INDIANAPOLIS — The general election of 1984 wasn’t a good year for Democrats, as Republicans in Indiana and across the nation rode in on the coattails of President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election.
But Vi Simpson was one of the exceptions: The Democrat from Ellettsville beat the Republican incumbent to win a seat in the Indiana Senate.
She’d been recruited by Frank O’Bannon, a longtime Democratic legislator who would later go on to beat the GOP favorite in the 1996 race for governor.
“I’ve often thought what a huge, idiotic move that was,” said Simpson, recalling her decision to take a run at Republican-held seat. “But I just didn’t think about it. I just did it. And I’ve been the Senate ever since.”
In May, Simpson, 66, decided to give up the Democratic nomination she won in the primary for her current seat – and with it, her position as Senate Minority Leader -- to join Democrat John Gregg in his quest to become governor.
It wasn’t an easy decision; she’d considered running for governor in 2004, and again last year. Her husband, former state senator Bill McCarty, and her two adult children and four grandchildren, encouraged her. “We decided to go for it,” she said.
When Gregg announced Simpson as his running mate, he said he “didn’t have to look long, didn’t have to look hard,” because she was “just a shining star.”
Simpson and Gregg share the same party, but not all the same views. Gregg calls himself a moderate-conservative Democrat; Simpson calls herself a progressive Democrat.
She’s pro-choice; he’s pro-life. Simpson led Senate Democrats in the failed fight to stop the “right to work” law that bans contracts that compel employees to join a union. Gregg has said he doesn’t like the law, but won’t lead a fight to repeal it if elected.
Simpson dismisses the significance of their differences, saying she and Gregg appeal to different constituencies. “That’s a good match,” she said.
In her 28 years in the Senate, Simpson earned a reputation for being forthright. She thinks it’s why voters in her district – which includes the Democrat-heavy, college town of Bloomington – kept sending her back.
“I think being honest with the voters has really been my forte,” Simpson said, adding: “I’ve always been brutally honest, to a fault I think.”
Her first call to public service came as a teenager, listening to President John F. Kennedy’s urgings to young people to get involved in civic life.
“He was the kind of leader who brought young people into the fold,” she said. “He inspired us and caused all of us to aspire to do good.”
In college she volunteered on campaigns and later worked with displaced homemakers – helping women who’d been forced, by divorce or other circumstances, to get training and find work. She saw disparity in the financial credit laws and got interested in credit rights.
“I had this vision that someday I might be in a position that I could change the law,” Simpson said. But she didn’t she herself as a political candidate until others saw it first.
The late Frank McCloskey, a six-term U.S. congressman from Bloomington, encouraged Simpson to run for her first office, that of Monroe County auditor. In that job, she got involved in lobbying state legislators on behalf of county officials around the state.
“That’s when I figured out where the decisions that impact local communities were made,” Simpson said.
If elected, Simpson sees herself advocating for a more open legislative process in which all voices have the chance to be heard.
“The legislative process only works when people listen to each other,” she said. “Compromise and negotiations, which are the basis for the legislative process, have become bad words now.”
• Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com.