Chris Sautter: Reassessing the gentleman governor
Thursday, September 12, 2013 10:47 AM
WASHINGTON – Judy O’Bannon is fond of quoting an adage of her late husband Governor Frank O’Bannon: “If you don’t care who gets the credit, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish.”
As a political apothegm, the maxim goes back to President Harry Truman, which is appropriate. Truman and Frank O’Bannon had a lot in common. Both were underrated in their time, perhaps in part because they spoke the plain language of their modest, midwestern backgrounds. Both had core values they believed in deeply. And, both succeeded polished chief executives whose popularity overshadowed their successors’ accomplishments.
When Truman left office, he was one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. His popularity only began to rise in the 1970’s after his death when historians gave him a second look. O’Bannon’s popularity never dipped significantly — certainly not anywhere near as low as Truman’s did. But his accomplishments have been obscured by the glare of the Evan Bayh and Mitch Daniels administrations. A decade after his death, Frank O’Bannon's career warrants re-examination. O’Bannon’s status in history deserves elevation.
For sure, Frank O’Bannon aspired to be governor, though he was not driven by personal ambition. He didn’t approach one office as a stepping-stone to a higher one. Nor was he tied to a political ideology. Instead, during his 18 years in the state Senate and then four as lieutenant governor, he focused on accomplishing public good through consensus building. He strongly believed in the process of democratic government.
O’Bannon spent most of his legislative career in the minority. His ability to reach agreement with the majority made him one of the most successful minority leaders ever. But his refusal to make decisions as a part of a career calculation led many to underestimate him as a gubernatorial candidate. Of course, he graciously abandoned his first campaign for governor to take the second spot to a younger inexperienced but charismatic Evan Bayh. His willingness to do so in order to avoid a divisive primary helped pave the way to 16 years of Democratic rule in a Republican state.
O’Bannon was elected governor in 1996, in part, because he was underestimated. Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who enjoyed a golden boy national reputation, started the race with a double-digit lead. Goldsmith’s over-confidence allowed O’Bannon to out-hustle him during the summer months and outmaneuver him down the stretch.
O’Bannon’s 1996 campaign ranks as one of the best in modern Indiana history (see page 11).
Overconfidence led Goldsmith to make mistakes that O’Bannon shrewdly capitalized on. O’Bannon also put together a first-rate ground game. Julia Carson, running for Congress for the first time, turned out the Democratic vote in Indianapolis resulting in O’Bannon carrying Marion County—Goldsmith’s home turf.
In the final analysis, the majority of voters found O’Bannon more trustworthy than Goldsmith. He exuded the same kind of grandfatherly image as the former Indiana Governor Otis Bowen, epitomizing “Hoosier values.”
The heart of O’Bannon’s agenda as governor revolved around community development, or what Judy O’Bannon called “communities building communities.” Frank and Judy O’Bannon became evangelists for a philosophy of economic development that flowed from the ground up rather than the top down as usually happens. The essence of their approach was to try to hand local communities real control of their future by giving them the tools to effectively compete.
O’Bannon also placed professionals experienced in local government on his staff — first as Lieutenant Governor and then as Governor. For example, South Bend Deputy Mayor Craig Hartzer became Director of Community Development in the Commerce Department and then ran several other departments when O’Bannon became governor. Betty Cockrum, who had been controller for the City of Bloomington, became controller at Commerce and later the State Budget Director in the O’Bannon administration.
A related initiative and perhaps O’Bannon most visible accomplishment was the creation of the community college system under IVY Tech that has grown exponentially. Indiana’s community colleges have expanded educational opportunities in the state and provided career paths for students who aren’t yet prepared for a four year college. It has also created a feeder system into the state’s major colleges and universities. The goal of establishing local and regional community colleges was integrally tied to the O’Bannon philosophy of empowering these communities and providing skills that would keep people from leaving their hometowns for greener pastures.
The O’Bannon administration was openly friendly to working families and laid the groundwork for progressive reforms in unemployment and workers compensation. It also pushed for enactment of the Workforce Investment Act that enabled the use of federal job training funds for dislocated and underemployed workers.
Other accomplishments included legislation that tightened the sales and advertising of tobacco products to underage children ushering in a new era of declining cigarette use in Indiana. The O’Bannon administration also played a major role in expanding Indiana’s relationship with Japan, attracting Japanese investment in the state and companies that hired Hoosier workers.
O’Bannon believed deeply in early childhood education and was the first to propose full-day kindergarten. Gov. Daniels, having signed legislation to fund full-day kindergarten in 2012, will be remembered for it. But the idea began with the O’Bannon administration. As O’Bannon used to say, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.
Frank O’Bannon was Indiana’s gentleman governor. He governed Indiana with grace and a calmness that inspired the best in public service. O’Bannon’s values reflected an honesty and decency that are particularly Midwestern and Hoosier. He governed without ego and was down-to-earth and approachable. In the current climate of intense partisanship, he probably seems like a throwback. We could certainly use a throwback like Frank O’Bannon in politics today.
Sautter is a Democratic consultant living in Washington.