Skip to content

Carson’s Health a Mystery

For at least a decade, Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.) has reigned over her district’s politics. But recently the six-term Congresswoman has suffered from health problems that have kept her away from Washington, D.C., and the campaign trail — sparking a fresh round of speculation that she is planning to retire.

Carson initially told The Indianapolis Star this summer that she planned to run for re-election. But in a radio show released before local elections Nov. 6, Carson expressed uncertainly about her future political plans.

“When I get to the point where I’ve come to the end of my road and talk to the Lord about what I’m going to do now, I think he’ll show me the answers,” Carson said in an interview with radio personality Amos Brown.

Carson was admitted to an Indianapolis hospital on Sept. 21 for an infection in her leg near the area where she had surgery performed in 1996, according to a news release from her office. She initially planned to return to Congress on Nov. 1 but since has had to prolong her recovery period until mid-December.

Carson’s persistent health problems have only encouraged rumors that she might retire this cycle. But even if she does go for a seventh term, some political observers question whether she can win again, especially given the current political climate in her district.

Brian Howey, publisher of the Howey Political Report, a political tip sheet in Indiana, said another win for Carson isn’t necessarily a sure thing despite the Democratic overlay of her district. She has underperformed other Democrats in the district, running 4 points behind Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 58 percent in 2004.

Local elections last week kicked out many incumbents across the Hoosier State, including Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D) in a huge upset. Peterson, a Carson ally, lost to Greg Ballard (R) despite outspending him by about a 10-1 margin.

“After Tuesday, if I’m a Democrat in Indianapolis, I’ve got to be thinking, ‘We lost the mayor, we just lost the City Council, we lost the prosecutor’s seat last year, do we want to lose this Congressional seat?” Howey said.

Other Indiana insiders say it’s possible that Carson’s Democratic machine might be due for a trip to the shop for an upgrade.

“We know from looking at the precinct-by-precinct votes that the precincts that always perform well for her, they were not there for the mayor,” said one Indiana Republican operative. “The word on the street is that the black community just didn’t come out and support him the way they have supported him in the past.”

According to political insiders in the state, voters were enraged about a recent state property tax increase — a matter over which city officials actually had no control.

But the “kick the bums out” mentality played out across the state in the low-turnout election, hitting both Democrats and Republicans. Over the course of the primary and general elections in 2007, 38 percent of Indiana mayors lost their re-election bids.

That anti-incumbency fervor might be enough to give Republicans hope of competing for Carson’s seat.

“Certainly after Tuesday, everything is possible,” said Cam Savage, spokesman for the re-election campaign of Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). “Republicans are feeling very good about their chances in the county. Republicans are very energized. They have the mayor’s office for the first time in eight years and all the support that goes with it.”

Savage added that his camp is focused on carrying Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, in 2008.

Many Republicans look to state Rep. Jon Elrod to run for Carson’s seat if it becomes open. Elrod proved his electability in a Democratic district, even beating the state lawmaker who redrew the district maps in 2001.

“This guy beat the guy who drew the maps for the Democrats,” said Howey. “They need to take him very seriously.”

Some also mention Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi (R), who ran a campaign in 2006 that one operative called “Congressional- caliber or better,” as a possible contender for the Carson seat.

Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita (R) lives just outside the district but has done well there in the district in his statewide races. State Sen. Teresa Lubbers (R) also is mentioned by one operative as “our dream candidate, every time,” though so far she hasn’t been interested in running for higher office.

And Democrats looking to run for Carson’s seat might want to take a ticket and get in line. Many Hoosier Democrats already are jockeying to run — but only if Carson chooses not to run again.

“No one challenges the queen, unless you know she’s not coming back,” Howey said.

It’s assumed that Carson’s preference to succeed her would be her grandson, Andre Carson (D), who just was elected to his first full-term on the Indianapolis City-County Council. The younger Carson has often served as a surrogate for his grandmother at community events.

“No one knows what the future holds,” Andre Carson said about running for his grandmother’s seat. “But I can say that my focus now is being the best district councilor I can be for Indianapolis.”

Because he is 33 years old and only recently elected in his own right, some Democrats think Andre Carson might be too green for the gig.

“Her grandson may be Congressional material some day, but he’s pretty young,” said Ann DeLaney, a former state Democratic chairwoman who ran against Carson in her first election in 1996. “He’s just been elected to his first office.”

Political insiders say state Rep. Carolene Mays (D) is interested in running if Carson declines. Mays also is the publisher of the Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s black newspaper. Also mentioned are state Rep. Gregory Porter (D), former state Democratic Chairman Robin Winston and former State Health Commissioner Woodrow Myers.

But perhaps now Democrats could add another name to that list: Peterson, the outgoing Indianapolis mayor. Although he’s close to the Carson family, he could summon the financial resources to compete and already has high name identification from running the city that comprises most of the district.

“He could raise a couple million dollars with one hand behind his back,” DeLaney said. “If Bart doesn’t run, there are a lot of people who have been queuing up for this for years and who are not going to defer to her grandson.”

But for the meantime, all eyes and ears are waiting to see what Carson says about her future. The state filing deadline is Feb. 22, which leaves three months for Carson to make her decision.

“She’s doing a lot better,” said Andre Carson. “Her spirits are up. She’s cussing and fussing, which is always promising.”