On the Radar
Susan Brooks takes aim at winning a seat in United States Congress
Susan Brooks used to begin her days by rising early and enjoying a cup of coffee and a newspaper or two out on her Carmel home’s screened-in porch.
The peace and quiet of those days starkly contrast with her mornings now. Ever since throwing her name in the hat as a candidate from Indiana’s 5th Congressional District, Brooks’ days still begin early –– but those relaxing moments on the porch have been replaced with breakfast meetings at bustling cafes or other campaign matters.
A strong believer in serving her community, Brooks’ career has focused on just that, either through her professional roles or work on various nonprofit boards.
Brooks has garnered the attention of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which named her an “on the radar” candidate as part of its Young Guns program. She also has the endorsement of 40 local government and political leaders.
Providing a strong showing in the May 8 primary –– in which she has six competitors, Brooks is looking to take her vast range of experience to Washington as a congresswoman to, as she puts it, “make a difference in a different way.”
Lawyer in the making
Growing up in Fort Wayne, life very much centered around Homestead High School. Brooks’ father was one of its first teachers and the first football coach. Her mother returned to the work force as the school corporation’s assistant bookkeeper and eventually worked her way up to treasurer.
“I’m really proud of her for that,” Brooks says.
Brooks and her younger brother and sister could always be found outside playing kickball, baseball or swimming with the other kids.
“It was a very active neighborhood,” Brooks recalls.
Activities in high school, like tennis, volleyball, choir and student government, set the stage for a lifetime of being involved. She double-majored in political science and sociology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, served as president of her dorm and sorority, and worked in the student financial aid office.
Brooks’ choice of majors wasn’t so much based on the political aspect as it was on service and law.
“I knew I was interested in public service and becoming a lawyer,” she says. “My thought was, How can the law help people?”
Between her junior and senior years, Brooks was an intern for a juvenile probation officer in Fort Wayne, an eye-opening experience that exposed her to the perspectives of law enforcement, public defenders and families going through the court system.
“It cemented that I wanted to go into law and become an advocate,” Brooks says.
After graduating in 1982, she enrolled in law school at the IU School of Law in Indianapolis. Throughout her three years there, she had several opportunities that further exposed her to the world of law –– not to mention the hardships of those who were less fortunate.
As an intern in the Marion County Public Defender’s office, Brooks worked alongside lawyers and got her first taste of going into jail, talking to inmates and going to court.
“It was a whole new experience for me,” she says. “I loved gathering facts and figuring out what the best positions were before the court.”
Another job took her to the law firm Bayh, Tabbert & Capehart, where she was a more “traditional” intern, working on cases in tax, criminal defense and education law.
“Those jobs helped make law school more real,” she says. “I was pretty young at the time. It was a big time to grow up and realize what so many people’s problems were in the world.”
Brooks’ large social group allowed her to create lasting, cherished friendships. She, two law school girlfriends and their sisters have convened for a ski trip annually for the past 18 years.
“It’s a long weekend to get together, connect, laugh hysterically and ski –– although we’re skiing less the older we get,” Brooks says with a laugh.
A strong foundation
Those law school experiences laid the groundwork for a career-long commitment to public service. It didn’t take long for her to jump right in.
Soon after she graduated, nationally known defense attorney Rick Kammen hired Brooks to run his Indianapolis-based practice while he was away for two months for a trial.
“Right away, I was in the courts representing clients. He taught me to have huge respect for court staff and which other attorneys I could rely on for advice.
“I also learned from Rick that you could never shortchange the importance of your ethics and integrity,” Brooks says. “If your integrity was questioned, you could not be a successful attorney in central Indiana.”
In December 1997, Brooks received a call from then-Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who asked her to join his staff as deputy mayor.
“He wanted to put the focus on crime and juvenile justice because the crime rate was so high,” Brooks says. She took the job.
Brooks’ primary responsibility was public safety. She oversaw the police and fire departments; worked closely with Marion County Judge Patricia Gifford and Juvenile Court Judge James Payne; tackled issues like gun violence, domestic violence and the homicide rate; and implemented security patrols around Circle Centre Mall.
“Susan had the unique ability to walk into a room full of people for a discussion on a particularly controversial or difficult issue facing the city, people who historically disagree, and walk out with a consensus on an effective solution,” Goldsmith says.
She also collaborated with businesses and faith-based organizations on Weed and Seed initiatives to drive out crime and bolster economic development in neighborhoods throughout Indianapolis.
“I learned a lot about government efficiency, how to reform government and how to have dialogues with the community as to what it wants,” Brooks says.
After Bart Peterson took office, Brooks joined Ice Miller’s government practice group.
She was there about a year and a half before setting her sights on an even higher position –– U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana. In February 2001, as George W. Bush was sworn in as president, Brooks was in the midst of the confirmation process for U.S. Attorney.
And then Sept. 11 came, a day that Brooks, like all Americans, will never forget.
She was at a United Way meeting when she noticed a group gathered around the TV in the kitchen. She joined them just in time to see the second plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“I had this chill that this would be my new job,” she recalls. “I thought to myself, What do I know about terrorism? What does the country know?
“Throughout the selection process, we talked about drugs, gangs and fraud, but they didn’t ask me how prepared I was to prevent terrorism.”
Later that day, while sitting with her daughter Jessica and son Conner at a prayer service at St. Monica Catholic School, her new charge really sunk in. But she didn’t have much time to dwell on it. Brooks was sworn in by mid-October 2001, and a delightful surprise awaited her.
Brooks’ First Assistant U.S. Attorney was Tim Morrison –– a man who had been coached by Brooks’ father at Homestead High School.
“Isn’t that odd that someone my dad had influenced was going to be my right-hand man?” she says. “It was a good omen.”
A new world
As U.S. Attorney, Brooks’ main client was the United States. If a postal truck was involved in an accident, for example, Brooks and her group of lawyers represented the U.S. Postal Service. They prosecuted those who defrauded Social Security, Medicare and the federal government.
She implemented task forces that fought human trafficking and online child pornography and prosecuted a Greenfield man who attempted to sell U.S. military intelligence to Saddam Hussein.
But in the wake of Sept. 11, her biggest task was training local law enforcement agencies and public health officials in her 62-county jurisdiction on emergency preparedness.
“As U.S. Attorney, you’re the chief law enforcement officer that brings everyone together,” she says. “It was a very cool time to be a part of federal government. It was transforming.”
Murray Clark, Brooks’ longtime friend and campaign co-chair, says big projects don’t intimidate her.
“She’s smart, passionate and not afraid to take on the toughest challenges,” he says.
Joyce Rogers, vice president of development at Ivy Tech Community College, first worked with Brooks while Rogers was president and CEO of Indiana Black Expo. From working together on Project Safe Neighborhoods, Rogers learned how important public safety was to Brooks.
“I was always amazed at Susan’s engaging approach to that program,” Rogers says. “It was obvious to me the first time I talked to her about it that its success was important to her.”
Brooks was proud to be one in a long line of female U.S. Attorneys in Indiana’s Southern District. And she was proud of what they had accomplished in the new fight against terrorism. After six years, though, she was ready for a change and joined Ivy Tech Community College –– and reconnected with Rogers –– in 2007 as its general counsel.
“I didn’t want to go back into private practice,” she says. “I liked working for a mission, and I preferred working for more of a cause.”
In addition to being the school’s lawyer, Brooks oversaw its workforce and economic development strategies. She met with employers to find out the types of workers they needed and helped unemployed and underemployed Hoosiers find fulfilling work.
“I am someone who very much believes that if people have meaningful jobs and meaningful work, they’ll be happy,” she says. “If they enjoy what they’re doing and can provide for their families, it solves a lot of problems in people’s lives.”
When French Lick Casino opened, Brooks’ group helped train employees in hospitality. They also worked with orthopedic companies in northern Indiana to customize training for their workers.
“I’ve loved what I’ve done at Ivy Tech,” she says. “It’s a very positive environment. I’m very proud of what we’ve done there and what we’re continuing to do.”
Time for a change
Last summer, as daughter Jessica, a senior at Xavier University, and her friends hung out at the Brookses’ home while on break, Brooks had an epiphany. That spring, the country’s debt ceiling had been all over the news, and she realized that college students were not only going to inherit the debt problem, they were graduating with poor prospects of landing quality jobs. Even to do so, they had to compete with unemployed adults who had experience under their belts.
“I felt it was not right that we were leaving this mess to young people,” Brooks says. “I also felt that there wasn’t a good dialogue in Washington about how to solve this problem. It had gotten angry, and things weren’t getting done in either party.
“I thought that a different type of advocate and leader was needed in Washington to work on some of these really difficult problems. People had lost confidence in Congress. I thought, It’s time to make a difference in a different way.”
Shortly thereafter, on June 28, 2011, Brooks and her husband David celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at the Conrad Indianapolis. That night, it was decided that Susan would become a candidate for the 5th U.S. Congressional District, which encompasses a zigzaging area roughly from the northern part of Indianapolis, up to Marion, east toward Hartford City and down to Anderson.
“It was a pretty life-changing decision,” Brooks says. “I needed to know my husband was completely supportive of it.”
Jessica and Conner were enthusiastic about it as well and pushed her to go for it. It was definitely something that involved the entire family.
Brooks officially announced her candidacy in mid-July. She assembled a campaign team and immediately got to work talking to constituents and attending meetings.
“I get a lot of energy from talking to people,” she says. “I’m trying to listen more than I talk and engage the 5th District in a dialogue about what they want, what they care about and what they want in a new representative.”
From the beginning, volunteers, many of whom are Brooks’ personal friends, have stuffed envelopes, made phone calls and entered data. In fact, having her friends in the office gives her day an energizing boost.
“I’ll go chat with them for 10 minutes about reality,” she says. “It’s been incredibly encouraging, and it gives me a lot of energy to have friends involved in this.”
If Brooks wins the May 8 primary and the Nov. 6 election, she’ll head to Washington to be sworn in mid-January as the 5th District’s voice and advocate. She’ll be involved in creating new laws and providing constituent services, as when someone has a problem with his or her Social Security benefits or passport.
It’s clear to Brooks which constituent issues are priority.
“Jobs and the economy overshadow every discussion I’m in,” she says. “We’re talking about our country’s debt. We’re talking about excessive regulations that are impeding job growth.”
Clark says he can’t think of a better person or skill set to bring to Washington.
“She’s been fighting the good fight right here for the last two decades or so,” he says.
Rogers says Brooks goes above and beyond when assessing a situation.
“That’s extremely important in leadership,” she says. “She has excellent judgment, and she’s focused. And she’s very, very thorough.”
Working in Washington will absolutely be a change from the norm. She and David will be empty-nesters in the fall, and, should Susan win, they’ll carry on what she calls a “long-distance marriage” with her returning to Indiana on the weekends. She points out with a laugh that it’s only a two-hour direct flight.
When Congress isn’t in session, Brooks says it will be important for her to be out and about in the 5th District.
Even though she’s never before run for political office, Brooks says she thinks voters appreciate that. She also believes her nonprofit board experience sets her apart. She’s been involved with a number of organizations, like The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, Junior League of Indianapolis and the Indiana Youth Institute.
“Being involved in a nonprofit board is a wonderful way to give back to your community,” she says.
Longtime friend Karen Glaser says Brooks has “that something extra.”
“I think she would bring a common-sense approach to Washington and try to find the compromise in whatever issues she might be dealing with,” Glaser says.
Life at home
Before moving to Carmel a few years ago, Pike Township was home to the Brooks: Susan; David, a lawyer; Conner, 18; Jessica, 21; and Scout the yellow Lab. They owned horses, which they loved riding on trails in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho or Brown County. Spending time outdoors around campfires was a big part of family bonding.
“It’s instant relaxation and such a different pace,” Brooks says.
Then the soccer bug bit, and their free time was suddenly consumed with Jessica and Conner’s games.
“We spent weekend after weekend on the road with travel soccer,” Brooks says. For many years, the sport has been a huge part of their lives –– but not for much longer.
“I don’t know what life will be like this fall when, for the first time in 18 years, I won’t be going to a child’s soccer match,” she says with a laugh.
Clark and his family got to know the Brookses on a personal level when their daughters played on the same soccer team. He and his wife Janet are big admirers of Susan.
“You really get to know people when you’re staying in the same hotels,” he says. “You get to know what kind of human beings they are.”
Being at home and doing normal “mom” chores has become an unexpected way for Brooks to recharge.
“Who would have guessed that folding clothes could be relaxing?” she laughs.
Taking her experience and passion to such a high level probably comes as no surprise. Giving back was something Brooks picked up at a young age.
“We didn’t grow up with a lot of wealth, but I watched (my parents) make significant contributions to the lives of a lot of people,” she says. “I’ve watched them be very happy in their lives. They taught us that happiness was certainly not all about money, but it was about helping others, working hard, and enjoying your family and friends.
“So that’s what I’ve strived to do –– work hard, be ethical, be very grateful for all that I have, and help those less fortunate. It’s something that drives me.”