A voice rings, “Vote for Jill, vote for Jill.” It’s Jeanette Hackman at the corner of Tipton and Chestnut Streets this bright Friday morning in Seymour, Ind. The elderly Hackman hassles her neighbors in that small-town know-everybody way as they trickle out of Larrison’s Diner, their stomachs full of coffee, eggs, and french fries. She slaps stickers on the chests of the few restaurant patrons. “Jill Long Thompson for governor,” she persists.
No matter her age or ailments, Hackman, who has been in politics for over 30 years, is well aware that she is a vital element to mobilizing the people of her hometown, with its population the size of IU’s freshman and sophomore classes. As the Jackson County Democratic chair, she is the organizer of this small, but meaningful event. “You have to get out there and get the people to the polls,” she says before greeting another local. “There’s a lot of work to do.”
A crowd is slowly gathering. A few men loiter outside Larrison’s while a handful of people take their place inside at a table — or what is actually a few tables quickly shoved together to accommodate a dozen or so senior citizens. There is a buzz of excitement. This election has people talking, that’s for sure. Percentages, polling statistics and “I remember when’s” are tossed around in the 30 minutes before Long Thompson is scheduled to arrive. Hackman places a sign in front of the entrance to the restaurant. Inside, an identical sign rests lopsided on a man’s walker.
Finally, three figures appear down the block — no RV or caravan in sight — just Jill Long Thompson, flanked by her two young assistants.
She is swarmed by the handful of loyal bystanders. She stops at each person to introduce herself and talk politics, fielding questions about the economy, jobs, and Daylight Savings Time.
Once inside Larrison’s, she pauses at each table to shake hands with those not affiliated with the large group seated in the back. She is easily the youngest person here and slightly overdressed for these laid-back small-town supporters. But once she sits down, with her water and Diet Pepsi in front of her, she fits right in. She greets everyone as if they’re old friends catching up — some she’s met before, some for the first time — and in less than five minutes, the whole group is laughing together.
These are her people, after all.
Because she was raised on a grain and dairy farm in Whitley County and currently resides on a farm two counties over from her hometown, she said she is acutely aware of the hard-working Hoosier, the Hoosier often forgotten about when decisions are made about the privatization of jobs and other economy shifts.
Long Thompson, an IU alumna (Ph.D. ’84), comes from a family of those Hoosiers. She was the first in her family to go to college, but received experience in politics at age 6 by helping her parents register new voters door-to-door. In addition to teaching at IU, IU-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Valparaiso, she served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and the under secretary for Agriculture in the Clinton administration. In the past, she has unsuccessfully run for Senate and three times for Congress. But that hasn’t stopped her. Even with the September polls putting Republican incumbent Gov. Mitch Daniels as many as 15 points ahead, she’s pushing hard.
“I’ve had to build every campaign from square one,” Long Thompson says, as she gets ready to leave for the next stop on the Hoosier Hometown Tour. “But I think that just makes me a stronger candidate and a stronger public official.”
Long Thompson, who perhaps by coincidence is wearing a United Steelworkers lapel pin that reads “Women of Steel,” cites Sen. Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the Democratic presidential ticket as inspiration.
“I am so impressed with how consistent she was on the campaign trail and how hard and dedicated she was as a presidential candidate and is as a United States senator,” she says of Clinton. “She sets the bar very high for men and women.”
Long Thompson is the first woman to be nominated by a major party for Indiana governor, which means if she wins, she will be the first female governor in the state. Over half of the country has never had a female governor, and while the numbers of females holding high office are slowly increasing, there is a disproportionate percentage to the 51 percent of women in the total population.
“We’re making progress. We know that both men and women make very good decisions if they’re the right men and women, in the right positions, in the right time,” she says optimistically. “But it’s going to take a real effort on the part of the people who care about our government to look for the best talent to address the challenges.”
On the next leg of the day’s tour, Long Thompson and company journey 15 miles eastward to North Vernon, Ind., a town of about 7,000 with train tracks that weave in and out of the main streets. The setting has changed to the White Front Cafe, with the crowd now a mix of young and old, suits and jeans. But the aura is the same. When Long Thompson arrives, she’s greeted like an old friend as she plops down and orders an unsweetened iced tea. She goes seamlessly from sharing secrets about the “campaign diet” to launching a discussion about the seriously declining economy.
It’s surprising to find such a liberal and diverse group of thinkers in this small restaurant in this small town. Gary Driver, the Jennings County Democratic chair, is eager to inform his neighbors about Long Thompson’s message, although sometimes a challenge since Indiana is known as a red state. “When you have somebody with the caliber of Jill Long Thompson running, it doesn’t matter if it’s male or female,” Driver said. “She’s the candidate, she’s for the better. We need change, and we’re gonna get change.”
Change is why Long Thompson is running for this position. There’s no more time to wait, for fear of watching her fellow Hoosiers suffer. She’s looking to revitalize Indiana’s economy, to create new jobs to make up for the 60,000 lost in the past year. She says she believes that Indiana’s economy can not only be picked off of the ground and brushed off, but that it can be stronger than ever with her guidance.
“I honestly was not thinking about running for governor in 2008, but the state of Indiana’s economy is of great concern to me, and I believe that Gov. Daniels has taken us in the wrong direction,” she says.
Patti Yount, avid supporter and North Vernon, Ind.-native, supports Long Thompson’s economic plan and stresses the dire need for a change in the state. Yount, who was a first grade teacher for 25 years, has been active in politics for decades. She spent eight years working for former Gov. Frank O’Bannon and was the first woman on her local city council. She’s in tune to the concerns facing her neighbors, and believes Long Thompson can fix the problems.
“(People are) worried, they’re scared. Are they going to have a home? Are they going to lose their job? What’s going to happen to property tax? Are we even going to be able to get insurance?” Yount asks. “And for the first time in a long time, now they’re worrying, ‘Will our kids have it as good as I have it?’ It’s even worse now.”
She says she feels passionately that if Long Thompson can win southern Indiana over, she will win the election.
“She will care for the worker. She’s going to care about Hoosiers,” Yount says. “She’s a tireless worker and she doesn’t back away from a fight. She’s got the experience to be governor so the state will be in good hands.”
As Long Thompson finishes her chicken salad, an assistant motions that it will be time to leave soon. It’s 1 p.m., and they have three more stops to make today, in Versailles, Greensburg, and Brookville, for a total of nine this weekend. She will undoubtedly make the same impression she has on the residents of these two towns: as genuine as the black and white photos of trains adorning this restaurant’s walls.
She leaves, but they stay, huddling at the end of the table talking politics. Yount leads the discussion as she straightens a pile of “Ditch Mitch” bumper stickers. She teases her brother about the first time he joined College Democrats. There’s talk about where to get more Obama yard signs and why they cost $8. They reminisce about favorite politicians and monumental moments. There are mentions of grandkids and worries about their futures. They criticize the current national and state governments, but inflate each other with hope about the future come Nov. 4.
Here, in this town of less than 7,000, are Jill Long Thompson’s people: the jobless, the uninsured, the women with unequal pay, the children in bad schools, and the rural citizens left out by their own government. And as she tours around to parades and gatherings with people just like them, it’s clear Jill Long Thompson is their candidate.
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