By Katie Stancombe
INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers generally like Gov. Eric Holcomb more than they liked his predecessor Mike Pence, but the big question is whether his likeability will translate into legislative success.
So far, the General Assembly has stalled on several cornerstones of Holcomb’s agenda, pumping the brakes on issues like pre-kindergarten funding, needle exchange programs and appointing rather than electing the superintendent of public instruction.
Jack Colwell, a longtime political analyst from South Bend, said that he thinks Holcomb is stronger and more in tune with the Indiana legislature than Pence ever was.
Then-Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb, along with the rest of the cabinet, applaud then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence during a November meeting. Photo by Rachel Hoffmeyer, TheStatehouseFile.com
“I think Pence would have had a difficult time with his second term, and would have come in fairly weak,” Colwell said. “But Holcomb came in with most people thinking he wasn’t going to make it, so he came in with momentum.”
Holcomb, who had never been elected to public office before, stepped into the spotlight when Pence secured the vice presidential nomination.
Colwell said that Holcomb is in a much better position to accomplish the priorities of his agenda than Pence was.
The former governor sparked a national uproar after signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law in 2015, which critics say authorized discrimination against people who are gay or lesbians. He also did a poor job explaining the legislation to national audiences.
In comparison, Holcomb comes with a clean slate. Colwell said that because Holcomb is a fresh face with no known enemies, things could work out in his favor.
“I see basically that he will get most of what he wants,” Colwell said. “No governor gets it all, but I think he will do better than Mike Pence would have done.”
Mike Murphy, an Indianapolis public relations consultant and former GOP state lawmaker, agreed, saying he thinks Holcomb is likely to have a more productive term than Pence.
Murphy also acknowledged the contrasts of governing styles between the two men, pointing out that it does make a difference in the session’s overall outcome.
“The difference there is that Pence tended to be really hands off in the legislative process, he would let things come to him,” Murphy said. “And Holcomb, my impression, is very engaged.”
Murphy pointed back to RFRA, saying House Republicans drove the bill from its birth. But once it hit Pence’s desk, it gained national attention.
“Look at his public statements,” Murphy said. “He would say, ‘Let’s let the legislature do their work.’ I can tell you that during the Daniels administration his people were very involved in the process from the beginning to the end.”
He compared the Holcomb administration to that of former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who he said was involved earlier on with legislators.
Eric Holcomb speaks to supporters after winning the election. Photo by Eddie Drews, TheStatehouseFile.com
Holcomb was off to a quick start in his first month, pardoning Keith Cooper, a wrongly convicted man who spent almost a decade in prison, and declaring a disaster emergency in Eastside Chicago where thousands have been affected by lead poisoning.
But these comparisons have some wondering what the nature of Holcomb’s relationship with Indiana Republicans may be – and if he is equipped and ready to lead them.
Even with a GOP majority, Holcomb has received pushback from members of his own party, drawing the question of who really holds the reins, the executive or legislative branch.
Paul Helmke, professor of Public and Environmental affairs at Indiana University, said that though he sees no animosity between the governor and the legislature, frustration is bound to form in time.
“I think the legislature probably sees itself as holding the cards and being in charge a little more than the governor is,” Helmke said. “The legislature figures they’ve had their people in place, they’ve got strong control, they’re going to do the things they want to do.”
Helmke wonders if the General Assembly will follow Holcomb’s lead or continue to work on its own timetable. Indiana is known to have moderately weak executive powers, allowing the General Assembly to run the show.
“These Republicans in the legislature were there, for the most part, before the governor was elected, and they don’t in a sense owe their positions to the governor,” Helmke said. “They want to work with him certainly but they don’t feel like they have to necessarily take his lead and do things when he wants to do them.”
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he is concerned that he hasn’t seen Holcomb display his leadership yet.
“Part of his agenda is to prepare a better and skilled workforce and to generally create more jobs in the state of Indiana,” Lanane said. “But I really haven’t seen much leadership on that from the governor’s office or the supermajority.”
Lanane also pointed to drug epidemic in Indiana, and though he agrees with the governor’s stance on the issue, he said Holcomb will need to use his leadership to garner support from the supermajorities. Republicans control the House by a 70-30 margin and the Senate 41-9.
Aside from his doubts, Lanane said he thinks that Holcomb has a lot of good will that he can rely on to try to get things done.
“I think his style is different than governor Pence’s. I think he’s more practical. I think that’s a good thing,” he said.
Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, also said she’s happy with Holcomb so far.
“The fact that he’s shown himself to be responsive is a nice thing, but I’m not going to say anything bad about the guy because he hasn’t done anything bad yet,” she said. “I do feel like he’s listening, but we’re only halfway through.”
Though the feedback for Holcomb has been mostly optimistic, Helmke said that there is still a lot of the legislative session left to be played out.
“If he got everything done that he’s talked about, it would be a very successful session,” Helmke said. “And it’s rare to get everything you want even when you’ve got your party in charge of the legislature.”
Katie Stancombe is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.