By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS - Voters in the state capital will likely find a competitive mayoral race after State Sen. Jim Merritt announced his candidacy on Thursday. Should he defeat former councilman Jose Evans, Christopher Moore and John Schmitz in the Republican primary in May, he would face Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett as he seeks a second term.

"Our city is going in the wrong direction and we can’t afford four more years of Joe Hogsett,” Merritt said. “Our murder rate continues to skyrocket. Our showcase downtown has grown more dangerous. And, we all know Mayor Joe Hogsett struggled with a sluggish, lethargic response to last winter’s destruction of our streets. I want to get back to solving crimes and data collections and monthly meetings out in the townships and talking to people at the drop of a hat rather than having everything set up. I want to be a very accessible mayor."

Hogsett reacted to the Merritt candidacy, saying, “This November, Indianapolis voters will have the opportunity to make their voices heard. Should Senator Merritt win his party’s nomination, I look forward to a spirited conversation.” Democratic Chairman Kate Sweeney Bell added, "Indianapolis voters have rejected Senator Merritt's extremist views in the past, and we are confident they will do it again this year." 

Republicans took a pass on the race in 2015, nominating obscure businessman Chuck Brewer, who lost to Hogsett by more than 35,000 votes. But there are a number of Hoosier cities where mayors are nominated by minority parties, including Democrat Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, Republican Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, Democrat Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight and Republican Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. All of those mayors have been reelected in their cities and all are running again this years. Hogsett is just the second Democratic mayor after Unigov was passed almost half a century ago. But after Democrat Mayor Bart Peterson's two terms, Republican Gregg Ballard, who is chairing the Merritt campaign, held the office for two terms before Hogsett won. 

Merritt had a tough reelection battle for the Senate last November, defeating Democrat Derek Camp 51.4% to 48.6%, or by less than 2,000 votes. He has served in the Senate since 1990. He then stepped down as Marion County Republican chairman after spending most of last year branding Hogsett "Pothole Joe" after city streets deteriorated. Hogsett has also presided over a city that has set record homicide rates during his term after he ran in 2015 as a law and order candidate.

“Hogsett promised to be a public safety mayor, but look at where we are in just three short years and we all feel a little less safe,” Merritt said. “These three years, taken together, give Joe the dubious distinction of presiding over a historic level of deadly violence. Our problems have gotten significantly worse under the current administration.”

Hogsett successfully sought $120 million in infrastructure funding from the City-County Council late last year. He is also reorganizing the IMPD. “We know our crime problems, decaying streets, fiscal challenges, and drug and poverty problems haven’t improved under Joe Hogsett.” Merritt added. “The question is, ’does he deserve another four years to try or should someone else get a chance to change the direction of our city?’ My answer is that the citizens deserve a better alternative. That’s why I’m running for mayor.”