Published: October 28, 2006 10:56 pm

District 8 Congressional race taking odd turns

By Austin Arceo
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The Democratic challenger battling for Indiana’s Eighth District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives says that the election is about seeing a new face that symbolizes a new direction for southwestern Indiana.

The Republican incumbent agrees — and it’s exactly what he’s warning against.

The rhetoric in the political battle of the turbulent Eighth District has, at times, overshadowed the candidates’ platforms, with attacks coming from both parties. Republicans accuse Democrat Brad Ellsworth of wanting to propagate “the liberal agenda,” while Democrats accuse incumbent Republican John Hostettler of being out of touch with his constituents.

Hostettler, who first was elected during the “Contract with America” era of the mid-1990s and is seeking his seventh consecutive term in office, also warns that liberal Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would be elected Speaker of the House if Democrats regain the majority.

Ellsworth refuses to buy into the claim.

“I’m concentrating on listening to the people, talking to them, giving them my message on what I think I can offer them,” said Ellsworth, who is serving his second term as Vanderburgh County Sheriff. “Speaker of the House is so far removed from what we’re trying to get out there, I just don’t think that’s what people even think about.”

Both candidates are familiar with the Eighth District. Hostettler, 45, graduated from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Ellsworth, 48, received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Indiana and his master’s degree in criminology from Indiana State University.

Both candidates have taken contrasting views on the Iraq War. The conservative Hostettler has broken with his party, noting during a debate that the “evolving justification” of the war changed to creation of a government in Iraq. Since Iraq already has a constitution in place, Hostettler notes time is near to discuss bringing American troops home.

“The justification continues to change, and in my opinion, the original justification wasn’t there,” Hostettler said during an interview with the Tribune-Star’s editorial board. “The most recent logical justifications are that we toppled the regime, we put in place a constitution, put in place national and provisional leaders, and we have trained over 300,000 Iraqi personnel for national security and domestic law enforcement.”

While Ellsworth admits that the United States went into Iraq with a flawed plan and intelligence, he sounds similar to President George W. Bush, who in a Wednesday news conference reiterated that American troops should remain in Iraq until they no longer are needed.

“We got there in a failed plan,” Ellsworth said. “We can’t afford to come out of there under a failed plan. We need to come out in what is considered a win for America, but we have to explain to the American public what that is. ‘Stay the course’ is not enough to appease the American public anymore.”

Ellsworth considers the Iraq War to be one of the most pressing concerns for voters in the Eighth District. Hostettler believes that immigration reform has been the biggest issue for his constituents.

Hostettler, who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration, border security and claims, supported the immigration reform bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill calls for more stringent border control and makes illegal immigration a felony.

He and Ellsworth oppose an immigration bill the Senate passed earlier this year, which calls for tougher border security, but provides an opportunity for some illegal immigrants already in the United States a chance at “earned citizenship.” Opponents decry it as “amnesty.”

“When an alien has committed a felony, there is different due process that is available to them than is available to a citizen, and … there is much more substantial due process available to a citizen,” Hostettler said in an interview with a Tribune-Star reporter, “and so I guess, the bottom line is, we do not have to treat aliens [and] afford them the same benefits through a judicial process that are required for citizens as a result of the Constitution.”

Ellsworth notes that people would be “pretty shocked when they see the sticker price” on paying for imprisoning and providing necessities for millions of illegal immigrants.

“We’ve got to stop the flow, or cut the bleeding first, and work together and decide then what you do on the 12 million, and I don’t have the definitive answer to that,” Ellsworth said. “But somebody that says ‘round them up and imprison them,’ I don’t think that’s practical, either.”

The candidates also have opposing views on issues like the minimum wage, which Hostettler thinks should not be raised. Ellsworth believes that the minimum wage should be increased, which would be the first such raise in nearly a decade.

Ellsworth also has said that he would not vote for a pay increase, or would donate the increase to a charity in the Eighth District, until the budget is balanced. Members of the House earn $165,200 this year, according to a House Web site.

“The spending’s out of control,” Ellsworth said, before citing a fiscal debt of nearly $9 trillion and a $200-billion deficit. “That’s fiscal conservancy?”

The Evansville Courier & Press reported that Hostettler voted against bills that were explicit pay raises, but pointed out that most cost-of-living increases are hidden within bills so that congressmen can indirectly vote on them. The newspaper also reported that Hostettler voted for cost-of-living increases that were part of larger appropriations bills, a claim which Hostettler has denied.

The race has been heated, with different polls predicting each candidate winning the race. While one poll conducted by ISU showed Ellsworth leading Hostettler by more than 15 points, a different election forecasting model conducted by ISU officials indicated that Hostettler would retain his congressional seat.

“Most of the time, [Hostettler’s] opponent has been modest, to be kind, and certainly modestly funded,” ISU political science professor James L. McDowell said in an interview last month about the first poll. “This is the stiffest test he’s had in his career.”

Both national parties have poured money into the race, hoping to get their candidate elected. Federal Election Commission records indicate that Ellsworth raised more than $1.4 million, compared to about $450,000 for Hostettler. But as of Sept. 29, the National Republican Congressional Committee had spent at least $1.5 million on the race, according to FEC records. The Courier & Press reported on Oct. 15 that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent a similar amount on the race.

Both candidates have received numerous endorsements while on the campaign trail. Hostettler considers his endorsements by anti-abortion groups and gun-ownership advocates like the National Rifle Association, which also gave Ellsworth high marks, among the most significant in the campaign. He also views endorsements from veterans groups as meaningful.

“Veterans issues are important not only to the veterans that are no longer serving, but the soon-to-be veterans who are serving today,” Hostettler said Thursday, a day after he announced that he received an endorsement from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The way we took care of the veterans that have served in the past is a prologue to how we are going to care for those who are serving today.”

Ellsworth has received numerous endorsements, including one from the Alliance of Retired Americans. He also has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, and firefighters, such as the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 758 in Terre Haute.

“You might say ‘well that’s a natural thing’ … but as sheriff, I have not always agreed with the FOP on issues,” Ellsworth said, “and yet, for them to endorse me on the decisions I have made and knowing that I’ll be able to make good, practical, common-sense decisions on their behalf in regards to Homeland Security when I get there [on Capitol Hill], I think that’s important.”

Hostettler has run tight races before, and his current campaign with Ellsworth is close as they head into the final week before the election. Ellsworth notes that people in the district want better leadership from their representative; Hostettler has warned of the election results on a national scale.

While no issues are guaranteed to be voted on, “one vote that will be held, regardless of any other issue that we consider, is the first vote,” Hostettler said during the debate, “for the Speaker of the House.”

Austin Arceo can be reached at (812) 231-4214 or