By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – When Howey Politics Indiana sat down with Dr. Woody Myers mid-day Tuesday at his office in the Conrad Hotel, he was putting the finishing touches on an op-ed article reacting to two weeks of massacres across America.

“Do Something,” Myers wrote. “That was the plea Monday in Dayton. And the day before in El Paso. And before that in Gilroy, and before that in many other communities across the country. Our country is in pain. Our nation is in shock.”

The former Indiana and New York City health commissioner then talked about his Democratic gubernatorial challenge to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who dodged questions about President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric in the weeks before this spate of atrocities.

“He’s desperately trying to hold to the minority of people who think his style and approach is the right way to go,” Myers said of Trump. “It is not. What disappoints me even more than that is within the Republican Party, I know there are good people. I know they know that what President Trump is doing is wrong. I know they, in their hearts, want to speak out, but they are afraid. They are cowards. Until they get over this fear and cowardice, they are going to be extremely poor examples for the young Republicans coming up in the state today.”

In his op-ed, Myers called for a multi-government level approach. “A governor has no higher duty than to help protect the citizens of the state,” Myers said. “And that protection is required before, during and after gun violence. Stronger federal gun laws (like mandatory background checks) are important, but not the only answer. Better systems to identify and to report those at high risk for committing mass murder (like law enforcement monitoring of online threats and ‘cooling off’ periods and screening of those accused of domestic violence) before they can purchase firearms, is important, but, again, not the only answer. 

“This epidemic will require far more than thoughts and prayers,” he wrote. “What we need, more than ever, now, is the immediate and active collaboration between law enforcement and public health leaders, gun safety experts, psychologists and psychiatrists to ‘do something’ – something more – to solve the problems. We need our state legislators and our mayors and our congressional representatives to cooperate effectively and urgently to determine what new steps we take at the local, state and federal levels to make it less likely that you and I and our friends and loved ones suffer like Dayton. Like El Paso. Like Chicago. Like Noblesville West Middle School. And like Indianapolis Martindale-Brightwood, where I grew up.”

This is Myers’ second run for public office. He lost in a 7th CD caucus to replace the late U.S. Rep. Julia Carson in 2008, when he kicked off his campaign in July outside the Wishard Hospital emergency room where he once worked and taught.

Today he is running for governor in an extreme political climate. Here is our interview:

HPI: The political climate unfolding before us this past month has been unlike any I’ve seen in 40 years of reporting and 25 years publishing HPI. You might have to go back to the George Wallace campaign in 1968 to find an equivalent. We have a president who is using incendiary rhetoric that is divisive and designed to exploit urban/rural divides, racial divides. What are your thoughts of what we’ve witnessed over the past month or so? And how do you believe it will impact Indiana?

Myers: The climate is odd, the climate is problematic, the climate is different than it used to be early in my political career. When I was state health commissioner back in the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans were far more collegial with each other. We didn’t pass legislation on how kids with illness were treated in schools, who made the decisions on medical grounds or other grounds, until the Senate Health Committee led by Republican Pat Miller and the House Health Committee led by Democrat Charlie Brown got together and decided, “We have to fix this,” and put legislation together that passed both houses and was signed by Gov. Orr. That’s how we used to solve problems. We used to collaborate and figure out ways to create win-win situations. I don’t think we’re doing that anywhere near as much as we used to. Indiana has been a state where after the election, the hatchet got buried. Legislators frequently got together and had a beer or two and figured out ways to solve problems. Then you could navigate in committee hearings or on the floor. That type of full-on collaboration and cooperation needs to come back. If I can help to induce that I will absolutely take whatever time is required to do so. I want to see that return. 

HPI: We’ve seen rhetoric from President Trump like no other president. I observed this past week that I have never seen a political candidate in Indiana running for governor, Congress, the General Assembly, statewide or mayor use the kind of racially charged rhetoric as Trump has. Any observations?

Myers: President Trump is appealing to his perceived base. He’s doing so in a variety of different ways, throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it sticks. If something doesn’t work, he tries something else. He’s desperately trying to hold to the minority of people who think his style and approach is the right way to go. It is not. What disappoints me even more than that is within the Republican Party, I know there are good people. I know they know that what President Trump is doing is wrong. I know they, in their hearts, want to speak out, but they are afraid. They are cowards. Until they get over this fear and cowardice, they are going to be extremely poor examples for the young Republicans coming up in the state today. Susan Brooks, I commend for finding her courage, albeit late in her career. And now she is voting in a way her heart has told her to vote for quite some time. Better late than never. I worry that our current senators, our congressmen in the Republican Party, and Republican leaders in our state are defending a guy who they know shouldn’t be defended. And they know they are not doing our state a favor by inciting the kinds of violence that he’s inciting. There is zero, zero, zero doubt in my mind that some of the acts of violence taking place have been, in the minds of cowards that pull those triggers, inspired by the rhetoric that President Trump has offered. I decry that. It is just wrong.

HPI: We’ve now had three massacres in the past week, and some 22 this year killing at least 98 Americans. You’ve worked emergency rooms on Saturday nights. You’ve seen this type of mayhem from both a clinical/medical position but also now from a policy position. Tell me what you are seeing right now.

Myers: We are seeing something unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our history. The point of the matter is we are a country that permits weapons of mass destruction and we do not control those weapons as we should. I am very concerned that unless we collaborate at the local and federal levels in more aggressive ways, these episodes will keep happening. There is nothing at a national level to slow them down. I’m releasing the thoughts on our campaign today. In it I will say that it’s a multiple factorial problem and will require law enforcement, public health authorities, gun safety advocates, psychologists and psychiatrists and a whole group of people whose disciplines all have part of a solution to collaborate in ways they haven’t collaborated in the past. It’s going to require local, state and federal governments to figure out how to work synergistically instead of separately. Who’s going to do what at each level to get our arms around this? I think there’s a feel in Indiana that we are immune and we are not. Dayton is 40 miles from our border. Chicago is on the Indiana border and what didn’t get talked about were the 40 people who died there last weekend. 

HPI: There were so many gunshot victims that Mount Sinai Hospital had to stop taking victims.

Myers: So this epidemic is real, it’s here and there’s not one solution. The destruction that a weapon like an AK-47 can have, a weapon of war, is phenomenal. It’s not the kind of weapon that gets taken into the back yard with dad or mom to shoot at a stationary target for fun. The Dayton Police Department did its job. They were there in 30 seconds – 30 seconds! – and yet this guy was able to kill nine people (and wound at least 26). He wasn’t even an expert shot. He had a magazine with 100 rounds in it. Because of the customizations he made, he was able to get those rounds off. He killed nine people. Others are at risk. That is just unacceptable in a country as smart as ours. We have to get beyond this concern that we’re trampling on someone’s 2nd Amendment rights. We’re not. We can make sensible changes in our laws that do not take (away) rights to own firearms. We can improve laws on the privilege of owning firearms more successful and less problematic. A lot of these guys buy these guns legally. They are not buying them illegally. The size of the clip is not the only issue. Mental health of the person is not the only issue. Laws that differ from state to state are not the only issue. There are many issues that need a solution, but it’s complicated.

HPI: Give us an overview of your campaign to this point.

Myers: We’re off and running. We’re about a month in from our announcement. We’ve put together a team and know what we want to accomplish at this early stage. I’m being as receptive as possible of the invitations that come in from around the state. I’m putting my GMC Yukon in the shop Wednesday night because I think it’s gonna get a lot of miles; I don’t want to get stuck on some back freeway. Our website is up and going. We’re going to be adding policy positions to that website in the next several weeks. We are putting together fundraisers not just for Indiana, but outside the state as well. The fundraising philosophy is you tend not to do them in August, you wait until after Labor Day. After Labor Day and before Thanksgiving is the sweet spot and we’re trying to take advantage of that. I want to be careful of the mayors races that are dominating this cycle. You don’t want to get too far out in front of our mayoral colleagues. Those are dances we’re doing every day.

HPI: My analysis this year has been that Gov. Holcomb enters this sequence in as strong a position as any incumbent in the two-term era. He’s had the super majorities. He’s sitting on $7 million and his approval in the 50-60th percentiles in recent polls. 

Myers: But he’s having all the problems with education in the state, with 93% of kids in public education and this increase in funds not getting to that 93%. Teacher pay is not going up anywhere near what it should be. We still have teachers in the state starting in the low $30,000s, teachers with master’s degrees starting off at the same level as those with bachelor’s degrees. There are all sorts of mismatches. A lot of that is because of our complicated and antiquated funding formula. Decisions are made at the superintendent level as opposed to giving attention to what the teachers need to be successful. The Red in Ed proposal you’re seeing in other states like Arizona has had its moment here in Indiana, but we are at risk of teachers having to spend their free time doing that again. The funds required to put our state where it needs to be are not there. In spite of all the things you say about the state and my opponent is pointing out, we have real problems that are not being addressed.

HPI: When I talk about the governor starting out from a historic strength, I am talking about his political standing, sitting on $7 million. I go through 30 or 40 websites a day and I see the policy challenges facing the state. The Terre Haute Tribune-Star this past week was writing about how Vigo County is the epicenter of child abuse and CHINs, and the state ranks high in that regard. There are some social metrics that are askew, so don’t take my political analysis as being indicative that there isn’t a disconnect when it comes to Hoosiers who are struggling.

Myers: You’re right. If I didn’t think there were issues to point out to Hoosiers, then I wouldn’t be in this race. DCS is one of those issues; how we treat the children of our state is a test of society. We’re just not doing anywhere close to what we need to do to let our children emerge from the tough circumstances a large percentage of them find themselves in, the disintegrating family situations, the substance abuse issues and mental health issues. DCS is clearly by any measures not doing what we need it to do. There has been a turnover of leadership that is worrisome.

HPI: You are referring to DCS Associate Director Todd Meyer, who resigned abruptly in July with no stated reason. (HPI contacted Gov. Holcomb’s office about the resignation and was referred to the Department of Personnel, which ignored an explanation for the resignation.)

Myers: The deputy brought in, Todd Meyer, was brought in to clean up the legal components of DCS, to hire lawyers, to use his prosecutorial background to fix those entities, to fix the component of what wasn’t working. He seems to have been asked to leave suddenly with no explanation from the state as to what that was all about. The position was created for him to do that job, so we know there was something going on, and we have an obligation to find out. I’m afraid we may be sitting on an abscess, on a set of problems on the surface that go far deeper. I worry those problems are affecting our children in Vigo and other counties. Certainly that will be one of the areas we’ll be talking about over the next 450 days as this campaign evolves.

HPI: When I interviewed Gov. Holcomb in July, I asked him if he was satisfied with the progress made at DCS as well as on the five-year marker to get a handle on the opioid crisis. He responded that he was, though he said there is still a lot of work to do. Do you take issue with those assessments?

Myers: Oh yeah. We’ve bought plenty of Band-aids. We’re putting them on a lot of the problems of the state. We need to look deeper into why some of these problems exist and figuring out the root causes; working with colleagues and experts on those problems is a much better way to go. With respect to the opioids, first of all, you’ve got to remember there are different kinds of drugs being abused. Opioids are one class of drugs. They are special because they are available legally with a valid prescription. The whole process of how they are managed by the state and the feds is one set of challenges and opportunities. As the screws tighten, so to speak, and the number of prescriptions, the distribution pathways, the pharmacies the pharmaceutical manufacturing companies can take advantage, all of those things are being adjusted, probably in a good way, but what that has done is press the bubble toward the non-legal prescriptions that produce euphoria, such as the fentanyl epidemic we see that is replacing opioids. Fentanyl is produced primarily in China, it’s imported in the United States. We’re doing an inadequate job at the border. We seem to be able to stop children very easily at the border and I would hope we would put the same energy into stopping fentanyl, which is killing children. Watching what is happening with that drug and others that are being abused and sitting by with a less than aggressive action plan is a mistake. What’s needed is a full-on collaboration between state, federal governments and all the interdiction agencies. Indiana is the crossroads of America, crossroads for good things and bad, in this case for a lot of bad things that come through our state to get to somewhere else. We could play a very special role if we had to right tools to stop much more of this poison, both legal and illegal, from getting into our state. There are a lot of levers a governor can pull to get his or her arms around this. We are challenged today, not having pulled them hard enough, far enough, long enough, and that’s what I want to get in there and do.

HPI: There were reports that opioid scripts have fallen 35%. Is that an indicator to you that the strategies are working to some degree?

Myers: Opioid scripts are down, both appropriately and inappropriately. The side effects of the reduction of prescriptions are that the No. 1 complaint phoned into the insurance companies today is that people legitimately on opioids for real conditions for which they have chronic pain and opioids are the best prescription, are finding prescribers frightened by the new regulations. They don’t understand them and they are worried that the number of outlets to get their prescriptions filled are going to be reduced and the paperwork one has to go through to get it done is going to be a problem. I think there was good intent on the part of our legislature and others to reduce the volume of drugs, to reduce the levels. The intent was good but you can’t apply, medically, a blanket approach. There need to be ways for physicians and pharmacists to recognize when an exception is appropriate and should be easily done. The more electronic we make this system, the more we are able to let the pharmacies know that Dr. Smith is an expert in this arena and knows his patients extremely well and doesn’t need to be put through the same hoops that Dr. Jones, who is new to the state and has not prescribed these drugs safely for a longer period of time. We have to use those types of discretionary options into how we manage this crisis with regard to the legal substances. As far as the illegal substances, we have to double down on interdiction at the borders or however the state police and the drug enforcement agencies believe they need to do that. They have great algorithms these days where they can look at a vehicle, at the license plate, the size of the vehicle, and determine the likelihood that the vehicle is a problem, and make a decision based upon those factors whether or not an inspection is warranted. We need to make sure our state police are as well-funded as they need to be to do that. 

But let me not stop there. The issue surrounding treatment: We want to make sure our kids have access to treatment that will predict and prevent them from taking these bad substances and after they start, to get them off as quickly as possible using modern methods. With respect to opioids, we are very fortunate today to have a therapy approach on MAT, Medically Assisted Therapy. It is successful in getting a high percentage of opioid abusers off their opiates and making sure they get back to work and school. We’ve got to make sure that those who need that treatment get it. It’s really tough to put all those resources in place.

HPI: How do you pay for it?

Myers: Well, that’s why we have a surplus. Isn’t that why, Brian, we have it, for emergencies? I would much rather see the multiple millions of dollars going to be invested in a (state fair) swine barn used to improve treatment access slots and for things that are truly a crisis in our state. I don’t like the fact that we lean as heavily as we do on needle exchange. The data on needle exchange is not as positive as you’d like it to be in terms of keeping people away from opioids. It’s a Band-aid approach that in effect allows you to address a problem without solving the underlying problem that syringe exchange addresses in the transmission of dangerous viruses like hepatitis C and HIV. We don’t want them to spread. From that perspective, it has promise but what you really want is for the individual not to inject the drugs in the first place, and the effort ought to be made to have slots available for treatment so that the state does not have to use the resources to facilitate what is still a crime. It puts the state and local police in a difficult spot. I understand the public health advocates; I have had this debate with them over the years, that it’s better to do something rather than nothing. It’s better to do something that promises to decrease the spread of the viruses that create additional huge problems, but it is much better, too, if it came with treatment options that successfully reduce the need for that person to inject in the first place.

HPI: How are you going to approach the marijuana legalization in surrounding states? When I asked the governor about that, he said he would like Indiana and Purdue to study the medical applications. He doesn’t believe the standards from state to state are in place and uniform. He isn’t interested in decriminalization. Where do you stand?

Myers: He’s wrong on two fronts. One, the research increasingly shows that under the right circumstances, medicinal marijuana used for appropriate patients, with appropriate settings and appropriate monitoring can be an effective treatment. There is zero doubt that patients are getting benefits from THC. But there are few good systems in place that get it to the right patient at the right time for positive effects. For other patients it can induce a psychotic state that is very difficult to treat. The situation with THC today in states like Colorado where legalization took place years ago, is that the pediatricians are very worried that with the edibles looking like gummy bears or candies, the kids will find them. A parent on THC who is hiding these edibles is obviously impaired and the kids find them and end up in the emergency room with some very dangerous levels. The problems associated with them need to be thought through. The state does need to explore legalization for medical purposes and decriminalization, making it far less an onerous crime than it is today. Now, full stop, recreational marijuana, anybody uses as much as they want at any time, I don’t think so. I think we are dealing in a very different era than that of inexpensive pot that the kids got in college back in the ‘70s, primarily from backyards or Mexico. The THC concentrations were low. You’re dealing with high grade, genetically modified THC strong products that are very different than the ones my generation was exposed to 20 or 30 years ago. That makes it a far more dangerous product. I just do not want Indiana’s 16-year-olds exposed. “Well, we’ll make the law for 18 or 21.” Well everyone knows there are very few 16-year-olds who if they really want a beer, can’t get one. Why do we think it’s going to be any different with legalized marijuana? I worry a lot about legalization for recreational purposes. I don’t think there has been anywhere near enough research to understand the long-term effects. But I do think we’re ready to cross the threshold with medicinal.

HPI: When I asked the governor about decriminalization, he kept going back to the need for more research and the impacts on families. Yet the original decisions back in the 1930s that scheduled marijuana with heroin and morphine were not made with appropriate medical research. Mayor LaGuardia pretty much debunked the original scheduling decisions. 

Myers: I agree. It’s a win-win. When people break the law, people need to pay a price. But should the price be so onerous for the sale of X-amount of marijuana as for a lethal dose of heroin? Marijuana does not have the toxic overlay as many drugs sold. In many ways, marijuana has a much more beneficial health profile for some patients than do some of the other drugs. I do think there is room for change to the criminal justice system approach as to who are selling and consuming marijuana. Coupled with medical marijuana legislation, I would be comfortable modifying both sets of those statutes, but I am not of the belief to go on to full-on legalization.

HPI: On teacher pay, the governor has laid out a multi-budget session strategy. What’s your take on that?

Myers: If you ask the teachers who are making $30,000 a year if they’ve seen a significant bump in their paycheck, they’ll all say no. We’re spending way too much of our energy on the 7% who are not in traditional public schools as opposed to the 93%  who are. Our formula on how we fund school districts is antiquated, overly complicated and needs to be overhauled. One of the goals of such an overhaul is to make it far easier for any increase from the state budget to get directly to the teachers, who are the highest component of expenditures to begin with. I believe we have to take this on as a bipartisan effort. There is no one solution I have seen that the Republicans or my colleagues in the Democratic Party have to go. It’s going to require collaboration. Indiana has so many nuances. We have to put incentives to get school districts to collaborate on a whole variety of things such as bus routes to save money. A lot of different things can be done to reduce the expenditures that are not directed at teacher pay. Increasing teacher pay should be our No. 1 priority in education.

HPI: The governor said he freed up $150 million to pay off liabilities for local school districts, yet when we were in Clark County the teachers were saying they weren’t seeing any increases.

Myers: That’s why the whole funding formula needs to be overhauled, so when the legislature finds the ways to increase the budgets, those increases go to the teachers. It’s that simple. It should be that simple.