Russ Stilwell: She's smart, motivated, ambitious
Wednesday, May 23, 2012 5:41 AM
BOONVILLE - Of all the Republican possibilities in our clearly Republican leaning state I was mildly surprised that Congressman Mike Pence chose Sue Ellspermann, the freshman legislator from Ferdinand to be his running mate. It’s not that she is not a bright, hard-working issue-driven ambitious officeholder – she is – but because I’m not sure what she brings to the ticket.
Upon learning of the announcement, I called a long time political operative who knows Ellspermann fairly well. His comments were succinct: “It really speaks to the character of Pence that he would consider someone who is a complete novice and has zero qualifications for the job. Does anyone in the state of Indiana think that she is prepared to be governor of our state?”
Has there ever been a freshman legislator on the gubernatorial ballot in the Hoosier state?
I know Sue Ellspermann well enough to know that you should not ever underestimate her and her ambitions. She defeated me in my SW Indiana legislative seat fair and square in the 2010 elections. And she did so without the standard negative campaign mode of operation that most challengers rely on to win. Actually, we both signed a “no negative campaign pledge” and to the best of my knowledge we both held true to our pledge.
But make no mistake about it, the race for governor and lieutenant governor is not just another interesting legislative contest. The gloves will come off and the race for ideological purity will begin.
When folks ask me about Ellspermann, I often use different adjectives to describe her. Words like hard working, motivated, smart, ambitious and good on her feet. She can speak and work a room standing up, sitting down, using a podium, sitting in a chair or just walking through the audience.
When campaigning for the 2010 primary (more about that later), Ellspermann actually knocked on my front door looking for votes. My wife was cordial but said “no thanks” when offered her campaign flyer. My point is that she and her campaign team ran a most efficient campaign that had scores of volunteers and motivated supporters. When my latest poll in early October 2010 showed that I had a 66% job approval rating and a 66% positive name recognition (with low negatives) I almost quit reading the poll since these kind of numbers normally mean reelection. But after continuing reading, the numbers reflected a different scenario.
Voters were prepared to “not vote for Russ Stilwell.” And they did. She won by 800 some votes out of 20,000 plus votes cast. My message to those who say Ellspermann is not ready for the job: Do not underestimate Sue Ellspermann when it comes to a mammoth political challenge. She’s focused, motivated, self-confident and more.
But there are and will be challenges for the Pence campaign with Ellspermann on the ticket. The first thing that comes to mind is how voters (Tea Party voters?) will react when they realize that she voted in the Democrat Primary Election in 2008. One can only assume that she voted for Obama or Hillary. That would give even main street Republicans pause, let alone the Tea Party types who seem to dominate the Republican party. Her Republican ideological purity might be questioned.
Other challenges that the Ellspermann nod will bring is the absolute disgust that organized labor has for her outspoken views on right-to-work. Now I’m not suggesting that these voters were going to vote for Pence, but many of these union members believe Sue Ellspermann is the right-to-work lightning rod. They follow her with protests at many of her campaign and other public appearances. This is a blip that a campaign does not want to have.
Ellspermann does bring ideological purity and single-messaging that would be consistent with Pence. She is an attractive female candidate who never sees a challenge she doesn’t think she can overcome with her educational pedigree. She balances the gender portion of the ticket and is an ideological twin of Pence when it come to supporting business interests and unwavering disapproval of anyone who believes in a balanced view of women’s reproductive health issues.
I would suggest that Ellspermann’s geographical location does not bring very much to the political table except for her home county. Like most state legislators, her name ID is mostly not well known and most folks will not know much about her. That is a dilemma. The Pence campaign can identify her and introduce her as a leading economic development proponent who brings experience and gender balance or the Gregg campaign can introduce her as an inexperienced freshman legislator that brings more of the same from a clearly right of center ideological campaign team.
At the end of the day it will be Hoosier voters who will make the choice. And like most every gubernatorial campaign in modern history, the LG candidate is mostly along for the ride. The first test of any pick for LG is that they do no harm. Ellspermann passes this first test, provided she is forgiven for wandering into the Democrat primary election booth in 2008 to support Obama or Clinton.
Time will tell if she passes the others that will surely come as the campaign grinds it way to November.
The gubernatorial race has always been between the candidates running for governor, not the LG candidate. The Ellspermann pick for Republican LG in 2012 will not change this time-honored fact.
A freshman legislator from a southern Indiana rural community will not advance the Pence campaign nor will it hinder the campaign. It will only add gender balance with a candidate who is smart, motivated and ambitious.
Stilwell is the former Indiana House Democratic majority leader. He is a regular HPI columnist.