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First openly gay gubernatorial candidate begins campaign

HISTORY:Josh Owens made history Monday by announcing his intention to seek the Democratic nomination to face incumbent Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. Provided photo

By Rob Burgess

rburgess@wabashplaindealer.com

Josh Owens made history Monday by announcing his intention to seek the Democratic nomination to face incumbent Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. He is the first openly gay gubernatorial candidate in the state's history.

The only other currently announced Democratic candidate for governor will visit Wabash County later this month when the Wabash County Democratic Party hosts Dr. Woody Myers at their monthly meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26 in the boardroom of the Honeywell Center.

Holcomb announced his re-election campaign July 13.

As CEO of Indianapolis-based SupplyKick, one of the nation’s fastest-growing online retailers, Owens has promised a minimum $50,000 salary for all his employees at the company.

While growing SupplyKick, Josh was an instructor of economics and statistics at the Butler University Lacy School of Business. At Butler, Josh taught over 2,000 students and led the successful development of multiple online and hybrid courses. He also taught at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Owens received the Excellence in Teaching award for the Lacy School of Business. Before joining the Butler University faculty, Josh helped grow two local technology start-ups at Angie’s List and One Click Ventures. He also served as the chair of the Indiana Charter School Board.

Owens grew up in Shelbyville where his parents and family still live today. He graduated from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, and later earned his MSc in economic history at the London School of Economics. Owens and his husband Andy live in Indianapolis with their golden retriever.

In a phone interview with the Plain Dealer on Tuesday, Owens laid out his vision on several topics including teacher pay, the economy, breaking barriers, guns and cannabis.

Teacher pay

Of all the issues Owen said were important to him, increasing teacher pay is at the top of his list.

Over the last 10 years, Indiana per-student spending has fallen dropping Indiana to 47th in public school funding. It may drop more this year.

Indiana ranks 51st in teacher salary increases over the last 10 years among states and Washington, D.C.

The average teacher’s salary has decreased by 4.5 percent after inflation.

“It's about priorities and it's about bringing the right stakeholders to the table to get it done,” he said. “That's not just the statehouse. It's also working with local school districts to ensure that our tax dollars are getting to the teachers and getting to the classroom, that that priority is reflected not just from the top down, but also reflected within each of our districts and having those conversations with them to make sure that this gets done.

“I look at it both as priority-setting and leadership and that's how we'll make this gets accomplished,” he said.

'Two-faced economy'

As a businessman who has dealt first-hand with the financial struggles of his employees, Owens said the current of state of affairs amounted to a “two-faced economy.”

“It looks on the surface it's doing OK but then if you dig just a little bit deeper, you see that the way people are making it work is having multiple jobs and sometimes forging things that they would otherwise be able to do to make sure they can pay for things they actually need,” he said.

Owens said he attributed his company's success to helping his employees become financially stable.

“We didn't grow as a company despite doing that compensation package, we grew because of it. We grew because we supported our team members,” he said.

Owens said economic development should go far beyond bringing jobs, but bringing good jobs in addition to supporting the businesses already here.

Owens said he would work to make “sure we can really support Hoosiers in increasing their wages.”

Running in Indiana as a Democrat

If the presidential results in 2016 and the congressional and Statehouse elections of 2018 indicated, Indiana voters have become increasingly Republican-leaning.

Owens said he looked back further in history to the state's “great tradition of being split-ticket voters, really looking at candidates and looking at the policies.”

“I'm not looking at previous electoral maps for how we win. I know that the way we win is having this conversation with every Hoosier no matter where they live,” he said.

Breaking barriers

Sen. JD Ford also made history in 2018 by becoming the first openly gay state senator ever in Indiana history.

Owens said he hoped to be an inspiration to LGBTQ youth with his history-making run.

“I think back to 12-, 13-year-old Josh and how impactful it would have been to have a statewide openly-LGBTQ person running for governor. I think it really would have made me think differently about the surroundings I was growing up in and about the future that I could have, so hopefully this is part of that,” he said.

Owens said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) controversy in 2015 was an inflection point.

“I think it was fantastic to see the outpouring of support from everyday Hoosiers who said, 'This is a community where we want everyone to be welcome. We want everyone to be here.' That was not reflected in our political leaders and the policies that were happening there but I do think that it's certainly energized people,” he said.

Cannabis policy

Gov. Eric Holcomb has been staunch in his opposition to moving forward with cannabis legalization, as neighboring states including Michigan and Illinois go in the opposite direction.

Owens said he was clear about what should happen.

“We should decriminalize marijuana. I think it is a no-brainer at this point. There is a number of states that have already done this,” he said.

Owens said the current drug policy in that disproportionately hurts certain communities. He said the state was also “leaving tax revenue on the table.”

Owens said he supported medical cannabis for its therapeutic effects, but also for the funds it would provide to fight the opioid crisis and infant mortality.

“We can make life better for all Hoosiers and take that money and reinvest that in places where we can additionally help Hoosiers in need. And I'm happy to support it,” he said.

Gun control

Owens said he supported responsible gun ownership and had several family members who were hunters. He said he supported background checks for private gun sales.

“This is a very obvious solution to help make our communities safer and making sure we're meeting Hoosiers where they are,” he said.

He said Indiana's Red Flag Law was an important first step but was far the final answer.

“We have to continue to take steps to make our communities safer because that danger has not gone away. It has only gotten worse,” he said.