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TERRE HAUTE — John Gregg smiled broadly, laughed and patted backs as he ambled from one packed lunch table to another at the Coffee Cup restaurant.
“I want those fried potatoes,” he told guests at one table during an Oct. 11 appearance. “Everything good with you all?”
He told a quick, light-hearted story about a woman who had walked up to him earlier in the day to say, “You’re not near as heavy in real life.”
Wearing a dark suit and striped tie, he stood at another table with his left hand in his pocket, putting his hands on people’s shoulders as he inquired about their lives.
“What yields are you getting?” he asked a bearded farmer who wore a ball cap, green shirt and jeans.
Gregg, 58, is an old pro at this, getting people to enjoy themselves and his company. He is quick to laugh or tell one of his standard jokes — “I’m the guy with two first names running for governor” — or making reference to his most noticeable physical feature, his walrus-like mustache, which frequently is bracketed by lines in his smiling cheeks.
The gubernatorial candidate and attorney served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1986 to 2002, including as speaker from 1996 to 2002.
His current campaign has been folksy, and for the most part civil — which goes against the grain in the current political climate. He’s also very self-deprecating, having made fun of his lighter campaign coffers with purposefully low-budget political ads. But he is serious about his intentions — as much as those things may at first seem in conflict.
In the polls, he is well behind his Republican opponent Mike Pence, whom he will debate for the final time at 7 p.m. Thursday in Fort Wayne.
Nonetheless, Gregg’s enthusiasm — marked by him slapping his right fist into his open left palm, while telling them that the race is tightening — quickly spread to the crowd.
At one table in the restaurant, Gregg fielded questions about one of the debates with Pence and Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful Rupert Boneham.
Maintaining that Pence voted to raise the debt ceiling over and over, and now he wants to give Hoosiers financial advice, Gregg remarked: “I don’t think so,” he said, eliciting laughter from the table.
Gregg clearly felt at home in the supportive crowd, in a city just two counties north of Sandborn and Vincennes, where he was born and served as university president, respectively.
Gregg’s educational pedigree and commitment to education, especially early childhood education, garnered him some staunch supporters in Terre Haute, a city dominated by Indiana State University and the smaller Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.
“I think he gets education,” said Amy Inserra, who wore a “Gregg for Governor” button and went to Vincennes University during Gregg’s tenure.
Dennis Bialaszewski, a management information systems professor at Indiana State University, told Gregg that merit pay for teachers should go instead to help teachers who need help. The money could better be invested in training or technology, he said, his hands folded together as in prayer as he sat looking up at Gregg.
“That’s a great argument,” Gregg said.
That kind of input shows that when the state reforms education, it needs to invite all stakeholders — including teachers — to the table, Gregg said.
After the candidate walked over to the next table, Bialaszewski, a self-described centrist Democrat who plans to vote for Gregg, said he liked the candidate’s response.
Jack McGill, a 62-year-old lifelong Terre Haute resident and disabled mechanic who used to work on heavy equipment for Caterpillar, said he has a few reasons for supporting Gregg.
“He is a good man,” McGill said. “(And) I don’t like the opponent.”
McGill, wearing a camouflage ball cap and checkered shirt, said he worries primarily about education and jobs, saying Terre Haute had lost many businesses during the past decade.
Gregg is best equipped to address those issues, McGill said.
“We got to get him in there,” McGill implored the other diners at his table.
It was McGill’s first time at the restaurant. He came after hearing on the news that Gregg was stopping by.
Amit Amiti, the restaurant owner, was pleased with the turnout of about 50 diners.
Gregg brought in lots of patrons, Amiti said. He normally does not have to scramble to get food out to that many people at 2 p.m. on a weekday.
Amiti, who immigrated to the U.S. from Macedonia 20 years ago, said Gregg is a nice guy who would make a good governor.
At a campaign stop earlier in the day at the MCL Cafeteria in a Terre Haute strip mall, Gregg’s humor and stump speech, focusing on bipartisanship, education and infrastructure, received good reviews from a more politically mixed Kiwanis Club crowd.
Joe Minnis, a retired dentist and former owner of a farm equipment store who served 12 years on the Vigo County school board, said Gregg did a “nice job” with his presentation.
Minnis, who said he generally votes Republican in state and national races, said he also liked some of Gregg’s ideas, including his focus on infrastructure improvements.
However, Minnis said he worries more about getting good jobs to Indiana and educating people for those jobs. He said he recently visited Terre Haute-based aerospace components manufacturer Tri Aerospace and was told the company had job openings for machinists.
“They can’t find qualified people,” Minnis said.
Bionca Gambill, a 30-year Terre Haute resident and nurse consultant who introduced Gregg to the Kiwanis Club members, said she will vote for Gregg because he understands that good education, good jobs and good infrastructure are connected.
On his way out of the cafeteria, Gregg spotted a young boy lounging on a bench and approached two nearby adults to ask if he could give the boy a “Gregg for Governor” button.
The woman initially reacted with surprise but took the button, and Gregg and the man exchanged some small talk about hunting after Gregg spotted a small toy bow in a shopping bag.
After Gregg had left, Mary Beth Cox admitted she took the button to be polite. She said she admires anyone willing to run for public office, but she generally votes Republican. And, she added, she merely works in Terre Haute but lives in Illinois.
Later that afternoon, standing under an awning outside the side entrance of the Coffee Cup restaurant, Gregg acknowledged that he is tired for about two or three minutes every morning when he wakes up, but when his feet hit the ground, he’s ready to go.
He has met lots of Hoosiers since he began campaigning 22 months ago, he said, and they tell him that they are relying on him to bring good jobs to Indiana.
Farmers have told him they need help getting drought relief, Gregg said. Educators and entrepreneurs are asking him to keep working on their behalf.
“That’s what keeps me going,” Gregg said.
He said he is convinced that he would win the election for sure if he could meet all of the state’s 3.1 million voters. The challenge, Gregg said, is that no matter how hard he tries, he will only get to meet a fraction.
Gregg and his campaign staff got back into his white sport utility vehicle midafternoon, pulled out of a parking lot next to the restaurant and headed south on Lafayette Avenue, on to the next campaign stop to shake more hands and meet more voters.
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