Opinion and Forefront

SHELLA: A theater review of the General Assembly

May 7, 2011

Jim ShellaThe 2011 Indiana General Assembly was political theater of the first order. The five-week walkout by Democrats gives it historic status. So how do you treat top-flight theater? With a review.

Let’s start with protesters. Union construction workers with bullhorns, thunder sticks, banners and pizza delivered at lunch came to fight the right-to-work bill. Then there were the Planned Parenthood supporters, and the gay rights demonstrators, the Tea Party and the teachers. I suggested one day that for added entertainment we could get the construction workers together with the same-sex-marriage proponents and have a discussion of civil unions and uncivil unions.

The best Frank Newkirk imitation goes to Jeffersonville Democrat Steve Stemler. (Newkirk changed parties midterm in the 1990s.) Stemler was the only member of the House minority who didn’t support the walkout. He says he won’t go Republican but, before the walkout was over, he wasn’t saying anything, at least not to the media. He remains the speaker’s favorite Democrat.

Milo Smith of Columbus was the only Republican member of the House smart enough to recognize the publicity potential from the walkout, growing a protest beard, and letting the governor shave it off for charity. It was hokey, welcome, comic relief.

Jud McMillin of Brookville stood out in a large freshman class that was all Republican. McMillin went to the House microphone on the first day in January to lecture the Democrats on their responsibilities, demonstrating how many of the newcomers mistakenly thought this was two sessions, the first and the last.

Ed DeLaney survived a murder attempt only to be mugged by the Republican majority, which put him in a district with two other Indianapolis Democrats during redistricting. Before it was over, he survived a second time, getting his own district back.

Bob Behning of Indianapolis was the best example of how Republicans need to grow into their new responsibilities. His oversight of the House Education Committee could best be described as benign. Hours of testimony stretched over days in some cases and made it a committee in search of a chairman.

Tom Knollman provided a profile in courage. The Republican from Liberty carries on despite physical drawbacks with the help of a scooter and a walker, and is always in good cheer and sharp focus.

Scott Pelath emerged as the leader of the future for the Democrats. The Michigan City representative is articulate, bright and straightforward. He’s the one who said, of the individual accommodations at that Illinois motel, “If we were bunking together, Indiana would already be a right-to-work state.”

The leaders get most of the attention during the session, so I’ll just give them passing notice here. House Speaker Brian Bosma overacted at times, particularly when he cleared the gallery on two occasions. House Minority Leader Pat Bauer again wins the questionable costume award. Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson made her biggest impact on Twitter, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long seldom took center stage.

The Senate always takes a back seat to the House when it comes to media attention, but it’s not for lack of trying. Indianapolis Democrat Greg Taylor goes to the microphone so much he makes Don Quixote look lethargic. Carmel Republican Mike Delph seems to scour the Drudge Report looking for new ways to make the electorate adopt his values. That old line about the most dangerous place in the Statehouse? It’s now between Mike Delph and a TV camera.

And who can forget how, in the middle of all that theater, a real, live Hollywood actor showed up one day. Danny Glover addressed a union rally and, afterward, while giving passionate answers to my questions, sprayed my face with spittle. When a particularly large glob landed on my lower lip, Glover reached up, wiped it off, and apologized.

That, for me, was perhaps the most real moment of the entire session.•

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Shella is WISH-TV Channel 8’s political reporter as well as host and producer of the Emmy-nominated “Indiana Week in Review.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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