A controversial bill based on kooky science (or lack thereof) claims that chemical abortions could be reversed. The press positioned this bill as the first divisive social issue confronting fledgling Gov. Eric Holcomb. Would he sign it? Veto?
Then late last month, the Senate and House committee chairs announced the bill wouldn’t be heard, citing a lack of time. Powerful governors in the past would let it be known that mongrel legislation should never come close to their desk. It was a stinging lesson that Gov. Mike Pence had to endure when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that wasn’t on his agenda, gathered his signature and ignited an embarrassing controversy.
I sat down with Holcomb at Nick’s English Hut over strombolis. I mentioned the “powerful governor” scenario and asked him if it applied here. Did the order go out to kill this bill?
A wry smile crossed his face and he answered, “I have stressed at how focused I am on our economy, on our workforce/education, on our infrastructure, on our getting control of this drug epidemic, and being able to provide good government service at a great taxpayer value. I have been laser-focused on those areas. I’m not going to be distracted.”
Less than an hour before, Indiana University President Michael McRobbie had praised Holcomb for his January State of the State speech where he laid out five policy “pillars” while applauding the Hoosier pioneering spirit that had taken us from Conestoga wagons to NASA’s Gemini program and beyond.
Some would say that Holcomb is lucky, that he ran a long-shot U.S. Senate campaign only to be elevated by Pence to be lieutenant governor a year ago. That positioned him for the 12-day, 22-vote campaign for gubernatorial nomination last July once Donald Trump nominated Pence for vice president, and then the 100-day odyssey that made him Indiana’s chief executive.
Now Holcomb is poised as a rookie governor to achieve a 20-year, comprehensive road and infrastructure deal as his top General Assembly priority later this month. He will have stamped the biennial budget with his acumen. He is serious about crimping the dual opioid/meth epidemics badgering our state. He’s doing this with two Republican super majorities in the House and Senate.
Perhaps not. As a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Mitch Daniels, Holcomb had the front-row seat to one of the biggest disappointments of that successful governorship. Republicans lost the House majority in 2006, in part because Daniels spent awesome amounts of political capital to forge Major Moves (a fully funded, 10-year road program), Daylight Saving Time, but also because of President George W. Bush’s Iraq War blunder. In a rare missed lesson learned, Daniels cruised to re-election in 2008 with 58 percent of the vote, but he didn’t pull the House in with him, sentencing him to two more years with that “car-bomber,” Democratic Speaker B. Patrick Bauer.
So 2010 would be different. Republicans vowed to regain the House majority just in time to redraw the legislative and congressional maps. Daniels installed Holcomb as Indiana Republican chairman that year, and the party prodigiously recruited House candidates like Sue Ellspermann, Mike Karickhoff, Kevin Mahan and Cindy Kirchhofer.
There were other elements to 2010 that helped the GOP, like the rise of the tea party movement and the bug out by U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh. When the dust settled on Election Night, Republicans retook the Indiana House with 59 seats, which would grow to 60 when Wendy McNamara won a recount. “Tonight, you have elected a new, pro-taxpayer majority to the Indiana House,” Daniels proclaimed as Holcomb watched in the wings with a not-so-wry smile.
In 2011, Republicans redrew the maps. In 2012, the House majority became a super majority with 69 seats, fueled mostly by 10 newly created open seats that went overwhelmingly Republican.
Luck? Chance? No. This was methodical planning, with Holcomb’s fingerprints all over the chrome.
No one could fathom that five years later, it would be Gov. Holcomb to reap this harvest. “I’m in a good mood about the whole agenda; first and foremost, it’s been a very constructive, productive and collaborative effort every day,” the talkative Holcomb said as his stromboli chilled. “The House, Senate and governor, we’ve all been focused on how we’re going to take the state to the next level. I said at the very beginning of this administration I was looking for three H’s — people who are honest, humble and hungry. We’ve got it. We are focused unlike any administration I’ve seen. That’s why I am typically smiling.”
An hour prior, President McRobbie had quizzed Holcomb on Indiana in a globalized economy. “The world will continue to get smaller and smaller,” Holcomb observed, announcing an economic development trip to India later this year. “If you’re not growing, you are dying. Every industry I know is ag plus tech, medical device plus tech. So if you’re not pursuing the plus tech, you’re dying. I wake up every morning trying to bring the world to Indiana and Indiana to the world.”
This is not a governor who is just leaving things to chance.
BRIAN HOWEY is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at: howeypolitics.com.