INDIANAPOLIS – One would be hard-pressed to recall an Indiana governor who didn’t get off to a good start. Governors are elected on a virtual personal basis with voters. Frank O’Bannon was grandfatherly, Evan Bayh the boy next door, Doc Bowen was the family physician, Bob Orr the friendly giant, Mike Pence the sunny favorite son come home, and Mitch Daniels the comeback kid.
Gov. Eric Holcomb is, perhaps, the least known new governor of the modern era, elevated to lieutenant governor last March, and then into the gubernatorial nomination on July 26. In the final November WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana Poll, Holcomb had 80 percent name ID, compared to 98 percent for Pence, while 23 percent had no opinion of him.
These middle weeks of January give Holcomb new exposure and a forum to burnish his era of first impressions. The emerging image is of Tall Hickory Holcomb, his own man.
He is constantly compared to Gov. Daniels, who brought him to the Statehouse 12 years ago, and Gov. Pence. But House Speaker Brian Bosma, echoing the new governor’s own campaign trail rhetoric, said as Holcomb’s agenda was unveiled, “He’s not Mitch Daniels, he’s not Mike Pence. He is going to be Eric Holcomb.”
The first conspicuous step was Holcomb’s inaugural address on Monday, when he conjured images of Indiana’s pioneer past and connected them to the first and second century innovators – business titans Eli Lilly, Madam C.J. Walker and astronaut Gus Grissom.
Tuesday, Holcomb gave his first State of the State address to a statewide TV audience. He observes that he is Indiana’s first governor of its third century, and he issued his challenges: “Despite our standing, despite our ongoing momentum, we can’t afford to get complacent or take our eyes off the ball. Too many Hoosiers and their families feel they’ve been left out or are in danger of being left behind. Too many are not participating in today’s economy or getting a quality education, or are struggling with the strangling grip of drugs. Too many Hoosier grads explore opportunities outside our state line.”
And then he touched on an issue that could very well settle Indiana as a 21st Century stanchion of progress and employment, or bring fomenting people the middle class left behind due to industrial automation and artificial intelligence into the streets.
“In the next 10 years, we’ll need to find one million new skilled workers to replace the 700,000 Baby Boomers who will retire, plus the 300,000 new jobs we will need to create,” Holcomb said. “Rather than ease up, we must hammer down and maintain that pioneer spirit.”
Holcomb’s first hours in office found him issuing an executive order creating a drug czar position. “Since 1999, Indiana has seen a 500 percent increase in drug overdose deaths. This is an epidemic tragically affecting Hoosiers from every walk of life in every part of our state,” Holcomb said. “This new position will provide the urgent and concerted attention required to effectively reduce the impact drug addiction is having on families, individuals and children.”
Almost immediately, Holcomb moved to allow local officials to make needle exchange decisions, a departure from Gov. Pence, characterizing it as a “prudent step.” Some 25 counties have sought needle exchange programs to combat heroin-induced HIV and HepC, needing time-consuming approval from the state. Only three have active programs. “When we open the newspaper and you see the obituaries it’s heartbreaking, and we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Holcomb said.
“This is terrific news,” said Beth Meyerson, co-director of the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention at Indiana University. “Now it’s a different day and a different administration.”
While Gov. Pence was averse to any phrase that included the words “tax increase,” fearing it would hamper his presidential aspirations, Holcomb is embracing recommendations for a 10-cent gasoline tax hike to pay for a long-term road and infrastructure program. “It is important we keep our funding options open,” Holcomb explained, adding that talks will continue.
Statehouse Democrats have proclaimed this session to be “the most tax-heavy ever.” But Holcomb counters: “You get what you pay for and we want to get the most out of it. This is something that needs to be done, so we are looking at every option. The only option we aren’t looking at is doing nothing at all.”
And Holcomb embraced the notion that voters should elect policymakers, not bureaucratic functionaries, when he proposed eliminating the superintendent of public instruction position and replacing it with a governor-appointed secretary of education.
Gov. Pence wouldn’t touch the issue, which was in both party platforms in 2012, particularly after he repeatedly sparred with Democrat Supt. Glenda Ritz. With Jennifer McCormick’s defeat of Ritz last November, the notion of a partisan power grab recedes. So Holcomb is signaling a willingness to revisit the long-time contours of state government and bring change.
The difference between Holcomb and his two immediate predecessors is that this governor, at least at this time, doesn’t have presidential aspirations. He is showing independence in putting money where his mouth is, four years ahead of the time when voters will make a second judgment.
— The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.