INDIANAPOLIS — With one off-the-cuff remark, outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels reminded everyone why so many Hoosiers are going to miss him when he leaves office. And why quite a few are going to be glad to see him go.
Speaking at the opening of the stretch of Interstate 69 that eventually will connect Indianapolis with Evansville, Daniels said that the world could be divided into two groups — “builders and bellyachers.”
He numbered himself, of course, among the builders. And the bellyachers?
Well, they were just about everyone who disagreed with Major Moves, his controversial plan to fund road and infrastructure building and maintenance by leasing the Indiana Toll Road in northern Indiana to a private consortium for 75 years. The state got $3.85 billion in return and has spent the money building and improving roads and bridges all over the state — among them, the I-69 extension.
The folks who didn’t like the plan included environmentalists who didn’t want to see forests and farmland destroyed to build an interstate highway that they said would shave only a few minutes off the trip time between Evansville and Indianapolis.
And they included people like me — Hoosiers who had concerns about the 75-year lease because we felt it wasn’t fair to tie the hands of our children, grandchildren and possibly great-grandchildren in order to meet current needs.
Most reasonable people would say that the motivations and concerns on all sides of the issue were valid. The governor wanted to find a creative way to fund much-needed construction. Environmentalists want to preserve our natural heritage. And others hoped that we might preserve a range of options for future generations.
The governor, though, pretty much has been unfailingly dismissive — “bellyachers” — of any position or concern other than his own on the issue. That is typical of the man.
I remember talking with one veteran Republican political operator a longtime Daniels supporter. He described a frustrating meeting with the governor.
“The one thing that drives me and a lot of other people crazy about Mitch is that every meeting turns into an opportunity for him to demonstrate that he’s smarter than everyone else. It has to be his way. He’s the only one who can be right,” the man said.
But that, of course, is a large part of Daniels’ remarkable success. If any governor ever has willed Indiana into resembling his personal vision for the state, it has been Mitch Daniels. He is the very definition of executive energy and authority.
There are two important things to remember about him. The first is that he is — to use his words — a builder. The fact is that Indiana’s infrastructure needs have been a festering problem for at least two generations. And connecting Evansville and Indianapolis has stymied governors since the 1960s.
However flawed or controversial his plan may have been, Daniels did find a way to get the job done.
The second thing to remember about the governor is that he is smarter than most other people. Time and again during his time in office, he has found fresh, creative ways to meet challenges that seemed intractable to other leaders. He turned the morass that was the state’s license branches into a model of efficiency and customer service. He transformed Indiana’s educational structure.
And he built roads and bridges by the score.
The ripening of time will determine how effective in the long run Daniels’ initiatives were.
One thing, though, is clear right now. Indiana didn’t stand still on the governor’s watch. That’s probably the standard by which Daniels would wish to be judged.
Could he have been a little contemptuous of the views of others along the way? Yup.
Were there times that he was more divisive than he needed to be? You bet.
Did he too often provoke needless fights? Of course.
But we don’t elect divine creatures to public office in this country. We elect human beings — and we have to accept all that comes with that.
The ancient Greeks had a theory that a person’s greatest strength — in this case, the governor’s iron-willed certitude — also was one’s greatest weakness.
It sounds like the ancient Greeks might have known Mitch Daniels.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.