By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – It wasn’t easy to pick out the Top 10 government and political stories in a year so packed with interesting issues and campaigns. And it was even tougher to rank the stories I settled on.
Of course, you’re likely to quibble with my choices and already I’ve seen other lists that are different.
But from my perspective at the Indiana Statehouse, here are the top stories of the year:
No. 1: Sen. Richard Lugar’s 36-year Senate career ends in primary defeat
One year ago, Lugar’s defeat at the hands of state Treasurer Richard Mourdock – a lesser known Republican – seemed impossible.
But Mourdock tapped into some GOP frustration with Lugar’s cooperation with Democrats as well as his age and six terms in office. Plus, conservative groups – primarily those who support conservative, anti-tax candidates – spent millions of dollars on advertising attacking Lugar.
And Mourdock didn’t just win the race. He won it with ease – by roughly 20 points, ending a distinguished career that has earned Lugar accolades for his work on nuclear proliferation and agriculture.
Mourdock’s celebration was relatively short-lived – more on that later – and Lugar is moving on to some interesting higher education posts.
No. 2: Democrat Glenda Ritz defeats incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett
I didn’t see this coming. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that when some folks told me they thought that Ritz – a teacher and true political unknown – was going to unseat Bennett, I just didn’t buy it.
And then the votes started rolling in on election night and it was clear that Bennett – the face of big changes Republicans had been making in education – was in big trouble. In fact, Ritz, whose under-the-radar campaign relied largely on word-of-mouth and social media, won more votes than did Republican Mike Pence, who won the governor’s race.
The win appeared to be a slap at private school vouchers and teacher collective bargaining changes and A-F grading scales for schools and other changes the GOP had pushed into state rules and law. But Republican leaders – including Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma – say it was as much about personality and approach and insist the reforms will go on.
No. 3: GOP legislature passes right-to-work as thousands of union members protest
Voters gave Republicans a big majority in the Indiana House in 2010 and they didn’t hesitate to put it to use with so-called right-to-work legislation that is meant to free workers from paying fees to unions they don’t join.
Unions opposed the legislation and Democrats in 2011 boycotted House businesses by going to Illinois for five weeks to try to stop the bill. They essentially succeeded.
But in 2012, Republicans tried again and this time Democrats couldn’t stop it, despite more boycotts and thousands of union members who flooded the Statehouse to protest. Workers filled the hallways and the lawn and the protests were largely civil, although they occasionally disrupted business in the House chamber and led to new security measures at the Statehouse.
But despite the apparent support, none of the Democrats’ walkouts this year were as long or determined as in 2011, giving Republicans the openings they needed to vote out the bill. Since then, Republican Mitch Daniels has said repeatedly that the law has led to more companies announcing jobs in Indiana, although the Democrats said the evidence is scarce.
No. 4: Democrat Joe Donnelly defeats Republican Richard Mourdock in U.S. Senate race
What worked for Mourdock in the GOP primary – a fervent conservative agenda – didn’t work in the general election, particularly against a moderate Democrat who campaigned as a Lugar fan.
Donnelly, a northern Indiana congressman, appealed to moderate Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats in his bid to become Indiana’s next senator. Mourdock helped that cause with a televised interview in which he said he liked to “inflict” his opinion on others and then later making controversial comments about rape and pregnancy.
Mourdock later blamed the “liberal media” for his 4-percentage-point loss.
No. 5: Rep. Pat Bauer ousted as Democratic leader in House
Democrats in the Indiana House got fed up with walkouts, campaign struggles and what they called top-down leadership and kicked veteran lawmaker Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, out of his post as the minority leader.
Democrats mounted the coup in a closed door meeting in July after several weeks of phone calls and emails attempting to gather the votes necessary for the unusual, mid-year leadership change, which came just three months before the election.
A fiery, old-style politician, Bauer had been the House speaker or minority leader – depending on whether Democrats held the majority – for a decade and had served as the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee before that.
Democrats elected Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, the first woman to hold the post in Indiana, to replace him, although they opted for another leader – Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City – after the election.
No. 6: Republican Mike Pence defeats Democrat John Gregg in governor’s race
It seems hard to believe that the winner of the governor’s race didn’t make it into the Top 5 on our list, but that’s the kind of year it was.
Pence, a congressman, was expected to win the race over Gregg, a former House speaker, and he did. It wasn’t by an impressive margin nor did it come after a particularly inspiring campaign. Pence stuck to broad themes of patriotism and family and had few concrete proposals, save ideas to cut the state’s income tax and boost vocational education programs.
Gregg, who ran a series of folksy ads that raised eyebrows among political observers, appeared to rally near the end of the campaign but didn’t have enough time to close the gap.
No. 7: Outgoing GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels named president of Purdue University
Frankly, this could have been higher on the list and the future may prove that it should have been. Lots of universities wanted Mitch Daniels but Purdue got him and the governor’s focus seems to have been on higher education issues since.
The pick angered some faculty members and alumni, who worry that Daniels will take his cost-cutting ways to the school with little understanding of what makes a university tick. But it was widely lauded elsewhere and Daniels heads to the school with high approval ratings intact.
No. 8: Republicans win quorum-proof majorities in the House and Senate
In a year when Bennett and Mourdock got beat and Pence didn’t win by the margins initially expected, Republicans in the Indiana House made big gains. Already, the GOP had a 60-40 majority but they extended that by nine seats, surpassing the two-thirds majority they need to have a quorum even if Democrats conduct more walkouts.
Republicans in the Indiana Senate, meanwhile, maintained their super-majority as well. That means the GOP can push through the General Assembly anything the party’s own members can agree on – and that may be the problem. Big majorities can be a big problem to manage, although House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President
Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, are confident they can handle the job.
No. 9: Gov. Mitch Daniels gets two appointments – including a woman – to the Indiana Supreme Court
It’s been a crazy couple of years for Indiana’s highest court and the result is that Daniels has now appointed three of the five justices, which could – depending on the issues that come before the court – ultimately be the Republican’s biggest gubernatorial legacy.
Former Chief Justice Randall Shepard announced in late 2011 that he would retire from the court and he did so this year. Daniels appointed a former advisor – Mark Massa – to replace Shepard on the court. Meanwhile, the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission picked longtime justice Brent Dickson to be the court’s new chief justice.
Then, Frank Sullivan Jr. announced he would also leave the court. Daniels picked Tippecanoe Juvenile Judge Loretta Hogan Rush to replace him, giving the state only its second female justice and its first in 13 years. She was sworn in on Friday.
In 2011, Daniels appointed Steven David to serve on the court after Democrat Ted Boehm retired.
Robert Rucker – who was appointed by a Democratic governor – remains on the court.
No. 10: Big section of new terrain I-69 section opens to traffic
No list of the state’s top stories would be complete without noting that a huge section of the long-planned Interstate 69 extension opened late this year. The 67-mile stretch of new highway runs from Evansville north to Crane.
It’s only part of a larger project that’s meant to connect Indianapolis to Evansville and it’s not clear yet where the money will come from to finish the job. Still, the highway opened years ahead of schedule and $80 million under budget, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation.
That seemed pretty improbably when Daniels took office eight years ago.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.