Russ Stilwell: Observations of a master politician
Thursday, June 02, 2011 8:55 AM
BOONVILLE - My observations and opinions about Mitch Daniels during his tenure as the Governor of the State of Indiana range from outrage to admiration. As a partisan Democrat who was the House Majority Leader during four of his first six years in office and as a labor-oriented public official I have observed a master politician at work.
One of the first chance encounters I had with Mitch Daniels was a couple days after he was sworn into office in 2005. We had never actually met. We had never crisscrossed the same circles and we certainly never lived in the same neighborhood. But that morning when I was walking up the steps to the capital and the governor was a few steps behind me, I said, “Good morning Governor.” To my shock he said, “Good morning Russ. How’s things in Southern Indiana.”
Right then and there, I knew that Governor Mitch had done his homework and that it included infinitesimal details about his political opposition and most likely as whole lot more. Mitch knew his opposition and his potential allies even though their paths had not crossed. He was ready.
As a self-anointed political junkie, I appreciate good political instincts and well-run campaigns. Daniels, when campaigning for governor in 2004 ran one of the best campaigns ever devised in the Hoosier state. From the good “Aw shucks” southern drawl when he was in the deep south of our state to the scholarly policy initiatives he advocated across the 92 Indiana counties, Daniels took politics to a level never mastered in the state. And he did this (and again in his 2008 reelection campaign) without smearing his opponents with slick, controversial and nasty negative campaign commercials. Daniels took campaigning to a whole different level.
My favorite (and there were a lot of favorites) commercial was when Daniels comes on air and says, “Any garden that is 16 years old needs a little weeding from time to time.” It was the ultimate dig for taking a shot at 16 years of Democrat control in the governor’s office. And Mitch was great at this brand of messaging.
The RV? Who would have thought it was the engine that could. And the overnights? Staying with supporters and others in their homes in every nook and cranny in our diverse state gave him a perspective of what real Hoosiers were thinking. And he put those perspectives to good use.
A couple years ago Gov. Daniels was scheduled for a Chamber of Commerce breakfast address in my hometown of Boonville, a 7,000-something community with far more Democrats than Republicans. We chatted a minute or two at the chow line and he asked me about my yard and if my mowing it twice a week was keeping me busy. What? How could he know something as arcane as that!
Actually, he had spent the night with a longtime friend of a staffer of his that he did not know (so, that’s how they do it?). Just so happened that my neighbors were the parents of the friend and when Daniels asked if they knew Russ Stilwell, they released the mowing routine. It’s always the little things that a politician remembers and relays later that makes a lasting impression. And I bet Gov. Mitch had done these uncountable times as he traveled the state.
Daniels for president? Actually, I am very pleased that he decided to not get in the race. My reasons are pure and they are politically motivated. I like and support President Obama and his position on the ballot in 2012 would not help our Hoosier democrat candidates! He would have been a force to be contended with at the national scene and would have provided the Republican party with a smart (actually very smart) candidate who know s the issues and understands the electorate and has an uncanny ability to take complicated problems and have the electorate understand and then support his position. He did this time and again in the Hoosier state and would have assuredly done this with a myriad of far more complicated subjects at the national level.
Even though I firmly believe that Daniels is a superb politician who can outline an aggressive agenda and even get it passed I also believe the “national press corp truth squad” would get the gov in a jam from time to time. Remember the line, “We created two jobs for every job lost.” And how about all the little things he didn’t include when taking credit for the fiscal health of the state finances?
It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day he sold his message, had substantial voter approval and moved the state in the direction he wanted. I just happened to disagree in the direction.
Clearly, Mitch Daniels could be a bit feisty from time-to-time. He called then-House Speaker Pat Bauer a “car bomber” and chastised others with clear and direct assaults. That’s OK, I guess. After all politics is still a rough and tumble sport in the Hoosier state and one has to occasionally engage, lest they get run over.
Shortly after the 2010 elections when the Republicans had overwhelmed the Democrats, not only in Indiana but throughout the nation, I received a call from a key staff person in the Daniels administration. Now what in the hell were they calling for? After all, I had just been defeated in my marginal Democrat district (after 14 years) by a most worthy opponent who was the beneficiary of lots of campaign bucks from the governor’s Aiming Higher PAC.
Gov. Daniels was scheduled to be the speaker for an announcement of a major coal gasification plant breakthrough that would bring a $2.5 billion investment to our state and create thousands of jobs for several years building the facility. Clearly, one of the few issues that me and the Daniel’s administration agreed on and worked on in a collaborative manner was this issue. I authored three bills in three successive legislative sessions to make this plant an option. Gov. Daniels used the power of his office and political capital to make the gasification plant a reality.
So why did his office call? The senior staff person said that Gov. Daniels wanted to personally invite me to the announcement and that I was the only person that the governor had so instructed to be invited. And true to form, I was the only elected official (make that former elected official) official that Daniels singled out for helping to make this plant a realty. Later his staff told me that he knew how much work I put into this controversial plant and wanted in let everyone know. Sure not the Mitch I knew in our legislative battles. But, I’m sure it’s the Mitch that most Hoosiers came to appreciate.
We will never know if one day Mitch Daniels one day would have been a statistical footnote of a wannabe Republican presidential contender, a Republican nominee or even president. We will never know if an honest and frank discussion about our national debt and entitlement programs between two intellectually superior candidates would have made a difference and changed direction of our nation.
But what we do know, and what I believe, is that President Obama should breathe a sigh of relief that Mitch Daniels doesn’t have him in his political sights. Even a partisan democrat can appreciate good politics (now, I didn’t say policy) and Mitch Daniels’ application of politics is as good as it gets.
Stilwell is a former Indiana House Democratic majority leader.