Carmel mayoral candidates condemn, learn to live with threatening tactics from those in disagreement


Those running for elected office have always known that heightened public scrutiny and political mudslinging are part of the experience, but this year, municipal candidates from both parties are condemning some especially aggressive tactics.

Both candidates for Carmel mayor said they have experienced personal attacks on the campaign trail this year that go beyond what they consider fair game. Republican Sue Finkam, who has served three terms on the Carmel City Council, said she’s never experienced this level of concerning behavior while on the campaign trail before, while Democrat Miles Nelson, a one-term city councilor, said he has faced threats in both of his runs for office – but didn’t choose to publicize it.

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Sue Finkam

On Oct. 5, Finkam took to social media to call out some of what she considers to be the most egregious incidents.

“This is why people don’t run for public office. I’ve been called a nazi, racist and money hungry whore, and followed by a person with a camera, since I would not bend to my opponent’s theatrics,” the post states. “I strongly denounced the use of the Hitler quote (used in June in the Hamilton County chapter of Moms for Liberty’s newsletter) publicly when it happened and have done so multiple times since. Thankfully my son is in college, but if I had kids in middle or high school, these would be tough conversations to hold. Not only do these juvenile tactics keep great candidates on the sidelines, they attempt to silence those that want to engage in civil discourse.”

She also included a photo of campaign material left at her political office last week with her image defaced to look like Hitler.

Nelson posted a social media message of his own less than an hour later condemning the tactics.

“This is unacceptable. If you’re engaging in these tactics, stop it. They have absolutely no place in our community,” Nelson’s post stated. “We settle our differences at the ballot box – not with immature behavior like this.”

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Cynthia Johnson, Nelson’s campaign manager, said Nelson – who practices the Jewish faith – quickly addressed the issue because “he knows personally how it feels to be attacked while on the campaign trail.”

“He’s had his religion specifically targeted, he’s been called a pedophile and a groomer of kids for denouncing Moms for Liberty,” Johnson stated. “We’ve had canvassers threatened by someone claiming they had a gun; we’ve had canvassers followed and filmed. He has dealt with all these issues without posting about them on social media in an attempt to score political points. Clearly, these types of behavior are unacceptable no matter what your political affiliation.”

It’s not just in Carmel that elected officials and candidates are facing or fearing aggressive tactics from those who oppose them.

Shannon Hiller and Augusta Dell’Omo are researchers with the Bridging Divides Initiative, a non-partisan organization based at Princeton University that tracks political violence in the U.S., who are actively researching threats against elected officials. They’ve surveyed and met with officeholders from across the nation to learn what they’ve been facing and whether it has changed in recent years.

They said their research has shown that these types of incidents have become a consistent concern for officials of all political persuasions – both from the opposite side of the aisle and from within their own party. This has led to some people deciding not to seek reelection or run for office at all, said Hiller, BDI executive director.

“A number of women in particular said that because of threats and harassment they were not planning on running again,” she said. “Local office is where a lot of people start (political careers). So, if we see people feeling like they don’t feel comfortable staying in it, or it’s not worth it, then it has an impact on who represents us at a higher level.”

Dell’Omo, BDI associate policy researcher, said citizens can help those running for office feel safe and discourage threatening behavior by calling it out when they see it and working to safely de-escalate these types of scenarios.

“One of the things I’ve been most surprised by in a really good way is just how much a positive response from the community really seems to help local officials,” Dell’Omo said.

As a candidate and elected official, Nelson said he worries about his safety “all the time” but that Finkam’s efforts to draw attention to recent incidents are “complete misdirection” to draw attention away from what he said is a faltering campaign.

“(Aggressive opposition) is just what Democrats have always had to face in this county,” Nelson said. “It’s just nice to know that by offering balance, people actually get to now hear differing ideas competing against each other.”

Finkam said she has become “hypervigilant” about her safety, but she hasn’t been deterred from her campaign.

“The future of our city is at risk, and I absolutely double down on my commitment to this community and making sure it’s run as one of the best cities in America,” she said. “This kind of stuff that we’re experiencing this week is so heartbreaking, because it is doing exactly what I don’t want to do – tear apart the community.”

Why Finkam won’t denounce Moms for Liberty

Republican candidate for Carmel mayor Sue Finkam said she began receiving “a lot of negativity” beginning in June after the Hamilton County Moms for Liberty chapter used a Hitler quote in its newsletter. Miles Nelson, the Democratic candidate for mayor, swiftly denounced the local Moms for Liberty chapter and called on Finkam to do the same. She later denounced the use of the quote.

Finkam said the negativity amplified this week after Nelson referenced Moms for Liberty several times during the Oct. 2 mayoral debate, during which he asked her to denounce the group on stage. Finkam didn’t immediately respond, but during the debate she said she had already publicly denounced the group’s use of the quote.

Finkam told Current Oct. 6 that, while she denounces the use of the Hitler quote and some of Moms for Liberty’s tactics, she doesn’t believe denouncing people or groups with whom she has disagreements is the best way to lead. She said she was also asked to denounce the Carmel Pride event, which celebrates the LGBTQ+ community, and that she didn’t do that, either.

“I don’t believe in denouncing someone, one, that I haven’t met, and two, that I may disagree with their tactics. And I’ve said tactics from both sides like this are inexcusable,” she said. “We have got to figure out how to resolve differences.”

Nelson said he believes Moms for Liberty should be denounced for reasons that go beyond the use of the Hitler quote, such as its response to the student-run Carmel Pride event (described as a “perversion” in its June newsletter).

“Moms for Liberty attacked me, and Moms for Liberty may have attacked my opponent, as well, but that doesn’t even matter. We’re adults,” Nelson said. “I denounced Moms for Liberty for quoting Adolf Hitler, that’s always a bad thing. But I really denounced them for attacking kids. My opponent can’t join me on that?”