A century and Gov. Orr

A century ago, momentous events and lives were launched. There was a coup d’etat in Petrograd, often described as the “Russian Revolution,” but in reality was a violent Bolshevik power grab that created a 100 million human death toll over the next eight decades.

In May of that year, John F. Kennedy was born and would go on to launch the New Frontier. And in Ann Arbor on Nov. 17, 1917, Robert Dunkerson Orr took his first breaths. His family was on vacation when he entered the world, and he would be raised in Evansville and find his early and late careers playing out on the world stage, buffeted by the two other events and lives.

Gov. Orr, as he would become in 1981, was the first governor I covered as a journalist. His life traversed times of great upheaval, with him and first wife Josie serving in the U.S. Army and Women’s Air Force Service Pilots during World War II. His public service career ended in Singapore where he served as the U.S. ambassador for three years.

On Nov. 4, nearly 100 former staffers of Gov. Orr gathered to remember his remarkable life. It didn’t have quite the movie characteristics of Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, who escaped from the Japanese at Corregidor during the early months of World War II and would later come close to circumnavigating the globe by sea after retiring from public life. But Orr through business, policy and politics helped create the Indiana we know today. He and Lt. Gov. John Mutz overcame nativist Hoosier tendencies to open Indiana markets and consumers to Japanese investment and manufacturing, and subsequently to the Pacific Rim.

In post-war Evansville, Bob Orr watched arsenal of democracy factories close down. His business prowess found him buying the properties and refurbishing them to manufacture and sell domestic goods. He took that mentality into politics where he was Vanderburgh County Republican chairman, which led him to the Indiana Senate in 1968 and, finally, on to Gov. Doc Bowen’s ticket in 1972.

This is where Orr became truly consequential. He cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to pass Doc’s historic property tax reform package in 1973. He set the modern template for an LG at commerce, then as governor turned it over to Mutz, who despite the occasional driverless car (yes, he was about four decades ahead of his time) excelled, landing Subaru and other early economic gems. Lt. Gov. Orr pushed the creation of the Ohio River ports at Mount Vernon and Jeffersonville as well as a comprehensive economic development plan.

Orr was elected governor in 1980 as the United States was beset by “malaise” as President Carter described it, and the 1979 oil shocks followed the Iranian Revolution. The events of the world shaped Orr’s governorship with cruel twists. Gary’s steel plants teetered, auto cities like Anderson, Kokomo, Muncie and Elkhart saw 20% jobless rates, state revenues went into freefall, and in December 1982, with critics noting this came after the mid-term elections and a GOP drubbing, Gov. Orr was forced to seek a record tax increase during a rare winter special session.

During this period, I covered Orr most intensely as an editor and reporter for the Elkhart Truth. Three stories during this era defined Gov. Orr in my mind, with a couple coming through the prism of State Rep. Dean Mock, who was confronted in Orr’s office by Ways and Means Chairman Pat Kiely with the fact that if the 1982 tax hike didn’t pass, the public schools would close down. Mock asked, “For how long?” It passed anyway.

Then there was Elkhart’s two-lane portal to the Indiana Toll Road, Cassopolis Street, that badgered Orr every time he came to town. Its widening became the local hot button election. When Mock lost reelection to Democrat Bruce Carter on the issue, it became a biennial budget priority. Rep. Carter would lose the next election when Speaker Pat Bauer wouldn’t free him up to vote for the bill.

But there was good news for Orr on the northern front, when folks in Cass County, Mich., became so angered at high taxes there that they formed a committee vowing to secede to Indiana. It was one of the first big stories I was involved in, and I remember calling Dollyne Pettingill for reaction. This was a gift for a governor coming off a record tax hike and double digit unemployment. Orr would declare that Indiana had become “downright sexy.”

He won his first term over Democrat John Hillenbrand 48-42%, but was reelected by just a 53-47% margin over State Sen. Wayne Townsend. The first term had been a minefield. A lesser governor might not have survived.

The other memorable policy that Gov. Orr prioritized came out of President Reagan’s “Nation at Risk” study on American public education in 1986. Orr took the challenge with utmost seriousness, formulated the A Plus plan, and rammed it through the 1987 General Assembly session on narrow votes. I remember covering House Education Chairman Phil Warner, who coaxed votes on the House floor with repeated “thumbs up” gestures as the roll call took place. It was a dramatic sequence.

Through the prism of today, you can wonder if Gov. Orr could still be a Republican, pushing through two big tax increases, one in crisis, the other the pave the way to the future. Some of the A Plus funding and the expanded school year are still in place. He and Josie supported Planned Parenthood. Gov. Orr was the embodiment of a moderate Republicanism that was internationalist in scope. He was a great steward of the state and helped shape future leaders. When Gov. Mitch Daniels took office in 2005 and faced the question of which gubernatorial portraits to bring into his office, he quickly said, “Bring ol’ Bob Orr in here.”

My last contacts with Gov. Orr came in the twilight of his life. He was angered by the 1991-92 “health care for life” deal for legislators that Senate President Robert Garton and Democrat House Speaker John Gregg forged on the final days of the session. Orr would call me up, insisting “this just isn’t right” and urged me to “go after them.” The other thing I remember, and more poignantly realize now, is the circle of life can be cruel. “Getting old isn’t any fun,” he would lament.

As a journalist, it’s best when you watch and document great leadership, when a governor and a great team know how to pull the levers of power, how to enforce and even intimidate to achieve durable ways and means. Gov. Robert D. Orr will pass this historic test every time.

— Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

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