Phil Gulley: Indiana’s New Governor Is A Step Up

I first met Governor Holcomb on the Statehouse stairs. Both he and Indiana were ascending.

July 2017Add a comment

In junior high, I was a Statehouse page for Lillian Parent, a state senator and our next-door neighbor, who pedaled her three-wheeled cycle around the block each evening with her dog perched in a wire basket. Parent was intelligent and upright. And since she was the only politician I knew, I assumed those virtues were common to all legislators, though was later disabused of that notion. To be fair, there were other bright lights at the Statehouse in those days, chief among them Doc Bowen, a gentleman from Bremen who managed to serve as our governor for eight years without once inviting a group of crackpots into his office to sign away the rights of gays.

I avoided the Statehouse for several happy decades, then returned one winter day in 2015 to speak with legislators about their preoccupation with certain passages from the book of Leviticus and their effort to drag Indiana kicking and screaming back in time. It did little good, since people on a mission from God are seldom amenable to reason. But it was nevertheless a satisfying exercise and will permit me one day to look my granddaughter in the eye and tell her I did what I could to beat back the Middle Ages.

Exiting the Statehouse that day, I noticed a young mother with a double stroller eyeing the stairs, and hurried to assist her, along with another man also wishing to help. He reached her first, and assured me he could lift the stroller himself. But I insisted, and together we carried the stroller and babies up the stairs and into the Statehouse. The mother thanked me, and I went on my way, feeling pretty virtuous.

The next evening, I was at home, reading by our kitchen woodstove, when the telephone rang. It was a friend from our Quaker meeting, calling to say he had seen me in a video promoting the candidacy of Eric Holcomb, now our governor, but then one of several candidates vying for a U.S. Senate seat.

“I’m not in any Holcomb video,” I told my friend.

“You most certainly are,” he said. “You’re helping him carry a stroller up the Statehouse stairs.”

I’ve always believed in bipartisanship, so didn’t mind appearing in the video, even though the babies were likely stage props, and Republicans to boot. That was how I met Holcomb, and though we didn’t exchange names or even shake hands, I can now honestly tell people that the governor and I have worked together on a project helping Indiana preschoolers.

When Mike Pence hitched his oxcart to Donald Trump, pledging to do to America what he had done to Indiana, I hoped we might get a governor who didn’t confuse the Bible for the state constitution. It now appears God, in her infinite wisdom, has blessed us with just such a person. It might be too soon to say this, but we might have a governor in the mold of Lillian Parent and Doc Bowen.

The first hint that Holcomb wouldn’t let politics stand in the way of justice was his pardon of Keith Cooper, a man wrongfully imprisoned for armed robbery, whose plea for exoneration went unanswered by Pence, a man so busy talking about Jesus he didn’t have time to act like him. Dare we hope to have a governor who won’t let the least thoughtful among us determine his priorities? By “least thoughtful,” I mean those legislators who want everyone to carry a gun, convert to Christianity, attend a charter school, and bear children even if it kills them. If those children should grow up to become a corporation, all the better.

Holcomb has his work cut out for him. According to the U.S. News & World Report annual survey, Indiana is 41st in healthcare, 47th in higher education, 33rd in crime and corrections, and 26th in overall economy. We’re ranked first in government, a holdover from the Mitch Daniels administration, which just goes to show there’s one thing not even Pence can screw up. Despite these concerns, Holcomb’s most daunting challenge will be standing up to far-right conservatives who worship at the altar of Ayn Rand. I was disappointed when Holcomb voiced his support for Trumpcare, but then I remembered it was flu season, and I suspected Holcomb was out of his gourd with fever. No man in full control of his faculties would give the healthcare heave-ho to more than half a million Hoosiers so Jim Irsay could pay lower taxes.

But it did make me wonder how high a man or woman must ascend politically before becoming immune from pressure to support an idea injurious to our nation. At what point is a politician able to resist the siren song of higher office and simply do the decent thing, consequences be damned? I suspect Pence knew pardoning Cooper was the right thing to do, but loved the vice presidency more than mercy. I want to believe Holcomb is his own man, in possession of a conscience that won’t permit him to harm those already wronged by poverty and power. His support of Trumpcare called that into question, but having needed second chances myself, I’m inclined to show him the same grace.

Most folks, when voting for a man or woman, are choosing a person, not a party. We therefore expect to see the occasional shaft of sunlight between the public servant and the party, certain moments when the officeholder, possessing a free will, can’t in good conscience support his colleagues’ wishes. This isn’t a betrayal of one’s party, but a display of one’s open-mindedness and integrity, an affirmation that no single institution is the sole repository of truth. If Holcomb parts company with the Republican party now and then, I will be pleased, just as I am gratified when a Democrat takes the road less traveled. If by the end of his service Holcomb has managed to annoy Republicans and Democrats alike, I will consider his term a success.

In case you were wondering, Indiana grabbed first place for government in that annual report due to transparency. More than any other state, we know exactly what our legislators are doing. Nothing is hidden from sight. Which explains why the average Hoosier is a bundle of nerves, always on the verge of a breakdown. Despite my initial good feelings about Holcomb, I can’t help but question the intelligence of any man who would want a job placing him in close proximity to the Indiana legislature now that Lillian Parent is gone.

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