EVANSVILLE, Ind. — A hug shared between Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg and Republican candidate Eric Holcomb conveyed the overall friendly tone of Tuesday night’s third and final governor’s debate at the University of Southern Indiana.
The hug came after moderator Mizell Stewart III accidentally referred to Gregg as “Mr. Holcomb.” The two candidates teased the moderator, with Gregg pointing out they’ve “only spent about $10 million trying to get people to know who’s who.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games at the debate.
While questions centered on the state’s health and social issues, the lack of conversation concerning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act shocked Gregg.
“There were no questions about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or LGBT civil rights,” Gregg said during a news conference after the debate. “I mentioned it at the end, but that’s by far been the most important social issue to grab this state in the last couple of years.”
Gregg expressed a desire to repeal RFRA, calling it “unneeded” and a “huge economic problem.”
Although Holcomb said he would be willing to hear a discussion regarding changes to RFRA if it makes its way to the General Assembly in 2017, he emphasized that his focus, if elected governor, would remain on issues regarding the economy and the community.
During the debate, the moderator asked the candidates whether they agreed with Gov. Mike Pence’s inaction to pardon Keith Cooper, a northern Indiana man who was wrongfully convicted of armed robbery in 1997.
Holcomb said he would look forward to “quickly pardoning” Cooper after extensive review of the case, but both Gregg and Libertarian candidate Rex Bell agreed to immediately pardon Cooper.
“If there is any question at all, and certainly in a case like this there’s no question the man was innocent, he needs to be pardoned,” Bell said.
The three candidates found room for common ground within the hour time slot.
Addressing the issue of Indiana’s drug epidemic stifling families and communities, Gregg, Holcomb and Bell agreed to implement more rehabilitation programs for victims, while creating a harsher punishment for dealers.
“We need to continue to explore every way we can to not just solve the problem for one community, but to really kill the whole drug epidemic itself,” Holcomb said. “Yes, to the needle exchange program.”
Needle exchange programs allow drug users access to clean needles in an attempt to stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks. The programs also offer medical testing, referrals to treatment and health insurance resources. Pence signed a law legalizing the programs in Indiana last year. So far, eight Indiana counties have been approved by the state to implement the program.
Both Gregg and Bell also agreed to support needle exchange programs.
“We have got to change the way we look at drugs. For the dealer and the trafficker, they need locked up. To the violent criminal, they need locked up,” Gregg said. “But to many Hoosiers, we need to realize this is a medical issue and we need to treat it as such, and we need to realize that rehabilitation works.”
Voters have less than two weeks to decide on which candidate best fits the role for governor before heading to the polls on Nov. 8.
Shelby Mullis is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.