Ds to leave their last two Ohio River House seats

Less than one week after being renominated without opposition and learning that she faces a rematch with her 2022 opponent, Rep. Rita Fleming (D) on Monday retired from her HD 71 seat, effective immediately – a major surprise to most State House observers.

Dr. Fleming faced a rematch with her 2022 opponent, who was the ostensible election night winner until a ballot count error later found her defeating at-large Jeffersonville City Councilmember Scott Hawkins (R) with 50.4% of the vote.

“I have 15 grandchildren, and they and the rest of my family are my priority,” Fleming said Monday. “Legislative sessions are long up at the Statehouse in Indianapolis and it takes a lot of work to properly represent House District 71,” said the retired OB/GYN who spent a considerable amount of energy fighting the abortion restriction legislation in the 2022 special session.

“It’s time for me to retire from my post as state representative and focus on my family,” Dr. Fleming adds without explaining the odd timing of her announcement . . . as we were hearing of some serious health issues facing two members of her nuclear family. “This summer, I look forward to spending time with my grandchildren, growing an excellent vegetable garden and volunteering my time helping third graders learn to read.”

Her ballot vacancy must be filled by early July (likely at the same time and by the same individual as will fill the vacancy in her seat) in a tight district where Democrats hope to capitalize on the legal troubles former sheriff Jamey Noel (R), who was forced to resign from his Clark County Republican Party chair after a multitude of felony indictments against him following an Indiana State Police investigation and assorted State Board of Accounts audits peeled back the onion on a multi-county scandal involving several other GOP elected officials (though not Hawkins).

The very fact that she will not be the candidate seemed intriguing given that locals believed she was favored to beat Hawkins in the fall. The Clark County Democratic Party bench, however, is considered to be “paper-thin” by locals, who questioned whether Fleming’s caucused-in successor and ballot replacement could ever be similarly well-positioned.

However, Democrats hit a grand slam in the replacement stakes, as local economic development domo Wendy Dant Chesser agrees to run for the seat – and does so with Fleming’s blessing.

Dant Chesser is a former Department of Commerce official, spending eight years in the O’Bannon department (working with then-Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan (D)) and eventually serving as deputy director before spending a few years running economic development efforts in Southwest Michigan. From there she returned in 2012 to her native Southeast Indiana (she is an Indiana University Southeast alum) to run One Southern Indiana, the chamber of commerce and local economic development organization for Clark County and Floyd County, racking up a strong record for more than a decade before joining the local River Ridge Development Authority to oversee strategy and external affairs.

She is well-known, respected, and liked locally and is a fixture of the local business community, which would ordinarily break Republican in the area. With multi-use redevelopment of the former Jeffboat site in Clark County in the crosshairs, her ability to connect local business interests and the community with state officials and private developers would be a major asset to the district, and could preempt an issue on which Hawkins might have been stronger than Fleming. Republicans question how well she will relate to blue-collar Democrats in a county in which such Ds are looking for any reason to stick with a Trump agenda, but she can tap into her local blue collar roots to do so. She has strong (small “p”) political skills, and will match Hawkins in energy.

In an election in which Democrats are hoping to target a half-dozen seats in an attempt to break the Republican supermajority, it would not bode well for them to have to defend Dr. Fleming’s seat . . . but with a modicum of caucus cash, Dant Chesser should allow them to direct their attention from having to play serious defense in one of their few remaining Ohio River seats (we count only two left, and the other, now held by Rep. Ryan Hatfield (D) who is leaving to run for judge, will be open in November as well).

Dr. Fleming’s resignation means that at least 11 House members elected in 2022 will not be on the ballot for re-election to the House in 2024 – and this figure will round up to an even one-dozen if Rep. Julie McGuire (R) is nominated for lieutenant governor at the Republican state convention on June 15.