Gov. Holcomb talks issues and his administration on Dec. 14 in his Statehouse office. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
Gov. Holcomb talks issues and his administration on Dec. 14 in his Statehouse office. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb loves his job, even a day after a school shooting in Richmond left a student dead, even after a year of watching his state grapple with the opioid crisis.

He calls being governor “the most fulfilling job I have ever had” and used Taylor University’s “Silent Night”  basketball game earlier this month as a case in point. “You don’t have to wait until March to experience basketball madness,” Holcomb began. “When you go 10 points in silence in a basketball game, it’s completely silent, 1,800 people, standing room only, silent until the tenth point is scored, and then the fans erupt, storm the court ... they’re all dressed up in costumes. It is crazy. And then at the end of the game, they all sing every verse of ‘Silent Night.’ It is goosebumps crazy.”

A governor needs a night like that when the day job can mean consoling and encouraging a middle-aged female heroin addict, or praising a school teacher for disrupting a school shooter, or consoling the mother of a student who committed suicide after tipping off the school. 

Holcomb ends his second year in office with his approval rating in the Ball State University Hoosier Poll at 52%, with just 13% disapproving. He will welcome back General Assembly Republican super-majorities in January after spending part of the fall stumping for the ticket. And seasoned legislative leaders like David Long, Luke Kenley and Brandt Hershman are giving way to a new generation of leaders, presumably giving the governor greater clout.

Holcomb spent Dec. 14 conducting year-end media interviews, and this one for HPI took place mid-afternoon, with First Dog Henry making an entrance. Last week HPI  exclusively reported that Eric Holcomb for Indiana had posted $3.6 million while Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch has $750,000. He said the two will likely run again in 2020 after he makes a final decision following the 2019 session. There is no obvious Democrat challenger on the horizon, when in past cycles at this juncture one would see conspicuous characters building campaigns and raising money.

So, it would appear to be a foregone conclusion, though one media competitor reported a "rumor" last week that Holcomb is being considered for an ambassadorship to Italy. Press Secretary Rachel Hoffmeyer told HPI, “Don’t know where that rumor came from.” HPI  pressed: “Not under consideration? Governor will fill out his term? Just making sure.” Hoffmeyer responded: “You are correct. That is not accurate info.”

The governor faces a tough legislative session even with the super-majorities. He ordered reports on the Department of Child Services, another on school safety, and is preparing to dedicate an additional $300 million to protect Hoosier kids. That could keep him from prioritizing more funds for teacher salaries.

A week earlier, he and ISTA President Theresa Meredith presented a united front as he unveiled his agenda at Trader’s Point Creamery. Meredith didn’t appear to be on the same page the following Monday, with reports she was getting pushback from her members. “Many teachers have gone as many as 10 years without a meaningful pay increase, all while facing increased insurance costs, paying for their own classroom supplies and taking on second and third jobs just to make ends meet,” Meredith said. “A walkout, a day of action in their home communities, any number of things could happen. If that’s what our members decide to do, then we will have to work within that.”

Holcomb will also implement 18 school safety recommendations, will push for hate crime legislation with an “active voice,” and can further extend his power by pushing up the appointed school superintendent post in 2020, as opposed to 2024. This will allow him to choose his own superintendent, a dream of many past governors, some of whom had to work with an official from the other party.

Holcomb governs in a decisive manner. He shocked some of his supporters by unveiling a toll road increase for truckers last summer that was prepared under the radar. Some legislators are pushing back on that type of authority.

But Holcomb finds himself in about as strong a position as any governor can be. His mentor, Mitch Daniels, found the final two years of his first term and first two years of his second with a Democratic House led by B. Patrick Bauer. Holcomb finds his party firmly in control with Speaker Brian Bosma and President Pro Tem Rod Bray in place, along with an emerging fiscal team of Sens. Ryan Mishler, Travis Holdman, and Reps. Todd Huston and Holli Sullivan shaping the upcoming biennial budget.

Holcomb calls them all “friends” and seems confident he will steer events in the coming year to his advantage.

Here is our HPI Interview with Gov. Holcomb:

HPI: Are you enjoying being governor?

Holcomb: Yes. It wears well. It’s the most fulfilling job I have ever had. I’ve enjoyed in life everything I’ve done to date. But the scale of good in which you can help affect in other people’s lives when you have a good team, and we do, or if you have the right head and heart – there’s no close second. I served in the Navy and I used to say all the time that was my favorite time in life. I had some pretty good duty, too. That was another experience where you felt like you were part of a greater cause. This, with multiple agencies of incredible leaders, who could be going on and doing other things in life, but they are fired up and revving the charge daily and they are feeding off it.

HPI: We seem to be seeing some stability in the administration. I’m not hearing about many departures. Do you expect most of the crew to stay on?

Holcomb: I hope so, but I also realize – and I’m one of two kinds of leaders, there are some against people leaving and there are some that are prepared for it and want to help others in development. I love the leadership we have in place. I’m in constant communication with all of them. Those lines aren’t just open, they are busy. But I get that if someone is called to a higher purpose or the grind is just too much, these are 24/7 jobs. You don’t wake up and say, “Today’s going to be an easy day.” Ever. But that is the type of people we’ve attracted from across the spectrum of all agencies. And, by the way, I don’t stress this enough, if you come to one of our ugly Christmas sweater receptions, we have a little fun along the way.

HPI: I’ve noticed.

Holcomb: We all have a sense of humor. You need it in this job. You get to see the dark side of life, too.

HPI: We saw that yesterday in Richmond with the school shooting there. I fear there are others coming. Two issues, the school safety thing and the report where you will be instituting those 18 recommendations, and then the opioid crisis. When you have a day like yesterday, what goes through your mind and what should you be communicating to Hoosiers who want to send their kids to school and believe they will come home that night? Even though the active protocols have been in place and followed, we are damn lucky ...

Holcomb: You took the words right out of my mouth. It is days like yesterday, and/or days learning about what Tia Coleman is going through, or days like learning that a school bus waiting to pick up children on their way to school and don’t come home… these are tragedies on a scale I have a hard time comprehending. Or someone who fails in their attempt to beat the battle of addiction. So for as many good times as we have, or as many records we break, there are constant reminders the world offers a different side of life, too. Yesterday we saw a young man struggling with demons – we’ll know more later – erupt on school grounds. So the one thing that we’re reminded, and I see these reports up close in Indiana and I see the reports nationally almost on a daily basis, these shootings at schools, or bomb threats that have been defused, or knives or violence of all sorts and what I think it reminds us of: A) there is no one solution that if implemented will erase evil from striking. B) It requires us to look at this holistically. Even doing a better job of recognizing and acting on all the early warning signs that we see as the investigation unfolds. I am optimistic that because of these two unfortunate incidents, that through some technology and some different practices in the future, we might be able to prevent, not eliminate, but prevent some of these actions before they get to the eruption. So for that, I am optimistic. As you say, through luck or divine intervention or protocol, all the above. I mean, Jason Seaman threw something. They went through the proper protocol and acted courageously. And yesterday, what we saw yesterday, actually saved lives. Another heroic effort from someone who tipped off; but for that, we would’ve had a different outcome. Life and death. My point is what we have to do is not just learn, but what more can we be doing? And not just saying something, we’re doing something that gives people false hope that will eliminate a cause of the violence in the first place.

HPI: On the opioid crisis, I see (Drug Czar) Jim McClelland is saying that prescriptions are down 10%. Give me a snapshot of where we’re at.

Holcomb: We’re on the path to progress, but it’s a long road ahead. This is ... the toughest part of the job. The number of people that, unfortunately, I meet that are in some stage of this struggle, the number from all walks who are just a few steps away from full recovery, but we’re not there. So, yes, while prescriptions are coming down and the volume going into the funnel is narrowing, and Naloxone being administered is coming down and ER visits are coming down, in some places it’s not coming down. One area that shows improvement are the number of local communities, county by county by county by county, who are coming together and being well conducted. That’s where the most progress is being made. Those are the best practices that are bouncing around the state, whether they are in Bartholomew County or Clark County or others around the state ... of moving away from denial. We better get our arms around the problem, get our arms around a solution. All of them – law enforcement, the courts, local hospitals, schools, state government, federal government – how we align our efforts, because it’s abundantly clear that folks who are struggling with addiction or drug abuse of any sort, they can’t do it alone. It’s the struggle of their life.

HPI: Have you ever reconnected with the gentleman from Delphi? (Holcomb had talked of a man battling addiction during a 2017 HPI interview.)

Holcomb: No. I hope to one day. Someone a couple weeks ago told me, and it just kills me, they said it’s just a lot easier to get off the road to recovery than to stay on it. 

HPI: Your reelection bid. When do you make that decision?

Holcomb: After session. I kind of pride myself on staying focused and not getting distracted. And I can chew gum and walk at the same time and prepare for an ultimate decision. Obviously, Henry will make the final decision and my wife will chip in more than I.

HPI: Do you run with Suzanne (Crouch) again?

Holcomb: If I run, I hope she’s my partner.

HPI: There’s a good chance they’ll move up the date on the appointed superintendent (of public instruction). I’m assuming you’ll have a candidate in mind for the ticket in 2020.

Holcomb: I want to make sure of first things first, that we do in fact move up from 2025 to 2021. And that there is a seamless transition. So, we do need to be thinking about who the ideal ... candidate might be. We were pushing this for 2021 before and it didn’t happen.

HPI: How do you resolve the situation with Attorney General Hill? Is this something you’re going to live with? Have you met with him? 

Holcomb: No, and I won’t resolve it. Obviously, I spoke my mind. I haven’t changed my opinion one iota. In fact, after reviewing the first investigation, then the second and the third, and I’ve said this before, I’d be a hypocrite. I was just a few steps away from Chief Justice Loretta Rush and we talked about a zero percent tolerance for sexual harassment. We cannot have any statewide elected official, or any elected official for that matter, a lower standard than our employees. I haven’t changed my opinion one iota. The case before him is his case. I have a job and I will stay focused on mine.

HPI: We’re watching somewhat of an evolution on the teacher pay issue. You were pretty buoyed when you talked about meeting with Theresa Meredith from the ISTA. She appears to be getting pushback from her membership. Is this an evolutionary process?

Holcomb: I don’t quite understand why she’s getting the pushback from her members. I thought I was very clear in articulating ... we need to make progress in the short term with this budget, and we have to have systemic change and sustainable, structural change in the future, so we weren’t every two years in terms of getting our teachers not just fairly compensated, but putting them in a leadership position in regards to our neighboring states and our region. I’m convinced next week when our budget forecast comes out, that’s going to inform me on what percentage increase we can send to K-12 that I hope gets into the teacher paycheck, into the classroom. That forecast will inform what budget we submit in January. 

HPI: While your team is in intact, you’ll be finding new players in the General Assembly, Sen. Ryan Mishler and Travis Holdman, Rod Bray. Obviously Dr. Brown won’t be fully in the saddle. We’ve got Reps. Todd Huston and Holli Sullivan helping there. Talk to me about the new faces on the fiscal front you’ll be dealing with. Will it make things harder or easier?

Holcomb: Longer nights for them. While they may be new to their posts, they are not new friends. I’ve known them all for years and have full confidence in them. I appreciate the camaraderie we have. That won’t be the first time we’ve sat around the table, had coffee and talked about the issues that have far-reaching implications for our state. I have a high level of confidence in each and every one of them and look forward to 2019.

HPI: I was with Brian Burton and the manufacturers the other day and he dropped the most astounding statistic, that 45% of Indiana’s workforce is going to retire in the next decade. 

Holcomb: Yeah, opening up a million new jobs. 

HPI: That’s stunning.

Holcomb: It’s the silver tsunami that I keep talking about everywhere I go. 

HPI: Do you do what the governor did in Russia and call for a “Day of Conception.” I’m actually going to suggest that in a column coming up here.

Holcomb: You need to do that. You need to look at the birth rate and death rate of any county. Pick a county and look at birth rate and death rate. Howard County’s birth rate/death rate is like plus 12. Or, pick out Rush County and do the same, or pick out the projections and people get giddy or happy when it’s plus four. People! Not percent, people! This is part of the challenge. Yes, we have to attract those from outside to our state and welcome them.

HPI: This is happening in other states, too, right?

Holcomb: That’s exactly right. So, what are we doing about it? Certainly we have to encourage people to have more babies. 

HPI: I’m going to do my part.

Holcomb: That is, of course, part of the equation. In addition to that, I want to do all I can while we’re here… we’re not flying over any rural, or suburban or urban area. Because part of what makes this state so cool, frankly, is we have diversity of options of where you can live.

HPI: So, broadband expansion and the bike trail.

Holcomb: It all fits in. Our infrastructure is all about quality of life and place. It’s not that sexy a topic when you’re talking about connecting, but when you’re talking about 400,000 Hoosiers are living in an Internet darkness who are not connected, who are unserved in 2018, (that’s) unacceptable. And when you can do it anywhere, if you are connected to the world, and you can be in Hope, Ind., with technology that’s available, how do we as a state with public/private partnerships make the business model work? We are going to prove in the State of Indiana we are, in addition to trails, stitching together communities like never before, with large legacy projects, in addition to smaller projects like hiking and biking trails, these are all factors that feed off themselves. When businesses are looking, or people are looking at where do they want to live, and grow, a state like Indiana with its act together fiscally, also has to have its act together in terms of community development. Because people want to move to vibrant growing areas that offer in your backyard or Mass Avenue, or in Brown County in the middle of the woods in a cabin – you can have them both.