Fixing the system: Zionsville’s Tom Sugar, former Evan Bayh aide, considers run for governor


By Adam Aasen

This is the story of Tom Sugar, a man who served in government for 25 years before getting fed up.

He served as chief of staff to Evan Bayh both when he was a U.S. senator and governor of Indiana. But after being a part of the system, he decided the political system is broken. He walked away and searched for another way to help.

Now the Zionsville resident has a big idea to address the “broken election system” and he’s considering a run for governor to put his plan into action.


Sugar said it was impossible to get anything done in Washington D.C. So he rode off into the sunset in 2009.

“I was just fed up with it,” he said. “It was just politics all the time. Posturing all the time. When we first came to the Senate, they told us that the senators who are most unhappy are former governors because governors feel a sense of responsibility. They have to get stuff done. Senators really don’t. They can play games all day.”

Sugar, who grew up in Kokomo, always wanted to help people. He helped found Complete College America, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works in 35 states to help get more students to graduate college.

“I thought that would be enough,” he said. “I’m making a difference. I’m moving the needle. But then I saw that there are big, big problems that I’m leaving to my boys … All these cans that have been kicked down the road on jobs and education and the environment. What’s even worse than that is that we don’t have a government to solve these problems anymore.”

The biggest problem as he sees it is that most elections aren’t even competitive because state legislators get to draw the election districts and the districts are drawn creatively to ensure that certain districts are safe for one party.

In Indiana, there are nine congressional districts: seven are safe for Republicans and two are safe for Democrats and not one of the districts is regularly competitive.

Sugar founded Lead or Leave, a nonprofit group from which he receives no salary, in order to help redraw the districts and encourage Indiana to create a nonpartisan commission. More information is available at

“Democrats are as guilty of this as Republicans are,” he said. “I’m not suggesting this to get more Democrats elected. That’s not my goal.”

In 2014, Indiana had the lowest voter turnout out of all 50 states with 28 percent, a low that had not been seen in 72 years.


Sugar certainly knows what it takes to run for office, but he never thought he would see his name on a campaign ad.

“People used to say, ‘Tom, are you going to run for office someday?’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, no. I know too much about it to ever do it.’”

But after creating Lead or Leave and meeting with the state’s top leaders, people started to encourage him to consider running for the Democratic nomination.

“People were concerned about our potential nominees, and they started to ask me to look at running for governor,” he said.

Sugar said he has to decide soon, but he needs to take time to see if he can raise enough money to make his ideas heard. But his biggest concern is the effect an election would have on his family. The 52-year-old is married and has two sons, Jackson, 19, and Carter, 12. He’s involved with Boy Scouts with his sons and would want to make time for them, but he also needs to make sure he can provide for them financially.

“Talk about a rigged system. The current election laws do not allow you to live off your campaign,” he said. “You know why that is? Because people in office don’t want it to be easy for someone to run against them.”

The biggest problem though is that Sugar said he doesn’t expect lobbyists and political action committees to want to support a dismantling of the election system.

“It is not in their self-interest to work with me on this,” he said.

But there is one candidate who might have some money to give Sugar. Bayh is sitting on a $10 million campaign war chest after he left politics in 2011.

“He’s like a brother to me,” he said. “But I don’t expect his support or money. I’ll have to work for it.”

About Tom Sugar

Home: Zionsville

Age: 52

Education: BA from Indiana University

Spouse: Nancy Sugar

Children: Jackson (19) and Carter (12)

First “Real” Job: Howard County Director, Jim Jontz for Congress

First Campaign: Jim Jontz for Congress

First President voted for: Ronald Reagan in 1980, I think.

Favorite fictional politician: (three-way tie) Sen. Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Senator Jay Billington Bulworth in “Bulworth,” and President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet in “The West Wing”


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