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Rita Fleming announces immediate retirement from Indiana House

Outgoing Indiana Rep. Rita Fleming.
Indiana House Democrats
Outgoing Indiana Rep. Rita Fleming.

Indiana Democratic District 71 Rep. Rita Fleming announced her immediate retirement Monday, citing the need to focus on her family.

Rita Fleming, a former OB-GYN who championed health care improvements during her tenure in the Indiana House of Representatives, announced Monday she’s retiring.

She’s endorsing Wendy Dant Chesser, the chief director of Corporate Strategy and External Affairs at the River Ridge Development Authority, to be the next District 71 representative, according to a news release. Dant Chesser was previously the president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, the area’s chamber of commerce and an economic development organization.

Fleming was first elected to District 71 — which includes Jeffersonville and parts of Clarksville and New Albany — in 2018. She also ran unopposed in last week’s primary. Fleming, who lives in Jeffersonville, said she appreciates the opportunity to serve but said the role is more than just working during the legislative session.

She said campaigning and researching priorities for each session takes time.

“So even though it’s called part-time legislature…it’s a full-time job,” she said. “I have 15 grandkids … in seven states. Being home for a couple of months makes me realize how much I miss when I have to campaign and work for my constituents.”

She added that she’s loved her time as a state representative.

“I've thoroughly enjoyed it,” she said. “I've learned so much and I've made so many friends, and had some good pieces of legislation pass. But my family is my priority now. I'm so happy that I'm going to be able to spend more time with them.”

Fleming said in a news release her family’s needs have changed over the years, and “I feel a responsibility to step down now because I know that moving forward, I cannot give my role as state representative 100% of my efforts,” she said. “While I have been able to accomplish several things for Hoosiers during my time representing District 71, moving forward, the constituents of this district deserve someone who can give them a full commitment to the work. I am confident that Wendy Dant Chesser is that person.”

Fleming has served as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, House Public Health Committee, Indiana Commission to Combat Substance Use Disorder and Medicaid Advisory Committee, according to a news release.

She authored successful bills including ending a practice that kept incarcerated mothers shackled while giving birth, and expanding birth control access to mothers on Medicaid by providing long-acting, reversible contraceptives at the hospital after birth.

Fleming also pushed for legislation that would lower barriers to birth control by allowing pharmacists to prescribe it. That measure passed last year.

In the news release, Indiana House Democratic Leader Leader Phil GiaQuinta, of Fort Wayne, spoke highly of Fleming’s work on health care issues.

“Much of her authored and co-authored laws all have one unifying principle in common: making pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood healthier and more dignified for Hoosier women,” he said in the release.

He also praised Fleming for leading with a “spirit of bipartisanship and pragmatism that served District 71 and all Hoosiers incredibly well.”

In a statement, Indiana Democratic Party Chair Mike Schmuhl said Fleming has been “a successful and valuable member of our Indiana House Democratic Caucus and our party.

“During her time in the legislature, she fought for women by increasing access to birth control. She used her experience as an OB-GYN to pass legislation that improved conditions for pregnant inmates. And she worked tirelessly to help increase postpartum care for mothers on Medicaid. Her expertise on these issues will be missed, but we thank her for her commitment to fighting for these critical Democratic values.”

Fleming also said working toward better health care access and transparency is some of the work she’s most proud of — trying to improve what she calls a now “profit-driven” health care industry that’s deteriorating.

“There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, but I think we did lay a lot of the groundwork,” she said. “I worked with terrific legislators on both sides of the aisle in both the public health committee and the insurance committee, and we made some pretty good stride but there’s a long way to go.”

Fleming said she made the decision to retire a little before the primary, but at that point it was too late to drop out. She ran unopposed and was slated to again face Republican Scott Hawkins for the District 71 seat in fall.

Fleming beat Hawkins during the last election in 2022; Hawkins conceded after a vote canvass showed Fleming had garnered more votes, although election night totals showed him in the lead.

Fleming’s departure means Democrats will have two tasks in the near future: calling a caucus to name the person to complete Fleming’s term, and calling a separate caucus to add a Democrat to the District 71 race for the November election.

Megan Ruddie, director of the Indiana House Democratic Caucus, said House Speaker Republican Todd Huston has 72 hours to formally notify state Democratic Party Chair Mike Schmuhl of the office vacancy, and he will call the caucus.

“Representative Rita Fleming was an extremely successful member of our legislature,” Ruddie said. “She's successful both in getting bills passed and also extremely successful representing the values of that district.

“And we are confident that we will be finding another candidate to run who will represent the values of that district and that we will continue to hold 71 as a seat for our democratic caucus.”

The Democratic precinct chairs from District 71 will vote on the office vacancy.

Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec Inc., the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation, and the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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