Ryan Hatfield shares the reason he left the legislature

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In this new podcast, Johnny Kincaid talks to Ryan Hatfield about his time in the legislature and his run for judge.

July 3, 2024

Podcast created by JOHNNY KINCAID

Hey, have we got a great show lined up for you today because I’m bringing in somebody who, well, was, we actually, I can’t say ran against each other. We ran for the same office at the same time several years ago and sparked up a little friendship then and I still love hanging out with him. Ryan Hatfield is here with us. And now we’re going to turn our attention to Ryan Hatfield. 

When we ran, this was in 2016, and we both ran for District 77 in the state house, the district that you won and kept. And many times I look at what goes on in Indianapolis and I go, I’m sure glad that I didn’t win that race. I will tell you, 

RYAN HATFIELD

I get reminded often by my wife that she voted for you and wishes you had won and gone up there and fought those battles in the first part of every year. But, you know, it’s been a great experience and I think it’s true that you and I really ran for the same office, but worked really hard not to run against each other. And sometimes in politics that happens and sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s not. But I’ve always been really proud of the way we ran that race and maintained a friendship over the last eight to 10 years since that race. And you never hesitated to say, hey, I saw that bill come across or what did youndo on that or what you think about that and always had a good relationship I think it’s so important in politics and in civic debate that no matter where you are on the political spectrum we all have something to offer but also just because you ran for the same office or wanted to run for a certain office or believed that you were capable of serving in a certain office doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be enemies. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

Right and you had a rougher primary than what I did, although my primary was with the guy who lived right across the street from me. 

RYAN HATFIELD

I’d forgotten that. And for those watching, we had talked just a touch about this before the show started. And I had forgotten that his neighbor, I mean, a right across the street, was your primary challenge. I did not have that. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

You’re right. But you had a little… It wasn’t the most fun primary, right? And because here’s the thing, primaries, it’s an opportunity, because theoretically within the party, there’s a certain area that you fit into as a member of a political party, but you still have room to slice out your own area. And in the primary is where you have to highlight those differences. So sometimes it gets a little dicey because it can come across like infighting within the party, but it’s not. It’s trying to find your own lane to get into and keep your primary opponent in their lane as well. And that can get dicey during the run. 

RYAN HATFIELD

For sure. And you’re in primaries you’re dealing with so many friends or people that you thought might be with you or should be with you or you know that you have folks saying things about you that you feel like wait a second we all agree on this and this really shouldn’t be a contentious issue between us to where when you’re running against the other party sometimes those lines are a little clearer even with friends you understand you know that that’s where you’re going to hit me or we have a difference of view on this and that’s just the way it is. It’s much more difficult and I make it akin maybe to families. Family fights are sometimes a lot harder on you than having a disagreement with somebody at work. It’s just that you feel like, hey, wait a second, you’re trying to make a difference here and I’m not sure there is one.

You know, between us, we debated and I felt like we had some policy differences. Exactly. But we both, I think, agreed that, at least I felt, and I feel like we had an agreement that…

I thought you had what was the community’s best interest and that you were going to try to do the right thing. And even if I disagreed with you on that, that was okay because I thought that your heart was in the right place. And I think that’s so important in the civic debate is to understand that just because we disagree doesn’t mean that their heart isn’t in the right place. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

Right. And it was kind of fun to watch the media react to it because the media picked up on this because it was more of a camaraderie than anything else. When we went for the NRA, trying to get the NRA endorsement, and I think that our scores were really, really close on that NRA questionnaire. If not the same, yeah. I think we were both either A or A plus. And that doesn’t happen very often.

RYAN HATFIELD

It would probably drive someone of your party crazy that I would have that sort of score from my former party. And so I think that, yeah, but it was genuine in that we aligned on a lot and we had differences, but we talked about those differences rather than threw them at each other. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

Right. And it was always done with the idea that we just had different, we knew where we wanted to go. We had different visions of how you get there. And it was always about what’s best for the community. And frankly, I think that the discussion that is missing so much from politics today is more about we have to win. Our party has to come out on top or whatever. We have to maintain our super majority or there’s any number of of things that they throw out there to talk about why they need to win the race. 

I would much rather hear them say, we need to win this because we have a better idea. Right? And here’s what that idea is. This is why you should vote for us. Not so that we keep a supermajority, but so that if I’m representing you, you know that I’m going to take this stand, and it’s important to our community. And that’s just missing at a wholesale level.

I would not have to jump up and down and scream and shout and hold my breath till I turn blue in the face on this podcast as often as I do if people weren’t looking at it from that competitive standpoint and instead were looking at it from the community good. 

RYAN HATFIELD

I think that we understood that about each other early on. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t get your feelings hurt or that you don’t see a post and you’re like, that’s not true.

But I think we very much tried to stay grounded and we’re running for our own reasons and it wasn’t personal about you and I never felt like it was personal about me. That you felt like you’d be a better representation. I felt like I’d be a better representation. And we had those conversations about what that meant. And I think that’s really important and is so seldomly done today. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

Before the primary, I had a long conversation with Cheryl Musgrave. Cheryl gave me the best advice that I ever took, which was she said, don’t run for District 77. She said you will not win. And I smiled and I said, thanks for the advice. And I went ahead and ran anyway. Here’s the thing, though. It was such a blessing to do it.

It doesn’t matter that I didn’t win that race. It was the opportunity, the experience, the chance to get to know you and the learning that takes place during the campaign is just phenomenal. 

RYAN HATFIELD

Definitely. The people you meet, the activities you’re exposed to, the community events that you’re exposed to, the goodwill going on in the community. I tell people all the time, it may not be a good idea for you to run for this particular race at this particular time, but running for office is 

really a joy and an opportunity to see your community in a whole new light. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

And I can’t tell you the number of times that I heard, “I’m sorry, we’ve already committed to Ryan Hatfield.”

Can I place a sign here in our business? “I’m sorry, we’ve already committed to Ryan.” Several times I heard that.

RYAN HATFIELD

Cheryl Musgrave, I credit for giving me a piece of advice that I have found very true and one of the better pieces of advice I’ve gotten in politics, which is it’s not as personal as it feels. That when people go into that ballot box, they may have a feeling about you, they may vote for you, they may not.

But it’s not actually about who you are as a person. Those votes don’t make who you are as a person. And I’ve tried to remember that so often. I’ve had some electoral success, very grateful for that. But because of that electoral success, I went to Indianapolis, I got my teeth kicked in day in and day out. And I tried to remember that it wasn’t an indictment on who I am. And I have credited her with that and remembered it so often when things didn’t go my way or I didn’t get the votes in a certain debate, because it’s really true. We do our best as candidates and as a society to put ourselves out there and to get to know the public and let the public get to know us. The realities are they know the very top level of you. And there’s a whole person in there. And I try to remember that when I hear a debate going on between two other candidates or if I meet a candidate. I’m getting a very surface level of them.

And Cheryl Musgrave was right. Don’t let it define who you are because you were a whole person before you got into this mess and you’ll be a whole person after you’re done. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

So here’s a private note just for Cheryl Musgrave. Hit rewind and watch the last couple of minutes of this over again. Maybe over and over again. Because there’s been some real wisdom shared by Cheryl and I’ve always appreciated her. 

All right. So you got into the legislature then as a part of the super minority. 

And leave it as part of the super minority. That’s a tough position to be in. And I know that can be frustrating sometimes, but what I noticed about you, and I’m going to put in a plug here for Ryan’s work ethic, because Ryan would give the time to meet with his constituents, to go to the Meet Your Candidate, the Meet Your Legislator forums that happened during the session. And Ryan was one of just a few who was always there. And there’s a lot to be said for that because it shows your heart to serve the people. And it truly is, the thing about elected office is you’re there to serve the people. The other thing is that you were able to work with, you know, every other person from this end of the state that was driving up to Indianapolis was Republican. You worked with all of them.

RYAN HATFIELD

I did, and so grateful and honored to have done so.

JOHNNY KINCAID

Two people that are just at opposite ends of the spectrum are Ryan Hatfield and Jim Tomes. From a philosophical standpoint, you guys are miles apart. But you guys knowing that, found a way to work around it and to have a good working relationship and to be able to kid with one another and make it work for you. 

RYAN HATFIELD

And I think it goes back to recognizing the folks on the other side of the aisle or the other side of the issue and particularly in my party, but in the other party as well. It didn’t always break down on party lines. Sometimes your opponent was within your caucus. 

But you know I’ve always tried to remember is Jim has a wife, Margie, who I know, who I like, who I wouldn’t want Margie to go home thinking that I had said something about Jim or their family that was personal in any way, that they have kids and grandkids who they love, who they talk about. I talk about my kids and it’s genuine. And sometimes in politics, we accuse folks of using their children or using their families. And I think it’s so important to remember that, you know,

Sometimes people take it over the line, but most of us genuinely love our families and want to talk about them and include them in our dialogue. And one of the things I recognized early on about Jim is Jim was sincere about his family and love for his family. And that’s a connection point for he and I, I love my family dearly and in many ways have shaped my career and my life around them. And I’m excited about that. And, and I feel like Jim has as well. And, and,

That doesn’t mean that I think he’s right on every issue. And I can promise you that Jim’s watching this thinking, I don’t agree with Ryan Hatfield on every issue. But I do think that we found a mutual respect in some ways like you and I had found that this is a guy that’s trying to do his best for the community. And when I disagree with him, I owe it to my constituents to say so. But that doesn’t make him a bad person. And it doesn’t make him any less of a family man or or that his beliefs are any less genuine than mine are. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

You guys when you’d go to the meet your legislators events there was a camaraderie there that the audience could pick up on. You know people come with their gotcha questions and that’s part of the reason why some of the other people stay away because they don’t want to sit through the gotchas. I understand that, but I have a much higher level of respect for you for being willing to go and face them than for the people who found other things to do with their Saturday. 

RYAN HATFIELD

Republican legislators had felt the crowds had moved a little bit to the left and they were getting the harder questions. And Jim Tomes single-handedly started filling the room with loyalists and people who believed in what he believed in. And over time, it started to shift away from me. And all of a sudden the crowd was cheering for Jim and was booing me. But we had good fun and you know, that’s just part of it.

JOHNNY KINCAID

So when we first met, you were newlyweds. And now you’re growing up with three girls? 

RYAN HATFIELD

Two girls and a boy. Olivia, Rose, and George, five, three, and one. And fortunately, they’re getting their looks from their mom. Fortunately. Thank God. And we’re having so much fun. My departure from the legislature probably started not last February but the February before when my now five-year-old and four-year-old stood in the kitchen and cried and said, please don’t go. And that was kind of the beginning of the end for me up there. I believe in the work. I loved that job. I really respect those who can do it for a long time, but my place was with my three kids and my wife and to be at home with them. And, you know, it’s not a full-time job up there, but it’s a tremendous, responsibility and a tremendous effort to take three, four months out of the year and to live and work in Indy. And we’re just far enough away that I wasn’t able to get back every night. And so I spent my weeks up there. And with three kids, it’s time to be at home. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

That’s good. And that’s where the priority should be.

So now you’re going to take off the Democrat hat into a nonpartisan position and you’re running for judge. 

RYAN HATFIELD

I am. And I’ll speak to the first part of that first because one of the things I am not doing in this race is I’m not pretending that i haven’t been in the legislature and I haven’t been part of a party and I have been and the voters will see that and have to deal with that as they will but I also think that they’ll see somebody who takes very seriously the role of a judge and takes very seriously the importance of being an independent and you know, we were chatting about some partisan political events here before we started and I genuinely didn’t really know the details of some of it. And that’s because I am very much in my lane. I’m taking care of my three children. I’m focused on the judges race and I am focused on maintaining independence and not falling into the very divided partisan divides of party politics.

One of the things that has helped me, Johnny, is I watch a lot more Bluey than I do any news organization. That’ll help a lot. Bluey plays it pretty much down the middle. So I’ve been able to kind of let that aside. And it’s been good. And Kendra and I look forward to kind of a less political role, but hopefully an active role in the judicial system and ensuring that everybody’s treated fairly in this community. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

You get Bluey. We’re stuck on Stinky and Dirty now. We never realized any of that existed. And now it’s like Stinky Dirty, Stinky Dirty. Two-year-old wanted to watch. 

RYAN HATFIELD

Yeah. Even my Instagram feed is now filled with Bluey. And so I’m all in. I’m all in. But you only have those years once. That’s, you know, so.

JOHNNY KINCAID

I’m happy for you making this move and being able to spend more time with the family because the last thing you ever want is to get to their graduation and go, where did those years go?  

RYAN HATFIELD

And, and you do, you, you end up missing a lot. you know, my kids started to get into just, you know, swimming lessons and gymnastics and you’re missing them. And, what is especially true as they are younger, I don’t have any older ones, but they also don’t fill you in. So I’d be, you know, in Indy at eight 30, calling saying, tell me about gymnastics tonight and she’s not that interested in telling you about gymnastics. So you’re left out of it. And look, the folks that do it, their heart’s in the right place too. And it’s just a very tough life and I had to make a decision. And so I look forward to the next opportunity and hope that it works out. But it’s a sincere effort to dive into the judicial system in this community and ensure that we are dispensing justice in a way that is fair, recognizes people as human beings, but also ensuring that we’re doing everything we can to keep the community safe. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

Yeah. And, this is your passion anyway. I mean, your background as an attorney, but also the committees you served on in the legislature, you know? It was all kind of prepping you for being able to do this. 

RYAN HATFIELD

I appreciate that. I feel like that’s true. I served in the early part of my service on the Criminal Code Committee. I also served as the ranking minority member for the last four or six years on the Judiciary Committee. And, you know, prior to being in the legislature was a deputy prosecutor. And so I have worked in these courts my entire career and have tried cases in these courts and both civil and criminal and have worked with these judges very closely and feel like I can lend my experiences to the court in a way that hopefully the community sees as positive. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

Yeah. So all right. I get curious about things. And I’m really curious about the crime rate that we’re seeing in our country. And as a whole, I mean, I’ve heard some people try to dismiss it as being, it’s just the media putting more focus on the crime that’s always been there. But in other arenas, people are really feeling strongly that the crime is up. And if you do a search for Evansville and Safe City, or Evansville Dangerous City on the web, you’ll find Money, Inc. with their listing of the most dangerous places in Indiana to live, and Evansville ranks like three or four on that list. Is the crime going up or is it getting more attention? What do you think? Or maybe a combination? 

RYAN HATFIELD

Maybe both. I think that the news media is certainly pumping out the story that it is probably at a higher rate, but perhaps because our crime rate is at a higher rate. And anybody who says that it’s just a media creation is simply not paying attention. Homicides have been up for the last several years in the city of Evansville. Fentanyl is kind of the new drug coming in, but we were at the highest in the state for methamphetamine at one point. We were the highest in the state for heroin at one point. Our neighbors to the east had serious problems around cocaine and heroin. And now we see fentanyl coming in. And the difference about fentanyl is you don’t get much of an opportunity before it stops your heart. And our officers are doing a great job of trying to keep up. But the reality is, they can’t and it’s coming in in big amounts, mostly coming from Mexico. It’s mostly coming through the border and it is a serious effort by those who want to sell drugs in the Midwest. Straight out of Mexico into Houston, a lot of times Atlanta. We have a big portion of our drugs coming from Charlotte and then even some from LA. The prices out of LA are a little higher so we get a lot from the South. But the reality is drug use is up, homicides are up, and violent crimes have stayed steady and at times spike. But what is way up that we didn’t see even 10 years ago when you and I were running is the amount of baby deaths, the amount of young kids getting a hold of drugs in their house. That’s recreational use. That’s mom or dad or mom and dad deciding, I’m going to keep drugs around the house.

And yet they’re on the nightstand in my room, so hopefully the kids won’t get them. Well, they are getting them, and it’s leading to really serious consequences in the community. And I also believe, I know you do too, because I remember a conversation you and I had in a public forum. It’s an all-of-the-above approach, and the judicial system needs to be a part of that. It’s not just on our police officers. It’s not just on our mayor. It’s not just on our governor. The truth is the funds that have been dispensed from the state are substantial and have been increasing. The funds that we received from the opioid settlement that the mayor and the county commissioners are dispensing are substantial. But the judicial system, the judges, the probation officers, we all have to be a part of this solution and making sure that not only are we preventing drugs from coming in, but we’re handling them seriously when we have drug dealers in front of us in the courts. And officers are doing a really great job. And look, I’ve practiced some criminal law over the last 15 years continuously in different forums. And our officers are doing a really good job at saying, hey, you’re a small-time user and you need rehab. And here’s a list of resources. Or, you’re not a user, you’re a dealer and we need to take you more seriously. And so that conversation has been good and a change over the last 10, 20 years, but we’re doing a pretty good job at identifying users versus dealers, but it’s going to take a group effort at making sure that we’re not only preventing the drugs from coming in, but then also what do we do once they’re here.

JOHNNY KINCAID

And I would assume that the prison and jail population, has a lot to do with this too because if your county jail is too full and the next step up on the state level is also too full, what can you do for sentencing at that point? 

RYAN HATFIELD

Right, and this is a long conversation, but in short, the state has not, in my opinion, done a whole lot of favors for local judges and local county commissioners and county counselors in figuring out how to deal with their jail populations. One, they took low -level felonies and required them to be placed at the jail, which created an economy amongst jails, which is really what’s going on. It’s not so much that there isn’t room at the prisons, although the prisons are full. The jails now get a higher per diem rate per day for an inmate from another county. And so when Vandenberg County sends an inmate to, say, Posey County or Gibson County, get a higher rate for that inmate than they do their own folks. And so now what we have is we have counties building bigger jails to accommodate prisoners or inmates from other counties because they get a higher rate. That economy, in my opinion, probably is not working and needs to be addressed by the legislature. Because it sets up an industry. And these sheriffs are doing their best. But One, their jails are full. Two, the sheriffs with older jails or crowded jails have problems keeping their people safe, which is important, making sure that our jailers are safe. But they also are recognizing that if they’re able to take in folks from other counties, they’re able to have more resources to protect their deputies or their jailers or their staff members. And so you created a situation where they need to take those folks in, want to take those folks in, but the economy probably is spreading inmates out in communities that aren’t theirs, creating many jails, and making it more expensive for the state. And that would be my concern. 

But I think, look, one of the reasons I’m running for judge is I think that I would be able to work well with the sheriff to try to minimize our cost in sending inmates out to other counties. We either need to renegotiate with the state legislature or we need to do a better job at keeping them here or processing their case through. 

See, this has been a primary passion for me for the past 15 years, is jail and prison ministry. And I’ve volunteered, and I taught in one of the prison facilities.

What I’ve learned is that there’s a very strong need for really good reentry programming. And I don’t know that we put enough emphasis on that. We were teaching manufacturing skills, and then I would throw in a whole lot of life skills on top of that, right? And seeing good results in our recidivism rates from the groups that went out. We were actually beating the average. But we’ve got to do something within the system that we’re not just going, OK, here you go. These guys are going to come into our neighborhoods. And do you want somebody in your neighborhood that is completely unskilled, only knows his criminal endeavors? Or do you want somebody who has some skills, who’s willing to work, and has learned to get along with other people and deal with his anger issues? What do you want in your neighborhood? And most people say, well, I don’t want the criminals living in my neighborhood. But they’re coming. They come out, and we’ve got to give them opportunity, or they’re going to be right back in again. 

RYAN HATFIELD

Well, and two real life choices here. Would you rather have somebody coming out of jail who maybe has spent six, 12, 18 months in jail with a transition officer that ensures they have a phone, an ID, transportation, whether that be bus tokens or something else, and a job? Or would you rather them walk out of that jail over there, no ID, no phone, no transportation, no job lined up and no housing lined up? The risk to the community is that latter person with no opportunity in front of them.

Much more than it is the example of somebody who comes out with a transition Officer who says we’re gonna help you find housing. We’re not paid for for unlimited housing We’re gonna help you find transitional housing. We’re gonna ensure you have a job We’re gonna make sure you have a plan for transportation We’re gonna make sure you have a cell phone because we found out how vital those are to ensuring they’re able to keep their jobs and maintain relationships and we’re gonna make sure just as simple as you have an ID

So you’re able to identify yourself for employers or anybody else you come in contact with. That person, the opportunity in front of that person is so much greater and the recidivism is so much more unlikely.

 And in the circuit court, there’s a veterans court right now helping veterans who find themselves in problems or veterans who are struggling with addiction that’s had wild success. The judge just won awards for his participation in this Veterans Court and the way that he set it up and the results they’ve seen. That’s something I look forward to continuing on and helping ensure that when a veteran, somebody who served this country finds themselves into a problem, not that they’re not held accountable, but that we have opportunity for them on the other side of that accountability. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

Yeah. And there are people in the system, this is the thing, we want to think that, all of the people who are employed in the field of corrections, there are all these tough dudes out there wanting to be tough on the incarcerated individual. But we’ve got some people who have really good hearts within the correctional system and that really want to see these guys get out and develop a life. And they work really hard to try to cultivate the jobs for people when they get out and all of that. But I just think there’s so much more that we could be doing there.

But obviously, dollars dictate a lot of that too, right? 

RYAN HATFIELD

Dollars dictate a lot and we have not historically done very well with resources for those folks. We’re doing much, much better. We need to continue to do better. But we also need not put our counties in a position to where they’re not struggling to have resources to deal with these problems. I really commend Vandenberg County for what they’ve done with our jail and not only building it, but right now they’re building on a mental health wing and ensuring that it is capable of handling the needs of our community. 

Johnny Kincaid

Yeah. Lots of changes have happened and more changes are to come in that system. So, you know, I just hope that it keeps moving in the right direction. It has to. And I know that you’ll bring a heart for that with you and into your judgeship and it’s going to be fun to watch what happens over the next few years. 

RYAN Hatfield

I appreciate that very much, Johnny. It takes a village. And look, ministry for those incarcerated is an important part of that healing process for so many of our inmates that we need to ensure that those folks can get in too. 

JOHNNY KINCAID

And there is nothing like the prayers that you say just before eating a Tetrazzini meal in a maximum security facility. Because turkey Tetrazzini inside? It’s not the best thing I’ve ever had. Anyway, Ryan, I really appreciate you, man. I appreciate your time and you coming in. And, you know, good luck with the campaign for Judge. I think that you, like I say, I think that what you’ve done with your career up to this point actually just makes it a natural move for you. And I look forward to seeing that take place. 

RYAN HATFIELD

Thank you. I appreciate that. I will work hard at it and try to make sure that the community is served by Circuit Court.

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