Russ Stilwell: This is all about Pat Bauer
Wednesday, July 25, 2012 8:09 PM
BOONVILLE, Ind. - Nearly every political observer has reported that House Democrat Leader Pat Bauer, one of the most colorful legislators of all time, is in a brawl to retain his caucus leadership post. As a longtime Democrat legislator (1996-2010), I know all of the caucus members fairly well, including Bauer. I understand where everyone is coming from.
The upheaval in the caucus is not something new. The only thing new is the breadth and depth of the lack of confidence in their leader. Make no mistake about it. This is a serious threat to Pat Bauer. The future direction of the House caucus hangs in the balance.
As with many things concerning the Indiana General Assembly and the House Democrats in particular, this is all about Pat Bauer. When one looks at Bauer, you have to look at the whole package, the good, the bad and the ugly. If House Democrat members want change they better bring their A-game.
The pugnacious leader from South Bend has never backed away from a political street brawl and will use every trick in the book to win. If you’re looking to have an ultimate political showdown with Pat Bauer, you better bring your lunch, because it will be an all-day wrestle in the mud. And if you call a caucus, you had better make sure that all members are present and your votes counted, and then counted again.
When I was first elected to the General Assembly I found that caucus members had a myriad of opinions on the fiery Ways and Means chairman. Some marveled at how he mastered the mystery of putting together a budget that most caucus members praised, while getting the Republican Senate leadership to agree to his package. Others talked behind his back that he did not include anyone else in the caucus when making deals or putting budgets together.
This continued through that unexpected evening session in 2002 when Speaker John Gregg announced from the podium that he was not running for reelection and was retiring from legislative service. That’s when the Bauer faction and the Bauer adversaries began to align the battle lines. Many of the legislators in these factions exist today, albeit they may have changed sides.
Pat Bauer began his quest for the leadership of the Democrat caucus only moments after the Gregg announcement. One veteran lawmaker jokingly commented, when watching Bauer engage in a conversation with a member at his desk near the back of the house floor, “What’s he doing back here? He’s never been to this part of the chamber. Heck, that’s the first time he’s talked to that member in years. He must be running for Speaker already.”
That’s the same Pat Bauer that many of the caucus members loved to hate, but it’s also the Pat Bauer that most folks don’t see. He works harder, raises more money, puts in more hours, campaigns relentlessly (maybe a little recklessly at times) and does it nonstop to remain the leader of the House Democrats. But too often the good has to compete with the bad. He trusts very few people, makes decisions singlehandedly, runs the caucus his way and does not allow much of the talent within the caucus to participate.
Since the first leadership race in 2002 there have been members who wanted to take Pat out. There were members who just did not like him. There were members who thought they could do a better and smarter job. There were members who envisioned themselves just being the leader, with no thought of the work ethic and political back-scratching needed to get the job done. But in the end, there were no “wannabe” leaders who put in the hours for fundraising and campaigning to achieve their goal.
But Pat Bauer did.
And then there were members who genuinely thought Pat Bauer was just not the type of leader the caucus needed. They resented that he did not have frequent caucuses; they resented his style or lack of style of leadership; they resented not knowing what was happening or what was coming down on the floor; and they resented that Pat Bauer was the decision maker for virtually every detail in a micromanaging bully-pulpit style in both caucus elections and house policy. I know, because as the Majority Leader I had caucus member after caucus member come to me to “complain or explain” what Pat Bauer was doing and why he was doing it.
During my tenure as the Majority Leader and floor leader from 2002-2010, I had a good relationship with the Speaker. But it was a continual challenge to keep him focused, on track and include our talented caucus in decision making and power sharing.
That challenge often went unfulfilled.
Make no mistake about it. Pat Bauer is a talented and loyal partisan who will never back down from a good political fight. And he will pick one just as quickly. He has a cadre of loyal members who will always follow their leader. But he also has a declining base of support from the very caucus he created.
That’s where the problems occur. All members have the right to have their voices heard, their issues addressed and their complaints aired. It is an insider club where only the members’ voices and votes count. And if you are on the downward slide of enough votes, things are going to happen. You are going to lose or you must change. That’s the dilemma for Pat Bauer. If he does not change he most likely will not have the votes within his caucus and his leadership will pass to a new generation.
Change is difficult for anyone, let alone a person who has ruled with impunity for so long. As stated by Lesley Weidenbener of the Courier-Journal in a recent article, “House Minority Leader Pat Bauer is not facing the wrath of voters after 42 years as a representative in South Bend. He’s facing an upheaval in his caucus, one that threatens to evict him from the leadership post he’s held for a decade.”
Leader Bauer’s autocratic control over the years has exasperated so many of his caucus members that his support has most likely dwindled to the lowest level during his leadership tenure.
I was talking with one member who had the political knowhow and common sense that many in the caucus don’t have. This legislator is not out to get Pat. This legislator wants Pat to change and work with the rest of the caucus in a team-oriented approach in both elections and policy. They want him to utilize the talent in the caucus. And they want him to share information.
But they aren’t holding their breath.
They know that Pat Bauer will not change and the only way to achieve change is to change the leadership. They are saddened that Pat Bauer might go out this way, given the talent and positive leadership that he has provided in nearly a half century of service to his state, his party, his caucus and his members.
Time is running out.
The Republicans have 60 members and gerrymandered maps. Most political observers conclude that if the caucus returns 40 members it would be a banner year. Any more than that would be exceptional.
A candidate in a key house race said, ”I hope that they get their act together. I’m out here every day in 100-plus-degree temperature busting my tail going door to door. I will need the support of the entire caucus and a unified caucus to make this race work. All this infighting will make it all the more challenging.”
It’s a lot more than caucus in-fighting; it’s about change and who can deliver the most votes once the election is over. It should be about how every caucus member can do everything possible to win every competitive race and make a surprise or two for the Republicans.
It should be about helping all those candidates who are knocking on doors in 100-degree temperatures.
Stillwell is a former House Democratic majority leader and a regular HPI columnist.