Brian Howey: Forging the gender trend line
Saturday, May 26, 2012 8:19 AM
NASHVILLE, Ind. - It was, utterly, one of the most painful political episodes I have ever had to watch as a political writer.
State Sen. Vi Simpson was seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2003. A straw poll had been set up for the annual Indiana Democratic Editorial Association shindig at French Lick on Aug. 23. Simpson’s opponent, former Indiana and Democratic National Chairman Joe Andrew, fresh off naming millionaire Bren Simon as his running mate a month earlier, paid more than $50,000 to bring 1,100 United Auto Workers into the rally.
When Andrew and Simpson presented their case, she was treated with epic rudeness, despite her long record in the Senate as a faithful labor advocate. She pulled out of the straw poll, saying, “I ask for your support, not today, but in May, when it counts.”
Andrew won the straw poll, 595 to 27, and he would say, “We carried 94 percent of the vote. That’s not divisive. Fifty-fifty would have been divisive. I’ve often said this campaign is a journey, and today makes it clear that it is a journey that Bren Simon and I won’t be making alone.”
UAW Chief Terry Thurman added the coda to the ugly event: “Today we became engaged in the campaign, a brass-knuckled brawl. And there’s no one better at a brawl than labor.” He accused Simpson of “sleazy, dirty politics,” and added, “If you were getting your butt kicked, wouldn’t you say it was meaningless, too?”
Simpson was only the second woman to run for governor in Indiana history at that point, following Democrat Virginia Dill McCarty’s unsuccessful run in 1984, losing the nomination to State Sen. Wayne Townsend, who then nominated Ann DeLaney as the first ticket female. They lost to Gov. Robert D. Orr.
I remember watching a beleaguered Simpson with her son, Jason Kinney, absorbing the punishment – from fellow Democrats, no less.
Seventeen days later Gov. Frank O’Bannon suffered a fatal stroke, setting in motion the kind of gender change in Hoosier politics that no one could have foreseen, particularly after the Simpson campaign episode.
A month later, Gov. Kernan chose former Indianapolis controller Kathy Davis as the first female lieutenant governor. Kernan said she was chosen as the most qualified person on the list “who happens to be a woman.”
A week later, Joe Andrew learned that his “running mate” – Bren Simon – had bolted and would support the now looming re-candidacy of Gov. Kernan, who himself had pulled out of the race in November 2002. O’Bannon’s death had catapulted him back into the fight.
Simpson would step aside as Kernan signaled he was in, saying, “The next time a woman wants to run for higher office, I hope the three words she hears are ‘come on in’ and not ‘you can’t win.’”
Mitch Daniels would bring State Sen. Becky Skillman to his Republican ticket in May 2004. And six months after that, the Daniels-Skillman ticket would defeat the Kernan-Davis counterpart, making Skillman the first elected LG.
After 188 years of white guys running the show, a dramatic shift took place in a little more than a year.
It took only four years for Jill Long Thompson to take it to the top rung, defeating Jim Schellinger for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by an eyelash in 2008, then diversifying her ticket by nominating State Rep. Dennie Oxley. Long Thompson had trouble consolidating the Democratic factions after a bitter primary, particularly in some labor quarters, and lost to Gov. Daniels by 18 percent. Long Thompson was unable to gain traction on the money front.
This past week, Republican gubernatorial nominee Mike Pence has brought State Rep. Sue Ellspermann to his ticket, and Democrat John Gregg tapped Simpson. So this establishes an important trend line in Indiana politics, with government following a long-standing rule in both parties that if a chair is a man, the vice chair is a woman, and vice versa.
With 51% of the population female, and with 31 of the 150 Indiana General Assembly seats occupied by women (10 in the Senate, 21 in the House), the ranks of females are increasing. They are climbing the political ladder.
There is some irony here, in that Ellpsermann was a 2009 graduate of the Lugar Series, Sen. Dick Lugar’s program to give women political tools to succeed. Daniels noted that 140 Lugar Series women served in his administration. As the mentor lost, a student is in ascent.
The long term question is at what point does a woman follow the path of McCarty, Simpson and Long Thompson, and then make a credible run for the top job all the way through a November campaign?
Neither Davis nor Skillman took that path. They didn’t have the time span that O’Bannon and Orr did, to use the Commerce post (which Skillman didn’t have) to build up years of IOUs and win.
Could Ellspermann be the woman who can bring it all together? It’s an intriguing thought, considering that many Hoosier Republicans will urge Pence toward a White House run in 2016, should he defeat Gregg and President Obama prevail over Mitt Romney.
We’ve come a long way . . . .
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @hwypol.