Russ Stilwell: John Gregg, Renaissance Man
Tuesday, November 01, 2011 6:12 AM
By RUSS STILWELL
BOONVILLE - John Gregg just might be the personification of what a broad & diverse segment of Hoosiers see in themselves. Family first; funny and smart; humble but yet ambitious and a consensus builder while sticking to a core set of principles founded in working class values.
The ideal of the Renaissance Man originated in Italy. It is based on the belief that a man’s capacity for personal development is without limits; competence in a broad range of abilities and areas of knowledge should be every man’s goal and is within everyman’s grasp.
John Gregg could be characterized as a Hoosier whose expertise and knowledge spans a significant number of subject areas and with a quick wit too. He just might be the Hoosier version of Renaissance Man. He just “gets it” so much better than any other political face in our state. He is smart (three university degrees plus a law degree), funny and passionate about everyday Hoosiers. While others talk about family values, John Gregg practices them.
If you underestimate him he will prevail every time.
When John Gregg was Speaker of the House during the 2007/08 sessions, I was a freshman legislator. We had a 50-50 divided house. However, Democrats were the “majority” party due to a “quirk” in the law inserted the year before by then majority Republicans. In the event of a tie in the Indiana House, the winner of the gubernatorial race would decide the majority. They just knew that their candidate would win. He didn’t, Frank O’Bannon did and John Gregg was the Speaker of the House.
John’s leadership during his tenure as Speaker from 1997-2002 could be characterized as some of the best times in our state. We passed balanced budgets; we had budget surpluses; we brought our state into the 20th century with much needed worker benefit reforms and stretched that 50-50 majority to a solid 53-47 bloc.
During his tenure Speaker Gregg could sometimes get the minority party spittin’ mad. Just like a Sunday morning preacher, Speaker Gregg would explode and pound the podium and chastise the opposition party when their antics needed addressed. And then when the R’s were just about to explode and walk, Gregg would crack one of his famous one-line jokes and have the entire Assembly in stitches. His humor and quick wit saved many a day for the session.
During the final days of my freshman year I did the unthinkable. I informed Speaker Gregg and then Ways and Means Chairman Patrick Bauer that I was not going to vote for the budget. Eleven were prepared to join me. Trust me when I say these two leaders were not pleased.
What was the issue? Indiana lagged at the absolute bottom of the pile for all 50 states in Unemployment Insurance and Workers Compensation for our workers. Until that was addressed, the budget vote was at a standstill.
For three straight days, Gregg, Bauer, myself and a couple of prominent labor folks huddled to try to get some sort of solution before the session ended. On the last night an elaborate procedural process was cleverly implemented. It was Sine Die and late in the evening. The only items before the session ended was the Conseco Stadium funding formula (this had broad support) and another similar funding mechanism for Indianapolis, both of which had strong republican support. Before these bills were handed down for the final vote, Speaker Gregg used the procedural process to introduce the workers unemployment and compensation bills. The House R’s were infuriated and immediately walked off the floor, never to return.
As an elated Gregg took his then considerable frame and smacked the walls in jubilation, he echoed those sweet words that he had finally punched the Republican’s button just like Speaker Phillips had done. And for a cause that helped Hoosiers throughout our state.
What about those bills? Governor O’Bannon called us into Special Session with all three bills (including the labor provisions) combined in one bill. It would be an up or down vote taking the good medicine with the bad medicine, depending on your point of view. The bill passed with broad bipartisan votes (remember, we only had 50 votes) and shortly after, Frank O’Bannon’s poll numbers soared to well over 60%. Speaker Gregg had earned respect and admiration from his caucus and his adversaries as well in getting the job done.
When John Gregg saw a complicated issue or problem, he was not shy about calling in others to help find a solution. This was a leadership style that shaped his speakership and led to some of the most dominant years for his party during his tenure as speaker.
When Gregg was speaker, there was a daily session in the speaker’s office from a broad cross-section of our caucus that reviewed every bill, every amendment and every possible scenario before session started. His leadership style was inclusion, listening to others. But make no mistake about it; at the end of the session, he was the decision maker. But he made those decisions with open input from a broad cross-section of our caucus.
If someone thinks they are going to outwit, outdebate or upstage John Gregg, they had better bring a sack lunch to the event, for it would be an all-day affair. Gregg is deeply religious, but doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. John is sometimes brilliant in his uncanny ability to remember names and quote the scriptures when making an impromptu speech or remarks.
When one takes in the entire persona of Speaker John Gregg, you have just what Hoosier voters are looking for. He is a straight-talkin’, bible quotin’, tell-it-like-it-is Southern Indiana Democrat who is pro-gun and right to life. Unlike many in the other party, he does not wear his social positions on his sleeve or post them on his forehead. He talks about jobs and the economy and how we can move our state forward. John Gregg talks about opportunity and inclusion.
While the opposition for the gubernatorial race often wears their values on their sleeves, John Gregg, the Southern Indiana Hoosier Renaissance man, keeps his values where voters want him to – in his heart!.
Stilwell is a former Democrat House majority leader.