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Mayor Pete launched his political career in Northwest Indiana. Why not Todd Connor?

He has Barack Obama’s ears and Pete Buttigieg’s political profile: Entrepreneur Todd Connor, 43, grew up in suburban Northfield and currently lives in Michigan City. He’s one of four Democrats running in the state’s May 3 primary to fill the seat of retired state Sen. Karen Tallian in a district that covers northern Porter County and northeastern LaPorte County. I recently conducted an email exchange with him.

Normally most of my readers and I wouldn’t be particularly interested in an Indiana state Senate primary race , but I find your candidacy intriguing for the ways in which you remind people of U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a Northwest Indiana native who captured the imagination of many (but not enough) voters when he ran for president in 2020. So in what ways do you find that comparison interesting and useful?

You’re not alone in seeing the comparison (my dad, I think, was the first to call it) in that we’re both coming out of Northwest Indiana, Navy veterans, married to men, and have kids. I was also a big supporter of Pete’s as I saw him as something different, uniquely qualified, and most importantly as someone who was trying to adjust the very frame of the conversation. In those ways, I think there are similarities.

In other ways, though, we’re different.

My lens in the world is as an entrepreneur who has started things (I’m more at home in a co-working space than a corporate boardroom), and I’ve been fixated on political reform that disrupts the duopolistic two-party system, ending closed partisan primaries, and fighting political polarization, which I think is an existential threat to our country.

I don’t think either party is leading an honest conversation or has a bold agenda about how we move past our current state of affairs, but I’m trying to. Here in Northwest Indiana, there is a lot that we have going right: low taxes, great communities, the crossroads of America for rail and highways, and $2 billion in direct investment coming in (not to mention people leaving Illinois, only 35 minutes away, and looking for alternatives).

We’re poised for growth and greatness, but I don’t think you can fully achieve that without political leadership that can personify and catalyze the possible. It’s part of what drew us here in the first place, had us open a business, and has us seeing big possibilities for what can happen in Northwest Indiana.

I also believe that the solution to ending polarization in this country and bringing choice and healthy politics back lies in what states will do, which is a function of who we send there. It’s why I’m interested, and think we all need to be interested, in state houses more than just who the next president is.

On the Mayor Pete theme, his appeal was as a centrist Democrat — remember “Medicare for All Who Want It?” — though of course he was actually fairly liberal in many of his policy ideas. I thought his packaging was just right, almost Obamaesque, and he was just the sort of anti-Trump candidate to “adjust the very frame of the conversation” as you put it, and win the 2020 election. Publicly, the rap on him was that, as merely the mayor of a smallish Indiana, town he lacked the experience to be president. Privately, I expect, the rap on him was that middle America was not ready to elect a gay man as president.

What do you see as the raps on you? And do you sense that your sexuality has been an issue during the campaign, even privately?

The pundits all say that the Democrats are in for a drubbing this fall. I realize this is above the paygrade of a Democratic state Senate candidate, but what is your Rx to the party that needs to win over voters disenchanted with Biden’s presidency and the general direction of the country under nominally Democratic leadership (the caveat being that not much is possible with a U.S. Senate obstructed by the filibuster rule)?

I’ll start with the Rx for the party — in all things, tell the radical truth.

My belief is that the two-party system has failed us. Independents are the fastest growing voter block in this country including 55% of military veterans who identify as independents. I believe Colorado is the first state to have more independents than Republicans and Democrats combined.

People loathe the two-party system, and the dysfunction that follows from that, and are not even satisfied with the party that they vote for and yet neither party wants to touch that conversation explicitly.

America is begging for better politics, and amidst that environment, unless we offer a clear and credible blueprint (one which might threaten each party’s institutional power), false and dangerous substitutes for solutions labeled “America First” or “Drain the Swamp” will emerge.

This binary construct currently leads to a lesser-of-two-evils paradigm, and that’s the thing that has to be disrupted. America is broken, and it’s not just because (pick your team) lost an election — it’s broken because we find ourselves back in this exhausting two-year outrage cycle, sending money to candidates in states we’ll never visit to keep the balance in the Senate in our favor, or some county in Pennsylvania that will determine the outcome of the presidential election.

It’s a ridiculous system that incumbents and challengers exploit for fundraising that is in need of modernization, even though the business model for each party (as measured in dollars received) has never been stronger.

I really believe who comes forward with a path out of this will quickly galvanize the rational majority of this country — and that won’t come in the form of a billionaire running for president, but rather thoughtful people at the state and local level. The question will be, can either party adopt an honest conversation about how the two party system is destroying America, and then build a plan forward.

New Zealand and other countries have been through polarization crises of their own and then adopted reforms – it could happen here. I remind people that George Washington was our only President not to belong to a political party, and Abraham Lincoln was the first third-party (in that day) candidate to become president.

The reality of today’s Republican party is that it has become at a national level so tribal, Trump obsessed, and enmeshed in lies bouncing around the dark corners of the internet that it’s hard to imagine them emerging with a clear vision of how to move the country forward out of this current paralyzing political environment.

So the question becomes can the Democratic party, or something else, show up with a plan.

To the second question, will it matter if the person or party that comes out for this is gay? I doubt it. America is full of smart and I believe open-hearted people – often sitting it out because they don’t understand how the politics have become so toxic.