CHARLESTOWN, Ind. — Liz Watson, the Democratic candidate for Indiana's 9th Congressional District, said the longest she’s publicly appeared alongside Republican incumbent Rep. Trey Hollingsworth was when she passed him once during a parade.
Her campaign took to social media Monday, claiming the candidates would finally appear side-by-side that night. Hollingsworth's campaign said he never had any intention of doing so.
True to his word, Hollingsworth did not show.
In what could have marked a turning point in campaign strategy for the congressman, Hollingsworth was rumored to show up at a Clark County Farm Bureau meet the candidates event at the county's fairgrounds on Monday. Hollingsworth has been endorsed by the Indiana Farm Bureau’s nonpartisan political action committee, ELECT PAC.
The event gave candidates for various offices — from sheriff to judge — a chance to speak to their bases.
To the apparent surprise of the Watson campaign, Hollingsworth did not make an appearance.
However, David Trotter, one of the event’s organizers, said he knew from the beginning the congressman wasn’t coming.
“He absolutely didn’t back out,” Trotter said. “He was never on the program.”
He said he spoke with the congressman personally on the phone earlier Monday to confirm his absence, and Hollingsworth's staff made it clear from the start of the planning process that he would not attend the event.
Trotter said though Hollingsworth’s House vote scheduled for Monday in Washington was cancelled, he had prior arrangements to go to Orange County, Indiana, to celebrate Lincoln Day if the vote fell through.
Hollingsworth's campaign manager Rachel Jacobs confirmed this story in an email to the Indiana Daily Student.
"In spite of whatever desperate stunt Ms. Watson is trying to pull," she wrote, "We will be honoring our prior commitment."
Watson addressed the congressman’s absence early in her opening statements.
“I think it’s so important that you have an opportunity to hear from the people who want to represent you, and I was hoping tonight to be on stage with Congressman Hollingsworth,” she said. “I will say I’m disappointed that he didn’t show up.”
Showing up was the main theme of her remarks.
“I think it is a representative’s job to show up and listen to people,” Watson said, speaking over the roar of a lone air conditioning unit. “That’s why the House of Representatives is called the People’s House.”
Hollingsworth's seemingly constituent-shy strategy isn't the only issue many citizens take with the congressman. Hollingsworth has been nicknamed “Tennessee Trey” by citizens unhappy with his decision to move from Tennessee to Indiana’s 9th district one month before declaring candidacy.
When Washington County Democrats Chairwoman Darlene Briscoe got an email from the Watson campaign that Hollingsworth would be at the event Monday, she called off the group's plans to canvas and run a phone bank that night.
“I’ve been wanting to see Trey Hollingsworth and Liz together in public for ages,” she said.
Watson answered questions about healthcare, taxes and Indiana trivia from the audience of about 80 people. One of the questions was written down by 9-year-old Madeline Ronau. Her father, Josh, helped her spell out the words on the notecard she passed to the front of the room.
Brian Peters, Watson’s campaign manager, said the candidate had alternate remarks prepared to deliver if Hollingsworth showed. He said the substitute speech began by thanking the congressman for his decision to attend.
The event took place in Clark County, Indiana, which favored Hollingsworth in his 2016 run and still favored him in his 2018 primary run. The space the event took place in is generally used for 4-H competitions and meetings.
Watson’s campaign has repeatedly called for a series of debates to be scheduled between the two candidates. Peters said the requests have been brushed off or disregarded altogether.
“We offered 11 dates to them," Peters said Monday before the event. "They ignored every single one."
Hollingsworth scheduled a town hall for a Monday morning last December, but cancelled it last minute due to what his campaign called a threat of violence. Peters said the police departments in the area of the event told him they did not receive a security threat.
"I think, actually, what he was talking about was Liz,” Peters said. “I think he was referring to her as the security concern.”
Hollingsworth did not reschedule the town hall. In July, he told the he did not receive debate invitations with sufficient details from the Watson campaign. The congressman told the paper he needed to know the event would not “turn into a circus.”
After Watson spoke, Monday night’s crowd thinned.
Mike Johnson, a constituent, approached Watson as she leaned against the outside of the 4-H building after her speech.
“Keep fighting the good fight,” Johnson said. “He looked good in Tennessee — looks lousy in Indiana.”
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