State Sens. Joe Zakas (left) and Frank Mrvan could break the Indiana Senate tenure record in November.
State Sens. Joe Zakas (left) and Frank Mrvan could break the Indiana Senate tenure record in November.
INDIANAPOLIS – Only one state senator in Indiana’s history has been elected to serve 10 terms. Unofficially, and depending on which state government entity you believe, there may actually be two, but that’s a messy story that may soon be moot anyway, so let’s start with the straightforward data.

When Wells County Democrat Von Eichhorn retired from the Indiana Senate in 1966 after serving a then-record seven terms, a freshman legislator named Joe Harrison, R-Attica, entered the chamber. Nobody would touch Eichhorn’s record until 1994, when Harrison was elected to an eighth term, followed by a ninth term in 1998, and – by default after no one filed to run against him in either the primary or the general – a 10th, and final, term from 2002-2006. 

It wouldn’t take as long for Harrison’s sole ownership of the record to be challenged; Larry Borst, R-Greenwood, ran for his 10th term in 2004, and Bob Garton, R-Columbus, did so in 2006; both, however, would lose their primaries. No one else had the opportunity to attempt a 10th term until 2014, but that year Johnny Nugent, R-Dearborn, opted to retire after nine terms rather than run for reelection.

And here is where things get a bit messy: State Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, was also on the ballot in 2014. Officially, he won election to his ninth term that fall, but that November marked the 10th time he was sworn in to start a term. First elected in 1978, Mrvan faced a tough reelection battle after his fourth term in 1994. After the voting machines were tabulated on Election Day, his Republican challenger Sandy Dempsey had a 110-vote lead. After the absentee ballots were counted, Mrvan was ahead by 54. Dempsey asked for a recount, and the State Board of Accounts invalidated a number of absentee ballots for various reasons, putting Dempsey back ahead by nine votes. 

The State Recount Commission, which had to certify the election results, decided some of those ballots shouldn’t have been invalidated, and ultimately certified a 50-vote victory for Mrvan. So Mrvan began the session as the SD1 senator, but the issue wasn’t dead; since the Senate has the power to seat its own members, a subcommittee was assembled to review the recount. They ultimately declared that Dempsey won by only three votes, and on Jan. 19 the full Senate (by a voice vote, and with no Democrats present on the floor) unseated Mrvan and seated Dempsey. Mrvan would win the seat back in 1998 by about 500 votes (which, coincidentally, makes him the only Democrat since 1988 to win a Republican-controlled seat in the Senate), thus getting a second shot at a fifth term.

So, whether or not Mrvan won his ninth or 10th election in 2014, Harrison at least remains the only senator to serve for 40 years. But since Mrvan has filed for reelection again this year, if he were to win and finish out his 10th full term, he would edge out Harrison’s record because he served at least a few months in 1994-95.  

But, he isn’t the only one looking to break Harrison’s record: Joe Zakas, R-Granger, first elected in 1982, also filed for reelection. He is facing an intense primary challenge from Granger businesswoman Linda Rogers. Because of a quirk of the calendar, Zakas would have a few extra days of service over Harrison at the end of his potential 10th term (though if both win in 2018, Mrvan’s extra bit of service keeps him in front of Zakas). Both have primary challengers this year, but sit in safe general election districts; if either is to be denied this record, the May election is likely going to be the harder hurdle to clear.

There’s no such legacy at stake in House races this year, nor is there any Mrvan/Dempsey-level drama clouding the picture. That’s mainly because Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, is already the longest serving member of that chamber (and possibly of any elected office in Indiana), and it isn’t even close. Bauer faces no primary election challenger and sits in a safe general election district, meaning the odds are good for him to extend his record to a 25th term. Should he serve out that full term, he’d be the first legislator in either chamber to serve for 50 years, 10 years after becoming the first House member ever to serve 40 years. 

Former Rep. Chet Dobis was elected in 1970 with Bauer and also hit 40 years in 2010, but retired after 21 terms in 2012. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, and Jeff Espich, R-Unionville, who came into office just two years after Bauer and Dobis, each retired in 2012 after 20 terms. Nobody else currently has more than 18 terms in the House, though Charlie Brown, D-Gary, is retiring at the end of his current 18th term, and Sheila Klinker, D-Lafayette, is running for her 19th.

It’s not a coincidence that most of the names mentioned up to this point have served in the very recent past. While it’s easy to take for granted today, the idea of the General Assembly meeting every year is a relatively recent development. When Indiana ratified a new constitution in 1851, the legislature only met in odd-numbered years for about two months, unless there was reason for the governor to call a special session. This led many to see the job not as a two- or four-year commitment, but as a two- or four-month commitment; as such, it wasn’t uncommon for most members to only serve a term or two, and then fade from public view.

That changed in 1970, when voters approved a constitutional amendment that set up our current long-session/short-session schedule. Meeting every year, combined with the advent of Organization Day each November, summer study committees, and a rash of special sessions in the 1980’s and 1990’s (from 1987 through 1997, five of the six long sessions required special sessions to enact a budget; in 1991, it took two special sessions) led to the job of a state legislator being viewed as a constant, year-round commitment.

That change in perception ultimately led to a change in how (and how long) legislators served. Before 1970, the average length of service was just over two years (one term) in the House, and just shy of four years (one term) in the Senate (note: from 1816 to 1851, House terms were one year and Senate terms were three years, dragging down the averages). For those elected for the first time in 1970 or later, though, the average has almost tripled to nearly six years (three terms) in the House, and almost doubled to seven years (just shy of two terms) in the Senate. For those currently in office, the average jumps to over 10.5 years in the House, and just over nine years in the Senate – though it should be noted that the average dropped by almost a full year with the resignations of Luke Kenley and Brandt Hershman.

Given that the average length of service has seen such a stark increase over the past few decades, it shouldn’t be surprising to see so many recent names at the top of the tenure lists. In fact, in the House, 17 of the 21 longest serving members were elected in 1970 or later; of the four remaining, three served the bulk of their service in the post-1970 era (only Glenn Slenker never served in the modern era). In the Senate, we see similar numbers: 16 of the top 20 were elected in 1970 or later; two more were elected in 1968, and were still in their first term when the 1970 reforms came into effect; and one more served the bulk of his service post-1970. Only Eichhorn never served in the modern era. The numbers are more striking if we limit it to only the top 10; nine of 10 in the House served in the post-1970 era, and all 10 in the Senate did so.

For those of us who love seeing historical records being set, seeing both Mrvan and Zakas on the verge of overtaking Harrison’s record, or Bauer set to become the first member of the 50-Year Club, adds another layer of intrigue to an already fascinating election year. But as long as the average length of tenure continues to trend upward, expect more and more legislators to compete for their slots on the all-time lists. ϖ
 
Foughty works for Indiana University and publishes at capitolandwashington.com