“Family” isn’t just a four-letter word. In Indiana politics, it’s also a dog whistle.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) is demanding his opponent, Courtney Tritch, apologize to voters in Indiana’s Third Congressional District over a campaign event held at a Ft. Wayne drag show on Sept. 1. A spokesperson for the incumbent called the gay bar fundraiser a “charade,” as well as an affront to the “northeastern Indiana families she’s campaigning to represent.”
“Not only is this video deeply disturbing and offensive, but it clearly shows Democrat Courtney Tritch illegally accepting undocumented cash campaign donations while she dances on stage with a drag queen,” said Banks’ campaign manager, Steve Justus, in response to a video of the event posted to Facebook.
The spokesperson further alleged Tritch’s campaign violated finance laws through the Federal Election Commission by accepting the funds, which Banks’ team claims cannot possibly be accounted for.
Tritch’s campaign maintains the event fully complied with FEC guidelines, however. Candidates aren’t required to report the names and addresses of donations under $50. Instead the regulatory agency mandates that campaigns report the total amount of money raised, as well as the date of the event.
The Democrat says her opponent is aware of campaign finance laws. As an ally to the LGBTQ community, she believes Banks’ statement emphasis on “family” was a coded message intended to stir up anti-gay sentiment.
“[My opponent] is a first-term incumbent in Congress right now,” Tritch told INTO in a Thursday phone interview. “Before he was a state senator and he voted for [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. He’s clearly homophobic. This goes back years. He has shown his colors long ago.”
Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act — popularly known as RFRA — was a 2015 law which briefly allowed individuals to refuse service to LGBTQ people based on their faith beliefs. After being signed into law by then-Governor and future Vice President Mike Pence, RFRA was swiftly amended following a national boycott resulting in $60 million in economic losses for the Hoosier State.
Tritch is correct that Banks voted for RFRA. What she failed to mention, though, is that he also fought to replace the law with another version after its anti-LGBTQ components were repealed.
Senate Bill 66, which was co-authored by Banks, would have mandated the Indiana government show the “greatest deference” to the right to “free exercise and of conscience,” “freedom of religion,” and “freedom of thought and speech,” as well as the “right to bear arms,” “worship,” and “assemblage and petition.”
The 2016 proposal would prevent the state of Indiana from “substantially [burdening] a person’s fundamental [rights]” on the basis of these six principles.
SB 66 does not specifically mention LGBTQ people, instead relying on much of the same rhetoric as bills like Mississippi’s House Bill 1523. If the RFRA replacement had been passed two years ago, it could have prevented state authorities from penalizing any employers or landlords who discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity so long as they cite a religious reason for doing so.
The vaguely worded proposal could have been just as bad, if not worse, than the law it was intended to replace.
But Indiana voters don’t have to infer how Banks feels about the issue through thinly veiled rhetoric. These are the issues he ran on in his 2016 campaign for Congress, when he called “religious liberty” one of the “defining issues of his lifetime.”
Then a member of the Indiana Senate, the first-term House representative claimed on his campaign website that the values of religious people are “under attack” from the LGBTQ community. He said queer and trans advocates “will accept nothing less than compliance with their point of view, no matter how out of line it is with the values of some individuals or business owners.”
“Hoosiers who value their religious freedom need to send someone to Washington who will fight to protect their values and not back down when there is a challenge to these important First Amendment freedoms,” Banks argued. “We can’t afford to sacrifice this important founding principle on the altar of relativism.”
This “divisiveness” has been evident throughout the race, according to Tritch. When the 40-year-old called to debate her opponent, Banks’ campaign drew attention to her unmarried status while delaying her request.
“Unlike Ms. Tritch, Congressman Banks has a family and a job and that job is serving the people of northeast Indiana,” his team claimed.
The two have yet to debate. What Tritch said hurt most about his remarks, though, had nothing to do with the lack of a wedding ring on her left hand. When she entered the race, the 40-year-old opened up about the loss of her mother and sister in recent years and how their passing inspired her run for public office.
A longtime marketing consultant, Tritch recalled looking in the mirror one day and asking herself how she could rediscover her purpose in the wake of tragedy. “What do I want to do to make a difference?” she asked her reflection.
Banks’ statement felt as if it were exploiting her grief, Tritch concluded.
When the Democrat published an open letter responding to his remarks, it quickly went viral — reaching over 100,000 people within the hour. Her message resonated because people are “sick” of “these types of silly attacks,” she argued.
“They’re tired of the divisiveness and the fear mongering — that women who haven’t had children are different than you and immigrants are different from you and gay people are different than you,” Tritch claimed. “We’re never going to move the country forward if we continue to separate ourselves.”
Although the candidate is a heavy underdog in a scarlet red district that favored Donald Trump by 34.8 points in the 2016 election, Tritch doesn’t plan on backing down in the face of challenges to her campaign — including criticism of the drag fundraiser.
Instead Tritch hopes to inspire Americans to “stand up for each other.”
“I think that this election is about more than being Republican or Democrat. I think it’s about the soul of our country,” she claimed. “It’s about how we feel about each other and what we’re willing to do to support each other as a community.”
When asked if she plans to appear at another drag show ahead of the November 2018 general election, Tritch said she’s keeping her options open.
“What’s most important to me is that I continue to meet voters where they are,” Tritch said. “Whether that is on a farm, in other rural communities, whether that’s in an African-American church, or whether that’s in a gay bar, I will go wherever to talk to people and hear whatever they stand on the issues.
“I think that that kind of humanity is what’s missing from our congressional leaders right now,” she added.