Commentary: Holcomb’s sure-footed climb

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com

 

INDIANAPOLIS – The late speaker of the California State Assembly Jesse Unruh, the epitome of an old-school politician, had a great expression.

“If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you’ve got no business being up here,” said Unruh, a Democrat.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

Column by John KrullUnruh was talking about lobbyists, but his larger point was that anyone who wanted to be successful at politics had to be prepared to treat all supposed understandings and agreements as tentative.

I’ve thought about Unruh’s words often as I’ve watched Indiana Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb move steadily and adroitly into positions of power and leverage.

A lot of people – me among them – underestimated Holcomb, a Republican. I have no idea where Holcomb stands regarding the first three things on Unruh’s list, but he’s clearly more than content to take someone’s money and then go his own way.

When the current Indiana governor, Holcomb’s fellow Republican Mike Pence, snared a spot on the national ticket with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and began his own climb to becoming vice president-elect many of us assumed that Pence’s departure put Holcomb in a box.

To have a shot at defeating Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Gregg in the general election, Holcomb needed most or all of Pence’s $9 million war chest. But if Holcomb took the cash, the thinking went, he also would have to embrace the Pence gubernatorial record, which was long on divisive strife and short on actual accomplishments.

Holcomb took the money – and then did his best during the campaign to pretend that Pence’s more than three years as governor never had happened.

Instead, Holcomb presented himself in his ads and on the stump as the second coming of Mitch Daniels, Pence’s predecessor as Indiana governor.

It was a sure-footed bit of political maneuvering.

Daniels had presided over the state when Indiana became a national model for conservative governance. Business leaders, economists, political scientists and other thought-shapers looked at Indiana during Daniels’ days as a kind of laboratory for innovative approaches to persistent public policy challenges.

Pence’s tenure, on the other hand, produced a lot of bickering and not much else. Several of the squabbles – over his attempt to establish a state-run news agency and the ill-named Religious Freedom Restoration Act – turned the state into a national and even international punch line.

By taking Pence’s money and then acting as if his benefactor didn’t even exist, Holcomb eluded the snare Gregg tried to set for him. Gregg wanted to run against Holcomb as Pence 2.0.

That task was made difficult by the fact that Holcomb wasn’t even willing to acknowledge there was a Pence 1.0.

Every time Gregg threw a punch, his fist connected with nothing but air.

But Holcomb’s skilled footwork did more than flummox Gregg and the Democrats. It also put him in a position of power and influence with his fellow Republicans.

Many business leaders during Pence’s time in the big office had grown frustrated with not just the governor but the state’s legislative leaders. The business bigwigs thought senior lawmakers were too indulgent regarding social-issue skirmishing and other playground antics and not nearly attentive enough to what they thought should be the business of state government.

Namely, keeping business happy.

By positioning himself as Mitch Daniels’ heir, Holcomb – who served Daniels in myriad capacities – also has established himself as the voice for the business community within state government.

Given that the business community writes the checks that keep the GOP in power, this gives Holcomb quite a bit of leverage.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, had grown restive during Daniels’ governorship. They were eager to re-establish themselves as powerful forces when Pence came in and often forced him to come to them, hat in hand.

Because Holcomb has evaded being a pale shadow of Pence and claimed the office with his own power base, he’ll be able to leave his hat on, at least for a while, when he talks with Bosma and Long.

That’s possible because Holcomb took Unruh’s advice. He took Pence’s money and then all but forgot about him.

A lot of people – me included – underestimated Eric Holcomb.

That was a mistake.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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