Phil Gulley: Cross Words for the Indiana General Assembly and State Fair

A sign at the Indiana State Fair made me question whether there’s any fairness left here.
Whenever I ask Hoosiers what they like about this state, they often say they enjoy living in a place that has four seasons. I’m growing less fond of Indiana winters, but I do love spring, summer, and fall. Spring for the flowers, fall for the colors, and summer for the Indiana State Fair, which might be the best thing conceived by mortals. I’ve attended every year since I turned 16 and got my driver’s license. I even worked there one summer, selling milkshakes and grilled cheese sandwiches at the Dairy Barn next to the grandstand. Prior to that, I was lactose-intolerant. But I drank so many milkshakes, I was healed of that affliction, in the same way a man who regularly jumps in a lake eventually overcomes his fear of water.

In all those years, the State Fair and I never had a cross word, until last year when they did something I’ve found hard to forgive. I even talked about it with my spiritual advisor, Larry, who suggested that instead of carrying a grudge, I should just tell the Fair what they did to upset me. “They’re probably not even aware you’re mad at them,” Larry said.

In addition to being my spiritual advisor, Larry is also my mechanic, so we meet every three months or 3,000 miles, whichever comes first. I tried phoning the Fair to discuss the matter as he suggested, but got shifted from one flunky to another, so decided to write about it instead. My disenchantment began last summer when my wife and I were walking from the Exposition Hall to the Pioneer Village. We begin each Fair at the Exposition Hall, where we visit with the people selling gutters and bum a few samples from the fudge vendors. Then, while my wife watches a demonstration on the marvels of nonstick cookware, I chat with the evangelists manning the Gideon Bible booth, leading them on a bit, making them think I need saving, before telling them I’m a pastor and watching them wilt like week-old lettuce.

So last summer we did all that, then stopped by the beef tent for a ribeye sandwich on our way around the track toward the Pioneer Village. Passing by the horse stables, we saw a sign that read, “Thank you to the Indiana General Assembly for their support and funding of the renovation of these historic horse barns. Over the next three years, all barns will be fully renovated to their original luster.”

I’m not a member of the Indiana General Assembly—there being no groundswell of supporters demanding I run—but if I were a member, I would point out to the State Fair that the taxpayers, not the Indiana General Assembly, funded the renovation of those historic horse barns. Then I would ask them to make a new sign thanking the folks who footed the bill. I suspect several of our legislators saw that sign and believed it was perfectly fine to accept full credit for something all of us had a hand in doing.

I’ve been spending some time with the legislature this year, attending the occasional forum to hear them speak. And while I’m a wild optimist about most things, my time with the legislature has made me want to leap headfirst off the top of the State House. This year saw Senator R. Michael Young (R–Petticoat Junction) prohibiting, in Senate Bill 35, members of the opposite sex from barging into our bathrooms while we’re peeing. I was hoping SB 35 would pass so I could have a little privacy in the one-holer at our farmhouse. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t cover private homes, where it’s most needed. It only applied to school buildings, where confused first-graders might wander into the wrong restroom, even though that hasn’t happened yet. But it might happen, which is why I appreciate the senator’s ability to anticipate a problem no one else even thought of until he brought it up.

When the bill was first proposed, some people actually said Senator Young’s bill wasn’t aimed at confused first-graders, but at transgender people, even though the bill didn’t use those words. That’s a cynical way of looking at it, and something Senator Young vehemently denied when I asked him about that and other bills he had written. I think we can take him at his word, don’t you? Yes, to the uninformed, it might appear Senator Young wants to limit the rights of Indiana’s LGBT citizens, but I’m sure he doesn’t because he told me he was a fierce defender of Hoosier freedoms. It must be difficult for him to be so misunderstood, and I wouldn’t blame him at all if he resigned from the Senate. In fact, I urged him to do just that.

Back to the State Fair. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I can’t help but wonder if the Fair folks posted that sign to suck up to the legislature, since that’s how things seem to get done in our state. We bow and scrape, and the legislators, high on their horses, toss a little bag of money to the peasants occasionally—then write a nasty little bill that enshrines their prejudices into law. This is what I find so repugnant when I visit the State House: the overwhelming sense that everything and everyone wears a price tag, that no bill is too odious or foul if it will get them an extra vote or dollar come election time.

Indiana has, among other things, an official state flag, a state bird, a state flower, a state tree, a state stone, a state river, a state soil, and even, wait for it, a state pie. But what we really need is a state therapist, a trained professional capable of counseling our senators and representatives when they come unhinged. Therapists don’t come cheap, so the cost would be significant, but it would save our state money and embarrassment in the long run. We could even offer our governor free therapy, especially in those moments when he seems to be wrestling with his identity and mistakes himself for our pastor.

Hoosiers wax eloquent about the importance of neighborly kindness, common sense, honesty, and humility, then elect people to office who possess few of those traits. Often too late, we realize ideas no longer stand or fall on their own merit in the Indiana legislature, and that to achieve anything we must become supplicants, serving the people who pledged to serve us. Hence, the sign at the horse barns thanking legislators for something with which they had little to do. As if that isn’t bad enough, it occurs to me that if we elected such people in the first place, perhaps we are more like them than we care to admit and would govern much the same way if given the chance. Perhaps our legislators, since we continue to re-elect them, don’t reject our values after all, but mirror them. Which troubles me even more than the sign at the State Fair.