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Column: Pence heavy on symbolism, light on substancePence heavy on symbolism, light on substance


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INDIANAPOLIS — When Mike Pence was running for governor, he loved to talk about his Roadmap for Indiana.

Even after he got elected, he continued doing it and even took to using it as a visual prop at news conferences.

Critics complained that Pence’s road map was only slightly more specific than the old much-maligned “Wander Indiana” license plates. (A comedian once said Hoosier car tags read “Wander Indiana” because there was no place in particular in the state anyone would want to go.)

Pence and his supporters responded, with some justice, that the charge was unfair. There were some specific things in Pence’s plan — his proposed 10 percent personal income tax cut for Hoosiers, an emphasis on vocation education and required family impact statements for all pieces of legislation.

Still, even as road grub goes, this amounted to fairly thin fixings.

Friends and foes alike waited for Pence to add more substance.

They waited through his transition.

They waited, with more anticipation, as his inaugural address as governor came and went. That speech offered little more than a rendition of a showstopper from Broadway in the heartland — there’s

something special out there somewhere and (heavy on the vibrato) we’ll find it because we’re Hoosiers.

They waited, with increasing anticipation and now a little concern, as Pence prepared and then delivered his first State of the State address, another speech heavy on symbolism and light on substance. One veteran legislator, a Republican, said to me that he didn’t know how to respond to the speech because “there just isn’t that much there.”

The anticipation faded and the concern increased a few days ago when Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said in a media availability that he didn’t know what the governor’s priorities were because Pence hasn’t done anything about job creation and the legislative session already is a quarter over.

The governor’s office refused to respond to Pelath’s comments.

There was a certain amount of media savvy to Pelath’s jab. He picked a slow news time — most news reports seemed to indicate that the biggest issue confronting the state was the health of an injured deer — to push his party, which now is the poster child for Viagra, back into the spotlight for a moment.

And there was a certain amount of media savvy to Pence’s non-response. If the governor had fired back, Pelath would have had a chance to make still more comments. Pence would have had to reply to those comments.

Along the way, a one-day story about a minority party lawmaker complaining about priorities would have turned into a three-day story debating whether or not Mike Pence really cares about Hoosier jobs. Scott Pelath and House Democrats would have gotten an elevated profile, House Republicans would have gotten annoyed, and most Hoosiers still would be talking about the poor deer.

It’s hard to see an upside there for Pence, which is why the governor and his team in effect said to Pelath, “Build your own darn crowd. We’re not going to help you.”

But there also is a cost to not responding.

Pelath delivered his jab because he knew it would find a target.

Concerns have grown among lawmakers in both parties that the new governor doesn’t really know where he wants to go.

Some of that can be attributed to the fact that the governor still is new and everyone’s still getting used to the fresh face in the big chair.

Some of it also can be attributed to the fact that a fair number of the members of the House, both Republican and Democrat, secretly wish Pence’s Democratic opponent, former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, were governor, because they consider Gregg one of their own. Some of it also can be attributed to the fact that a fair number of senators, both Republican and Democrat, wish former Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, whom Pence elbowed aside for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, were governor, because they consider Skillman one of their own.

Most of the concern, though, is a product of the fact that Pence has talked a lot about his road map for the state.

Pelath was just the first lawmaker to say what a lot of them thinking.

What they’re thinking is, at some point, Pence will have to stop waving his road map around, get behind the wheel and drive the state somewhere.

The question that remains is where he wants to go.

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.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at harry@therepublic.com.

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