. Originally from Fort Wayne, she returned to the city about 10 years ago after a stint with the Chamber of Commerce in Chicago. She took a position at the Downtown Improvement District just as that organization was beginning to take a more active role in downtown development, and in 2010 moved to the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, where she served as vice-president of marketing.
Tritch has also been a small business owner, but it’s arguably her experience on the NEIRP (the organization’s footprint encompasses 11 counties) that gives her the most insight into the issues facing the area. “I have more seven years experience of trying to get the leadership of 11 counties to work together and talk to each,” Tritch says “The Mayors’ and Commissioners’ Caucus of Northeast Indiana is the only caucus like that in the country. There were Republicans and Democrats all meeting on a regular basis, asking what can we work on together.” Political party affiliation wasn’t much of an issue. “It was all about ‘who has the best idea? Let’s pursue that.’”
“I’ve been around economic development for years, and I absolutely get that ‘pro-business’ perspective,” she adds. She pushes back at the idea that the GOP has some kind of monopoly on being pro-business. Tritch doesn’t see much evidence for it in our current US Representative. As just one example (with an issue that hits particularly close to home), she cites the recent tax bill. The original version, which passed the House, would have gotten rid of federal historic tax credit and the new market tax credit. The bill was eventually changed, but Representative Jim Banks voted for that first version. “Getting rid of either (tax credit) would have tanked the General Electric project,” Tritch points out. “That’s the biggest economic development project our community has seen in decades.” It’s evidence of a leadership that’s more concerned with ideology than being actively engaged with what’s happening in the region. “Once you really drill down into some of these ideas, they are not pro-business, and I would like the opportunity to have that conversation.”
The idea of having conversations is an important one for Tritch, and a theme she returns to many times. In 2016, she started a non-partisan forum/discussion group called Progressive Social Hour to issues of equality, equity, and inclusion in the area. “We had a health care town hall a few weeks ago,” she says. “About 120-150 people attended, and we had medical experts on stage, and I thought ‘this is what we’re missing in our government and leadership today.’ We’re not doing that on the federal level.”
The circus surrounding last year’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act is a perfect example of the consequences that come from a political leadership unwilling to really tackle a problem. For years, the GOP had been promising to real and replace the ACA with something better, or at least fix it. Yet despite solid control of the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, they couldn’t come up with a solution. “That was very disappointing to me, to see the current Congress unwilling to work across the aisle on that issue,” Tritch says. “When they couldn’t make it work, they just gave up. And yet America is still struggling with rising healthcare costs. That’s a real lack of leadership.”
Back in 2010, FWR covered a couple 3rd district candidates — conservatives, in this case — whose initial enthusiasm quickly fizzled out when faced with the daunting task of actually campaigning in such a huge area. As her campaign gears up for the primaries on May 8, Tritch is under no illusions as to how much work lies ahead of her. “I think we’re most productive when we have real conversations, and I want to have as many of those as possible,” she says. “That’s the kind of main street politics we need to fix this divide that’s happened in our country. If we’re willing to get out of our silos, I think we can learn a lot from each other. That’s hard to do, because it doesn’t fit on a facebook meme. But real solutions don’t, and I think we have to be willing as a country to do that, even though it’s harder.”