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Editorial: Bowen used civility as tool, set examples for politicians

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DURING his recently completed term in office, former Gov. Mitch Daniels was given justifiable credit for a series of property tax reforms. While significant, his achievements in that area have to be measured alongside an earlier reform that was more far-reaching in scope and far more difficult to achieve.

That reform came about more than three decades earlier, largely through the efforts of an unlikely political mastermind who had to deal with a General Assembly that was not so compliant as the one with which Daniels worked.

By 1973, when Otis “Doc” Bowen was in his first term as governor of Indiana, property taxes had more than doubled over a 10-year span.


The onerous taxes were not only exacting a toll from individual property owners but served to discourage business investment.

Bowen proposed to lower those taxes by increasing the state’s income and sales taxes, a plan that divided both houses of the Indiana General Assembly. He used his considerable lobbying skills — developed when he was a member of the General Assembly — to gain his requested reform.

Opposition to his plan was so deep that it took a tie-breaking vote by Lt. Gov. Robert Orr to make it through the state Senate.

Democrats used the reform as a campaign tool against Bowen, but it backfired on them. He became the first governor since 1851 to serve two full terms under an amendment that allowed for chief executives to succeed themselves.

His property tax reforms, but mostly his own personality, made him so popular that in 1980 Republicans wanted him to run against incumbent Sen. Birch Bayh, but the former country doctor passed on that career opportunity to personally tend to his cancer-stricken wife, Beth, who died in 1981.

Four years later President Ronald Reagan appointed him as health and human services secretary.

He was thrown into one of the most controversial issues of the 20th century — the AIDS epidemic. Instead of shying away from the issue, Bowen plunged into it head first.

During a 1987 news conference, he provided a down-to-earth justification for safe sex practices that even his most conservative critics had to accept. “Remember, when a person has sex, they’re not just having it with that partner, they’re having it with everybody that partner had it with for the past 10 years.”

He accelerated the approval process for new drugs, especially those geared for AIDS patients. It was under his watch that the AIDS-fighting AZT gained federal approval.

Even though his actions in the struggle against AIDS angered many conservatives, Bowen retained the same popularity he had enjoyed as Indiana’s chief executive.

That might be attributed in part to the wisdom of his positions, but one factor that can’t be overlooked is that Bowen was a civil man who gave and earned respect.

He was a tough politician who held true to his principles, but he did so in a way that respected the opinions of others. That is a quality that all in government should strive to attain and keep.

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