Brian Howey: A long, tough path for Hoosier women to make the ticket
Monday, May 21, 2012 1:19 PM
NASHVILLE, Ind. - It was, utterly, one of the most painful political episodes I have ever had to watch as a political writer.
State Sen. Vi Simpson was seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2003. A straw poll had been set up for the annual Indiana Democratic Editorial Association shindig at French Lick on Aug. 23. Simpson’s opponent, former Indiana and Democratic National Chairman Joe Andrew, fresh off naming millionaire Bren Simon as his running mate a month earlier, paid more than $50,000 to bring 1,100 United Auto Workers into the rally.
When Andrew and Simpson presented their case, she was treated with epic rudeness, despite her long record in the Senate as a faithful labor advocate. She pulled out of the straw poll, saying, “I ask for your support, not today, but in May, when it counts.”
Andrew won the straw poll, 595 to 27, and he would say, “We carried 94 percent of the vote. That’s not divisive. Fifty-fifty would have been divisive. I’ve often said this campaign is a journey, and today makes it clear that it is a journey that Bren Simon and I won’t be making alone.”
UAW Chief Terry Thurman added the coda to the ugly event: “Today we became engaged in the campaign, a brass-knuckled brawl. And there’s no one better at a brawl than labor.” He accused Simpson of “sleazy, dirty politics,” and added, “If you were getting your butt kicked, wouldn’t you say it was meaningless, too?”
Simpson was only the second woman to run for governor in Indiana history at that point, following Democrat Virginia Dill McCarty’s unsuccessful run in 1984, losing the nomination to State Sen. Wayne Townsend, who then nominated Ann DeLaney as the first ticket female. That ticket lost its challenge to Gov. Robert D. Orr.
I remember watching a beleaguered Simpson with her son, Jason Kinney, absorbing the punishment – from fellow Democrats, no less. It had been an utter roller coaster, with an appearance by Simpson ally and former U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey, bald from cancer chemo-therapy, just hours before the straw poll. Simpson hugged him with great emotion and McCloskey would soon move beyond us all. That night, Gov. Frank O’Bannon gave the dinner keynote, describing architect Harrison Albright standing atop the West Baden Hotel dome as the supports were removed. Many speculated the dome would collapse. In his last public words, O’Bannon described a Democratic party in “ascent” and closed by saying, “I feel like I’m on that dome tonight.”
Seventeen days later Gov. Frank O’Bannon suffered a fatal stroke, setting in motion the kind of gender change in Hoosier politics that no one could have foreseen, particularly after the Simpson campaign episode.
In early October 2003, Gov. Kernan chose former Indianapolis controller Kathy Davis as the first female lieutenant governor candidate. Kernan said she was chosen as the most qualified person on the list “who happens to be a woman.”
A week later, Joe Andrew learned that his “running mate” – Bren Simon – had bolted and would support the now looming re-candidacy of Gov. Kernan, who himself had pulled out of the race in November 2002. O’Bannon’s death had catapulted him back into the fight.
Simpson would step aside as Kernan signaled he was in, saying, “The next time a woman wants to run for higher office, I hope the three words she hears are ‘come on in’ and not ‘you can’t win.’”
Mitch Daniels would bring State Sen. Becky Skillman to his ticket in May 2004. “Becky Skillman is the best possible choice for the constitutional post of lieutenant governor,” Daniels said when he introduced her. “She brings experience in the General Assembly, whose cooperation we will need to effect real change. She brings a wealth of knowledge about local government and its pivotal role. She knows the small cities and towns that have been ignored by this administration, and which must no longer be forgotten but must be included fully in Indiana’s comeback.”
Six months after that, the Daniels-Skillman ticket would defeat the Kernan-Davis counterpart, making Skillman the first elected LG.
It took only four years for Jill Long Thompson to take it to the top rung, defeating Jim Schellinger for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by an eyelash in 2008, then diversifying her ticket by nominating State Rep. Dennie Oxley. Despite Barack Obama’s 50 visits to the state in which he was awarded Indiana’s 11 Electoral College votes, Long Thompson had trouble consolidating the Democratic factions after a bitter primary, particularly in some labor quarters, and lost to Gov. Daniels by 18%. Long Thompson was unable to gain traction on the money front, and was unable to sustain any sort of TV ad campaign throughout the fall of 2008.
And now, Republican gubernatorial nominee Mike Pence has brought State Rep. Sue Ellspermann to his ticket and reports are that Democratic nominee is turning to Simpson to be his running mate. So this establishes an important trend line in Indiana politics, with government following a long-standing rule in both parties that if a chair is a man, the vice chair is a woman, and vice versa.
With 51% of the population female, and with 31 of the 150 Indiana General Assembly seats occupied by women (10 in the Senate, 21 in the House, or about a fifth of the membership in each chamber), the ranks of females are increasing. They are climbing the political ladder.
Pence’s pick of Ellspermann will place some pressure on Democrat John Gregg to follow suit.
The longer term question is at what point will a woman follow the path of McCarty, Simpson and Long Thompson and make a credible run for the top job all the way through a November campaign? Neither Davis nor Skillman took that path. For Davis, the appointment to LG and subsequent loss did not give her the tools to compile the political IOU lists that previous lieutenant governors Robert Orr and Frank O’Bannon had in achieving the ultimate prize.
Skillman was placed in a box by Daniels, who did not give her the politically valuable Commerce portfolio, and while she was popular with rank and file Republicans, was considerably weaker politically than Orr or O’Bannon. She briefly entered the 2012 race, then stepped aside for the Pence juggernaut.
When we observe the fresh face, the considerable retail political skills, an impressive business resume, and her adroit involvement of explosive policy issues related to labor and abortion, Sue Ellspermann may be the individual who can bring it all together. It’s an intriguing thought, considering that many Hoosier Republicans will urge Pence toward a White House run in 2016 should President Obama defeat Mitt Romney this fall.
We’ve come a long way .…