High above Gov. Eric Holcomb and Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch in the Statehouse south atrium where they announced their 2018 legislative priorities was the magnificent ceiling of ornate stained glass, in place since the 1880s.
It’s an apt metaphor in Crouch’s career context. Since Gov. Joe Kernan chose Kathy Davis to be lieutenant governor in 2003, four out of the past five have been females.
It begs the persistent gender question in Hoosier politics, which is who will break the glass ceiling and become the state’s first female governor? This is a question that will play out over the next six or seven years. By most accounts, Holcomb is off to a terrific start as governor. When he is up for re-election in 2020, there is no apparent heir to the Democratic nomination.
In modern Indiana politics, we’ve watched two lieutenants — Robert D. Orr in 1988 and Frank O’Bannon in 1996 — secure the top nomination as a fait accompli. They spent their years in the wings leading the Commerce Department, which positioned themselves for economic development announcements and ribbon cuttings.
Former Democratic chairman Robin Winston scheduled O’Bannon so that if he gave an official speech in Vincennes, he would stop at union halls in Terre Haute, Brazil and Greencastle on the way back to Indy. They worked to make their ascension inevitable. Orr and O’Bannon had name ID in the 70th percentile. Both became governors.
One, Democrat Robert L. Rock lost in 1968. Kernan was an anomaly. He was positioned to run for governor in 2004, but in a dispute with Gov. O’Bannon over who would lead the Democratic Party, he shocked the political world in late 2002 disavowing a run. Kernan wasn’t as well positioned as Orr and O’Bannon, with his name ID relatively low.
This all changed in September 2003 when Gov. O’Bannon died. Once in office, Kernan decided to seek a full term but lost to Republican Mitch Daniels. He missed more than a year to prepare for the run.
Lt. Govs. Davis, Becky Skillman and Sue Ellspermann did not use the LG office as Orr and O’Bannon did. Davis had a brief tenure, then decided not to run in 2008; Skillman mounted a gubernatorial campaign in 2010 then folded as the Daniels wing opted for U.S. Rep. Mike Pence. Pence and Daniels had been pondering a 2012 presidential run, and it was in Daniels’ interest that Pence beef up his resume as governor. Ellspermann had little appetite for fundraising and brawling campaigns and opted for the Ivy Tech presidency.
Which leads us to Lt. Gov. Crouch. I met with her at the Daily Grind coffee shop in Nashville and spent most of the half hour talking about her sprawling portfolio. She leads the agriculture and rural affairs departments, as well as anti-terrorism and presides over the Indiana Senate when it’s in session.
When Gov. Pence appointed her as state auditor, she spent her first year meeting with all 92 county counterparts. She is now Holcomb’s wing(wo)man, or as he told me, “She is detail-oriented and thorough, something you don’t always see in individuals working in leadership positions. She has been a great friend and closest adviser.”
So my question for Crouch was, do you aspire to be break Indiana’s gender ceiling? The response was a bit of an “aw shucks” sentiment, not wanting to upstage the boss. “I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason,” she answered. “What is meant to be is meant to be. I also believe that if you work hard, you are always ready for opportunities.”
You can read into that anything you want, but when you look at her résumé, where she served as Vanderburgh County auditor and commissioner, eight years in the Indiana House, and then state auditor, it’s a substantial portfolio.
The Crouch Statehouse office is one of diversity. Her Senate parliamentarian is a woman (who is now also her general counsel); her chief of staff is African-American; her chief financial officer is a Democrat. She replaced two departing agency heads with women: Jodi Golden at Office of Community and Rural Affairs and Danielle Chrysler at Office of Defense Development.
And Crouch has proven that she has the courage to lead. After Gov. Daniels reformed FSSA with IBM’s welfare model, she was one of the first legislators to raise the alarms after constituents began falling through the cracks. Many poor people don’t have access to a computer. It wasn’t an easy decision, as Daniels was famously alpha male. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, going against my governor,” Crouch said. “But at the end of the day you have to do what’s right.”
It turned out well, as Daniels put in place what was called the “hybrid plan” which functions well to this day.
This question has six or seven year to play out. There are other powerful Republicans, notably House Speaker Brian Bosma, State Sen. Jim Merritt and others who look in a mirror and see a governor, a 52nd male governor in Indiana’s 200 plus years of statehood.
But Lt. Gov. Crouch will likely be on that radar.
Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.