Jack Colwell: Zoeller questions direction of the GOP
Thursday, December 22, 2016 10:00 AM
SOUTH BEND - When Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller described himself as “a former Republican” in an interview with Brian Howey in Howey Politics Indiana, it was surprising, in a way, but not really startling for an attorney general who often put aside politics for silly little things like the law and the Constitution.
It wasn’t something you would expect to hear from a long-time Hoosier Republican who served in the White House as assistant to Vice President Dan Quayle, who was twice elected attorney general on the Republican ticket and who ran last spring for a Republican nomination for Congress.
“Those who know me understood,” Zoeller said during a stop in South Bend as he winds down his final weeks in office. He also knows that some younger Republicans entering politics in the no-compromise, hate-the-opposition era probably can’t understand.
“I didn’t say I’m going to the other party,” Zoeller said.
Nor is he renouncing his long-standing belief in limited federal government, free trade for the betterment of the economy and a positive role for America in global affairs.
“That was the Republican Party I signed on for,” Zoeller said.
“Now, I’m not sure where the party is going,” he said, noting proposals of Donald Trump that would mean stronger central government, abandonment of Republican principles of free trade and a “head in the sand” response to many global concerns.
While Zoeller said he could not “head down that track,” he expressed hope that Vice President-elect Mike Pence will have influence to get the party back on track, “more like the Republican Party I grew up with.”
He said that party had leaders with limited government principles who also wanted to get things done, not just engage in partisan warfare and stalemate.
Zoeller recalled how Quayle, as a conservative Republican senator from Indiana, worked with Ted Kennedy, a liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts, to bring battling labor, business and administration sides together in a compromise jobs training bill in 1982. It passed 95-0 in the Senate. Imagine that. Unanimous agreement on a major compromise.
He cited former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton and former Republican Sen. Dick Lugar as public servants, not just politicians, who went to Washington from Indiana to do things for the nation.
When Lugar lost in the 2012 Republican primary, Zoeller said, “maybe that was the first clue that I didn’t belong anymore.”
But Zoeller declined “sure bet” renomination for attorney general and run instead this spring for the Republican nomination for Congress in the 9th District. Many party leaders urged him to do so as they sought a replacement for Todd Young, who was leaving the House for his successful bid for the Senate. After all, they told Zoeller, he was the only potential candidate with high name recognition in the district and he had a sterling reputation as attorney general and Washington experience with Quayle as senator and vice president.
He ran a TV spot showing bridges in a call for bridging differences and reaching out to find solutions. Well, he knows now, “That was not going to play with the Trump crowd.”
Zoeller lost in the Republican primary to someone who just appeared in the district from Tennessee, a wealthy businessman named Trey Hollingsworth. He had no governmental credentials and dodged the news media but used millions of his own money and help from a super PAC for a TV blitz.
Zoeller jokes that the massive TV attack claiming he voted for amnesty _ which he didn’t _ was on so much that he started thinking maybe he did.
Would he run again for elective office? “No.”
What about being a Republican again? What he had said was: “Quite frankly, I tell people I’m a former Republican because I’m not quite sure what the party stands for.”
If the party came back to those principles Zoeller “signed on for,” you can bet that he would sign on again.
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.