Evan Bayh and Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Sen. Bayh's call for civility reverberates at Statehouse

February 20, 2010

The political earthquake that roiled the Hoosier governmental landscape Feb. 15 overshadowed the last full week of regular legislative committee deliberations—and may affect events for the remainder of the session.

In the most significant retirement decision announced in Indiana since Reggie Miller hung up his sneakers, Democratic U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh announced he would not seek a third U.S. Senate term in November. That decision also sent shock waves through the ranks of Democratic lawmakers in Indianapolis, none of whom had any advance word.

Recall that the reasons Bayh expressed for his decision to forgo a race for a third term centered largely upon partisanship run amok, and some of those same concerns seemed to ring true in the Statehouse.

We’ve just wrapped up what effectively was the final week for regular committee deliberations leading up to final floor consideration of bills for passage or destined for conference committee.

So it was a big week in the normal scheme of things, and interposed was the filing deadline for candidacy in the May primary elections. This is a time where tensions rise as lawmakers and their respective caucuses monitor filings and political pulses to ensure that no one bails on them, or that an unexpected filing or glitch does not arise. Lawmakers are sometimes even reluctant to cast important votes in committee until they see who may file to oppose them in the primary or general election.

Against this backdrop came the stunning Bayh announcement, deflating Democrats as they realized they would be running in November without the only proven statewide Democratic vote-getter leading their ticket.

The Bayh comments also prompted at least two veteran Statehouse Democrats to do a bit of venting themselves about the decline in collegiality and related changes over the course of their service.

Just as Bayh’s remarks were being distributed, Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, first elected in 1970, took to the House floor to express his festering frustration. Dobis recently lost his leadership stripes after siding with Republicans on an Illiana Expressway issue that he saw as crucial to bringing jobs to northwestern Indiana.

Dobis earned a standing ovation after urging his colleagues to back the Illiana measure as a jobs bill: “If we let this opportunity pass us by, we ought to do what Sen. Bayh just did and choose not to run.”

He added that Hoosiers are suffering worse than at any other time in his five decades of legislative service, admonishing his fellow lawmakers, “You don’t deserve to go home and run for re-election until this question is resolved.”

The day after the Bayh announcement, Rep. Dennis Avery, D-Evansville, first elected in 1974, reiterated many of the same points Bayh made about the decline of collegiality, linking his own decision to step aside to Bayh’s comments about comity.

And perhaps of more concern for the process over the final weeks were inter-party barbs lobbed by the two veterans: “At this point, I don’t care who the speaker is,” Dobis said. And Avery pointed the finger at the House Democratic leadership for making caucus decisions without involving the rank and file—while expecting fealty.

What this portends is uncharacteristic division within the House Democratic Caucus (some cracks developed with Black Caucus discontent late in the 2009 session), while Republicans will be feeling their oats.

While there may be lip service paid to the Bayh partisanship message, in practice Republicans are operating from a position of power, firmly believing they will control the House next year. Republicans may choose to use that confidence to put Democrats on the spot on votes that will hurt those Democratic incumbents in November.

That could make things even messier, particularly if Democrats can’t stay united enough to muster 51 votes from their 51 healthy members (Rep. Dennie Oxley, D-Taswell, has been absent all session due to health issues) on key issues.

The Illiana Expressway measure (viewed as important enough to merit three days of House hearings this month), the delay in unemployment insurance fund fee increases (with other baggage in the bill), legalization of licensed guns in cars at workplaces, and assorted education funding, gambling and alcohol regulation measures still must be worked through.

The events of recent days make it clear the final weeks of the session will not play out quite as calmly as the first month did.•

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Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.

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