Pelath in good position to keep Democrats relevant

INDIANAPOLIS — House Minority Leader Scott Pelath had a message for the business leaders, reporters and political leaders gathered last week for a preview of the 2015 legislative session.

“I’m fine.”

The Michigan City Democrat said he appreciated the expressions of concern he’d received from friends and Statehouse observers since Republicans nabbed an additional couple of House districts and strengthened their majority to 71 of 100 seats in the chamber.

Pelath had acknowledged the losses were setbacks. But a couple of weeks after the election, he was clearly ready to move on and wanted others to stop dwelling on it as well.

“Enough of that, OK?” Pelath said with a laugh that conveyed he was only partly joking. “I’ve been through a lot of elections. Some go well; some go not exactly how you want. Sometimes you have the wind at your back; sometimes it’s in your face. You always fight to provide alternatives so that people have a choice.”

Pelath told the crowd that he would not “sulk over the short term” and will instead take a long-term view of the role of the Democratic caucus and its efforts to return to the majority in the House.

The latter could take a long, long time, unless Republicans make some pretty bad decisions that truly anger voters. But the Democrats’ role in the short term will be — as Pelath points out — truly important.

Although the Democrats don’t have even enough seats to prevent the GOP from having a quorum to do business, they can still be effective if they pick their spots.

Earlier this year, Democrats combined with more moderate Republicans to strip a ban on same-sex civil unions out of a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The move restarted the constitutional amendment process, which prevented the proposal from going on the ballot this past election.

And Democrats are likely to be influential in an upcoming debate about school funding as well. There’s no doubt the school districts they represent will be among the hardest hit by changes Republicans want to make in the way education money is distributed to districts. But some GOP-represented districts will be hurt, too. If Democrats can pick off some of those frustrated Republicans, they may be able to sway the outcome of that legislation, too.

Of course, what will make Democrats most influential is Pelath’s personal power. He has a rare ability to be highly critical of GOP leadership without becoming personally harsh. As a result, he and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, have developed a surprising mutual respect that serves both caucuses well. More than once, in fact, Pelath has expressed empathy for situations Bosma finds himself in as the head of a huge majority.

It will take all of Pelath’s skills to keep Democrats relevant as the 2015 session begins. But he might be in a better position to do it than anyone else.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

Still, Pelath can be blistering when he chooses. This past week, he said about the state’s unemployment report that “a rising economic tide that lifts only a few and submerges the rest isn’t something to be bragging about. It’s something to stop.”

And speaking about Gov. Mike Pence’s decision not to seek federal funding for prekindergarten programs, he said GOP leaders “talked like pro wrestlers, while demonstrating the backbone of invertebrates. It would be fun to watch if these circumstances didn’t offer grim omens for the schoolchildren

of Indiana.”

It will take all of Pelath’s skills to keep Democrats relevant as the 2015 session begins. But he might be in a better position to do it than anyone else.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.