‘A good heart.’ Indiana Senate candidate James Sceniak works with autistic kids.
To explain his David-and-Goliath bid for U.S. Senate, Indiana Libertarian candidate James Sceniak likes to recount the story of a former client of his at an autism services center on the north side where he used to work.
The pandemic was new, and the 5-year-old boy he was counseling at Applied Behavior Center for Autismneeded to work on goals at home. He had gotten a bicycle for Christmas but was so terrified of it, he couldn’t be in the same room.
One week at a time, they took small steps: Sit in the same room, touch the bike, swing a leg over. By the end of the summer, Sceniak said, the child hopped on the bike to go play with other neighborhood kids.
Is the story an allegory for the Libertarian Party in Indiana, gaining confidence two years after gubernatorial candidate Donald Rainwater earned the third party a rare 12% of the vote? Sceniak hopes so.
The 34-year-old behavioral therapist from Greenwood, of Goshen upbringing, has an eye on the long game. Even if he doesn’t win ― and the odds are far from his favor barring a major upheaval to Indiana politics ― he hopes his middle-ground campaign will etch another notch in the Libertarian party’s popularity among voters.
“I get, statistically, the probability, but I also feel like we’re making change and shifting our politics,” Sceniak recently told IndyStar, squinting through sun glare outside his current clinic, Autism Companion Services, tucked in a tree-covered residential neighborhood in northwest Indianapolis.
He’s not talking about abolishing government agencies, or other extreme viewpoints people might associate with Libertarianism. He wants to look for ways to reduce the size of government programs and spending, including a proposal to establish a health savings account system for veterans, rather than relying on the Veterans Administration for all health care needs. He staunchly opposes any restrictions on civil liberties, including gun restrictions and medical mandates, and this view extends to legalizing marijuana and letting women choose whether to have abortions.
“The reason we don’t see young voters is because they’re tired of the two-party system,” he said. “I believe that with people like me running, we’ll see more young voters turn out. It’s going to take a shift. I believe that’ll happen in the next 5 to 10 years.”
Sceniak, a people person, bonds with autism patients
It’s break time in the “learning lab,” a colorful one-room schoolhouse on the second floor of the clinic. Here, kids sit at desks arranged in a rectangle and practice being in a classroom, from learning how to raise their hands to following group instructions.
Sceniak hasn’t spent as much time in this room as he used to ― these days he’s stationed at the teen center next door. But as he enters the room on a recent Wednesday, several kids look up from their lunches and toys and call out for him on a first-name basis. A 6-year-old boy, who had been nearly nonverbal when Sceniak started working with him, walks over to say hello and flash a camera-ready smile, saying “Cheese!”
The scene would be similar on the floor of the Goshennursing home he worked at as a young adult, younger sister Deborah Riggenbach said. The residents all knew his name, and two of them accepted his invitation to a Thanksgiving meal one year.
Those family Thanksgivings always had extra people in attendance, often because of Sceniak.
“I’d be kind of under his shadow like, ‘Oh, you’re James’ sister, he’s amazing,'” Riggenbach said, without remorse. “He just gets to know people.”
They grew up in a revolving-door, chaotic household, she said, friends and strangers being included in all kinds family festivities, no questions asked. Sceniak is a middle child of six, homeschooled by their mother, a former public school teacher. In class he was a doodler, but a deep thinker, she said; outside playing with friends, he kept a watchful eye on others, even ramming into a mailbox on his bike once in an effort to check on Riggenbach.
“That’s just him ― he cares so much about the people around him,” she said.
As a young adult living in Goshen, Sceniak hosted all kinds of gatherings, from holiday meals to murder-mystery games multiple times a year, close friend Tyler August said. Sceniak liked to be the one bringing people together, but also gave his guests individual attention and looked for ways to help them improve some aspect of their life.
That’s how Sceniak explains his decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in human services, to be in a field where he can help people transition to more fulfilling lives. The economy was still recovering when he graduated from Bethel University, then called Bethel College, in 2012, and living wages were difficult to find in that field. He worked for several manufacturers in the RV field before landing a behavioral technician role at his first clinic in 2018.
In his current role working with teens on the autism spectrum, the work goes beyond helping them talk and interact. Sometimes it’s a matter of teaching them how to walk properly, control their gait, walk on more parts of the feet than just their toes. And often, coworker Bri Farrell said, the job involves fielding sarcastic jokes from the teens and throwing the sarcasm right back.
“Everybody knows that James is the jokester of the clinic,” she said. “And he’s just a good person with a good heart.”
He takes a group of teens on two or three walks each day around the neighborhood. If there’s been rain, they stop by a creek and make racing boats out of whatever material they can find. Sometimes they check the “fairy tree,” a tree by the creek with a gaping hole where another therapist hides notes signed by a mystical creature. If the neighbor in the house across the street is home, they’ll let the kids pet their chickens.
Sceniak hasn’t held nor run for political office before, and that’s part of his pitch. He thinks those political offices could benefit from the perspectives of everyday people with everyday experiences, and particularly those that require patience and empathy, rather than career politicians.
“I think we need that more in politics to understand our culture better, and to understand how to help communities better,” he said. “That’s really the heart of it, is why I’m running.”
Sceniak’s foray into politics
All six Sceniak kids volunteered for various Republican campaigns at some point in their childhood. James Sceniak was, Riggenbach believes, the most serious about it.
Throughout school, Sceniak helped out various campaigns, including for former State Rep. Wesley Culver and former U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski when she was running for Indiana Statehouse. But he started to feel like Republican candidates would abandon campaign promises once they took office, such as through supporting government subsidies for corporations while initially promising to support small government.
Sceniak was drawn to the Libertarian party philosophy through former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s fiscally conservative, socially liberal campaign for president in 2016. He felt Johnson’s platform drew the right balance between small-government conservatism and social ideas he agreed with from the Democratic platform, including legalizing cannabis and allowing women the right to choose whether to have an abortion.
When Rainwater fashioned COVID-19 issues into a successful, by third-party standards, Libertarian campaign for governor, Sceniak became interested in getting more involved and contacted his county affiliate.
Sceniak is vaccinated and wears a mask at work, which he believes are personal choices. He resonated with Rainwater’s contention that individual rights should not be sacrificed under government mandates.
“I realized, if I really valued these freedoms and rights, I need to run for office,” Sceniak said.
He originally thought about local offices such as mayor or city councilor. But he felt the party needed a strong top-of-ticket candidate to help mobilize voters and continue the momentum Rainwater set into motion.
In a contested race for the nomination, Indiana Libertarian party delegates chose Sceniak over William Henry of Elkhart, an Army veteran who is now running for Walorski’s congressional seat. There is a special election for her seat since she was killed in a car crash Aug. 3.
Party chair Evan McMahon said the delegates resonated with Sceniak’s practical pitches for a variety of issues, from addressing veterans’ access to health care and looking for ways to reduce the national deficit.
“He has compassion, he cares about the lives of Hoosiers, but he doesn’t want to see the government grow into a bureaucracy that hurts the people it’s supposed to help,” McMahon said.
There were 15 active county Libertarian parties in Indiana by the end of 2020, McMahon said. After Rainwater captured a record-setting share of the vote, party officials scurried to organize more local affiliates. Now there are 56 county parties.
These county affiliates are the ones who organize or get in on town hall debates, distribute campaign signs and literature and write letters to the editor in the local press. Sceniak has participated in 15 town halls and knocked on several hundreds of doors.
“These are all things we did on state level for Rainwater, but it’s really hard to move that needle unless you have that larger network of local volunteers and activists,” McMahon said. “We’ve grown into being a big kids’ political party.”
An incremental approach
The theory behind Sceniak’s campaign is that he is part of an incremental approach to victory: build up the party from the local level, maintain a strong candidate at the top of the ticket, and build voter support over time in the polls. He views his race as a step in that longterm vision to energize the voter base.
There are several factors, including the nature of the political system, that stack against this vision, cautions Greg Shufeldt, associate professor of history and political science at the University of Indianapolis.
In some ways, he said, Sceniak is an authentic Libertarian.
But Rainwater galvanized votes using one particular hot-button issue. Some of those same voters might stick to the Libertarian party, but most are likely to default to their two-party behavior, particularly in a midterm, low-turnout election, Shufeldt said.
The rules of the game incentivize the maintenance of this two-party system. Even as a third party gains some steam, winning 12% of the vote doesn’t grant them any seats in the government. So an incremental approach, while a reasonable longterm goal, isn’t helped along by the American system of representative government, Shufeldt said.
“Libertarians could take this incremental approach and take voters away and might ultimately become the second political party,” he said. “I wouldn’t put my money on that.”
The Senate race has flown relatively under the radar compared to the race for Indiana secretary of state, where Libertarians must get 2% of the vote to retain their position on the ballot and where there have been public scandals surrounding the Republican candidate. In the Senate race against Republican Todd Young and Democrat Tom McDermott, there hasn’t been a disruptive factor of similar scale.
“I don’t have much reason to suspect that new voters are going to come, or that people that do vote are going to switch their allegiance,” Shufeldt said.
Sceniak is the type to go big despite the odds, though, close friend August said, recalling a story that now feels prophetic.
The two played in a recreational basketball league together in Goshen in their mid 20s. In one game, Sceniak, a man of average stature, made a confident attempt to dunk on a man at least a foot taller than him. Everyone in the gym seemed to stop breathing for a second, shocked at his audacity.
“Obviously he didn’t dunk it, but he did get the foul,” August laughed. “He somehow helped his team.”
~ By Kayla Dwyer | Reporter | Published October 5, 2022 in The Indy Star
Kayla Dwyer is a transportation reporter at IndyStar. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @kayla_dwyer17.