When Andre Carson was a teenage rapper, his stage name was “Juggernaut.”
Democrats are hoping that label is prophetic, choosing the fast-rising Carson, 33, on Saturday as their nominee in a special election to fill the 7th Congressional District seat left vacant by the death of his grandmother, U.S. Rep. Julia Carson.
Julia Carson, who served in Congress from 1996 until her death Dec. 15, is a legend in Indiana politics, and Democrats voted Saturday to continue her legacy by backing her grandson.
Andre Carson, a member of the City-County Council since mid-2007 and a former State Excise Police officer, won on the first ballot in the caucus of Democratic precinct committee chairmen and chairwomen. Of the 599 who were eligible to vote, 439 cast ballots. Carson received 223 votes to clinch the nomination in the field of eight candidates.
State Rep. David Orentlicher, D-Indianapolis, was runner-up with 123 votes, and Marion County Treasurer Michael Rodman was a distant third with 27 votes.
Party insiders, who had packed the Shortridge Middle School auditorium, leapt to their feet cheering as state party Chairman Dan Parker announced that Carson was the nominee for the March 11 special election. The district covers most of Marion County.
“We love you, Andre!” one woman shouted out as Carson bounded onto the stage.
“We did it!” a beaming Carson shouted back. “Thank God, we did it!”
Now, he said, “we all have to come together. No matter who you were for, we come together and show Republicans that this is a Democratic seat.”
Former U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs, Julia Carson’s longtime friend and mentor, watched Carson’s victory from the auditorium’s balcony. He said it was an emotional moment.
“Oh, my God; oh, my God. You’ll never know,” Jacobs said. “It helps dry some tears.”
There’s no question that being Julia Carson’s grandson played a large role in Carson’s nomination. Carson acknowledged that influence might concern some voters.
“Those are legitimate concerns. But they can also be reassured that she and I share the same philosophy: helping the people.”
Besides, he added, “my last name is Carson, but I’m Andre. I’m my own man, my own person.”
Barbara Mohler, a precinct committee chairwoman since 1965, said she’d been a personal friend of Julia Carson’s, and that enticed her to support Andre Carson. But, she said, she didn’t make up her mind until coming to Saturday’s caucus and talking to him and the other candidates.
He was “the most charismatic, the most personable” and the one she thought could best continue to carry on his grandmother’s public service, she said.
If elected, Carson would be the first Muslim to represent Indiana in Congress. And he said anyone who thinks that his religion might be a political handicap are underestimating Hoosiers.
“I’m an Indy 500 Hoosier. I’m a Covered Bridge Festival Hoosier. I’m a Black Expo Hoosier. I’m a Muslim Hoosier. But I am an American, and I love America,” Carson said, with his wife, Mariama, and 13-month-old daughter, Salimah, at his side.
Now, he said, he hopes to unify Democrats and draw support from independents and some “Republicans who are open-minded” to win the special election and the May 6 primary to be on the ballot for the November general election.
Although the Democrats whom Carson defeated Saturday hugged and congratulated him, some still plan to run in that May primary.
Orentlicher and state Rep. Carolene Mays, who finished fourth with 26 votes, indicated they plan to seek the nomination in the primary, despite their losses. So did Marshall Middle School Principal Jeffery White, who received eight votes.
“I believe the people of the 7th District deserve a voice,” said Mays, publisher and president of the Indianapolis Recorder.
Orentlicher agreed. “Our future needs to be decided by everybody, not just a few hundred people,” he said.
White indicated no one should be anointed to run for office.
“It’s becoming a mockery of democracy around here,” he said.
Carson said his effort now is to unify different factions in the party and to push an issues-oriented campaign. He favors a swift withdrawal of troops from Iraq; the ratification of international treaties to address global warming; revisiting President Bush’s tax breaks, which he said benefit the super-rich; and funding to fulfill the No Child Left Behind education program.
“The number one issue will have to be, for us, education,” he said. “Education is the center. When you’re dealing with the war in Iraq; when you’re dealing with the Kyoto Protocol (on global warming); when you’re dealing with the homeless situation we have in our country, we’re going to focus on education.”
Jacobs said it’s fine with him if the party still has a contest for the nomination in the May primary.
“I don’t have any problem with democracy,” he said.
Julia Carson’s congressional seat, he said, “is not being handed down,” but instead will be decided by the voters.
Still, Jacobs said with a laugh: “When we can get to the point where African-Americans can have a political dynasty, that’s progress.”
Libertarians also chose their nominee, Sean Sheppard, a small-business owner in the telecommunications industry, Saturday evening.