Rep. Chris Chyung, D-Dyer, is just beginning his first term in the Statehouse, and just by his very presence there, he is making history.
Chyung is 25 years old, making him the youngest current state lawmaker in Indiana. And, when he defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Harold Slager by just 82 votes in the 2018 midterm elections, he also became the first Asian American lawmaker in Indiana history.
But, just a year ago, the idea of running for office was just beginning to take shape for Chyung. He attended a training session for Hoosiers interested in running for office hosted by the Indiana Democratic Party and the National Democratic Training Committee, which offers Democrats across the country access to free in-person and online trainings with the aim of helping them start, run and win campaigns.
“I would have had no idea where to look because running a campaign is so complicated,” he said. “It was a great jumping off point.”
On Saturday, he returned the favor by delivering the keynote address at this year's training.
Chyung said he never expected to go into politics. He studied engineering and then worked in real estate.
“I kind of got sucked into it after volunteering in my community a lot and seeing some of the ways the state legislature was short-changing people in Indiana,” he said.
Chyung said once he did start his campaign, he found he was written off by his opponent, who had held the seat since 2012. In 2016, Slager had defeated his Democratic challenger, Tom O'Donnell, by a margin of 54.32 percent, 16,152 votes, to 45.68 percent, 13,581 votes.
“It was definitely something that we just worked hard at,” said Chyung. “We knew the odds were against us, and we knew that if we worked hard we could make it really close.”
And, close it was. When it was all said and done, Chyung emerged victorious over Slager by a margin of 50.2 percent, 12,468 votes, to 49.8 percent, 12,386 votes.
Chyung's narrow election was one of the few bright spots for Indiana Democrats during 2018. One of the others was the election of J.D. Ford, who unseated incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel. An outspoken social conservative, Delph had represented District 29 in the Indiana Senate since 2005. However, on his second attempt, Ford won by a margin of 56.7 percent, 31,880 votes, to Delph’s 43.3 percent, 24,373 votes. That victory also broke barriers as Ford became the first LGBTQ person ever elected to the Indiana General Assembly.
Chyung said these victories pointed to a younger, more diverse group of Democrats ready to take charge.
“I see that as definitely one of the few demographic trends that we're going to be trying to grow and nurture in the future,” he said. “It's just really clear that there is a lack of representation and diversity in Congress and in Statehouses, and while that's not the most important thing, it certainly is a very, very important goal to strive for. So, J.D. and I are really excited to be able to represent those groups, and we've gotten such a warm response from people that it's been so amazing. And, every person that reaches out to us and asks about running for office we encourage them to look into it more seriously to run for office themselves.”
The rest of the electoral map wasn't quite so sunny for Democrats, though. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly was defeated by Republican challenger Mike Braun, helping to ensure the GOP would retain control of the U.S. Senate. And, in the Statehouse, Republicans held onto their supermajority status in both chambers. Indiana House Republicans now hold a 67-33 seat majority, while Indiana Senate Republicans hold a 40-10 advantage.
Chyung said he didn't see a need for Democrats to change their ideologies to try to appeal to voters. He said it had more to do with connecting to constituents on a personal basis.
“We just need good people who are representative of their district,” he said. “I don't care to litmus test people, quite honestly. I don't think, 'Oh, you're either for or against me on this issue, then I'm against you on every other issue as well.' I think that's kind of ridiculous. And, what we've really got to start doing is just being able to not only speak and give a good message to our district, but also to just be able to listen. Nine times out of 10 I was just listening to what people were telling me not really prescribing any solution, but just kind of trying to be reflective of what they wanted to do.”