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Columbus' Pence soon leader to all Hoosiers

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When Mike Pence is inaugurated as the 50th governor of Indiana a week from today, he will become the first Columbus native elected to the state’s highest office.

The highest level previously attained by a Columbus resident was when Hugh Thomas Miller, father of Columbus industrialist J. Irwin Miller, was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 1905.

But when it comes to tangible benefits for any governor’s hometown, residents and community leaders shouldn’t expect much more than bragging rights.

Someone who understands that well is longtime state Sen. Robert Garton of Columbus, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Indiana governor in the 1996 election.

Garton, 79, who served as president pro tem of the Indiana Senate for a record 26 years, knows a thing or two about bringing home tangible benefits. He was able to steer a number of major improvement projects benefiting Bartholomew County to passage before being defeated in the 2006 primary by Greg Walker, the current state senator representing the area.

“Many of the good things in Columbus came from the budget,” Garton said. “But it’s the General Assembly that passes the budget. The governor doesn’t. All incentives have to be passed by the legislature.”

A spokeswoman for outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels agreed with Garton.

“While the governor will develop a budget, it’s the General Assembly that will discuss and refine all the details over four months,” said Daniels’ press secretary, Jane Jankowski. “In addition, an Indiana legislator works for a specific geographical area. The governor is a statewide office.”

The next session of Indiana’s General Assembly begins today.

As head of the Indiana Senate, Garton was able to meet with other legislators daily as a peer and make compromises to secure funding for local projects. For example, he said he was only able to obtain an extra $3.5 million for improvements along Jonathan Moore Pike in exchange for his support of a new university building in Richmond.

The former lawmaker said making those types of deals is something Pence will not be able to do.

Also, it’s not likely that Pence will be able to use his influence to persuade new companies to locate in the Columbus area, Jankowski said.

“As governor, you are looking for companies to expand to find the best location that best suits their needs, not your preferences,” she said. “I don’t think it matters if you are from Kendallville, Richmond or Loogootee. You are governor of 6.3 million Hoosiers. You are representing the entire state.”

Garton said it’s important for any high-ranking state official not only to avoid favoritism but to steer clear of any appearance of impropriety.

“In my case, you are always sensitive, because you have to have the votes from the other senators, so you try not to be greedy,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Garton pointed out that when he was seeking state funding for the Columbus Learning Center during his final term, he ran into stiff opposition from the Senate Finance Committee.

“They just said, ‘Enough for Columbus already!’” Garton said with a laugh.

Finally, new governors often have a type of catharsis similar to what many Supreme Court justices experience as they realize the full scope of their influence and responsibilities, according to Jankowski.

“Anyone who sits in the governor’s seat is someone who wants to be responsible for all of the state’s citizens and doesn’t look at any one area more than others,” she said. “To use a sports analogy, you are cheering for the big schools and the small schools. You are cheering for all Hoosiers.”

So does being the hometown of Indiana’s next governor carry anything more than bragging rights?

Garton acknowledged there are a number of ways a governor can influence events. And he admits there have been a few Indiana communities that have received tangible benefits by being the hometown of the governor.

“Lafayette didn’t suffer from (lack of) attention by being the home of Roger Branigin,” Garton said in reference to Indiana’s 42nd governor, who served from 1965 to 1969. “Mike is not going to forget about his hometown, but he has a lot of other communities to worry about now.”

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