Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has gone from considering a run for president to watching the clock run out.
Daniels has an atomic timepiece on his desk, a gift from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, reminding him of how much time he has left in office, he said. During an interview July 25, it read 538 days, 11 hours, 32 minutes, 38 seconds.
"It sits there right in front of me as a reminder: Let's try to use day No. 538 to get something useful done," Daniels said.
Earlier this year, Daniels announced that he wouldn’t seek the Republican nomination for president in 2012 and instead serve the final 1-1/2 years of his second term. He said he is focused on initiatives that include changing sentencing laws, having a bike or walking path within 15 minutes of every Hoosier and fostering the Illiana Expressway, a proposed connection between northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois. He said he’s “at peace” with his presidential decision.
Daniels, 62, a two-term governor who was a budget director for President George W. Bush, had flirted with a presidential bid before announcing in May he wouldn’t run because his wife and four daughters were opposed.
“The decision, in the end was quite simple,” Daniels said in the phone interview from Indianapolis. “My family simply was not at all eager to subject themselves to what that process tends to produce.”
Indiana’s business leaders are disappointed that he isn’t running, because he stabilized the state’s finances and even is giving public workers bonuses of as much as $1,000 from a $1.18 billion budget surplus, said Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
“Given particularly that fiscal matters are his strongest suit—and that’s where the debate and focus is right now in this country—we would all as a country be well served if he was in there leading,” Brinegar said.
Indiana Rep. Pat Bauer of South Bend, a Democrat who has been speaker of the house, minority leader and a constant critic during Daniels’ tenure, also said he wished Daniels would have run—because he thinks national scrutiny would have exposed Daniels' record and given the lie to his portrayal of Indiana as an “island of property.”
Daniels built the surplus by slashing funding, including more than $600 million for education in the previous two budgets, while cutting corporate taxes 25 percent, Bauer said.
“That’s probably the clearest indication of where his favor lies: with the wealthy, and not so much with the people who are struggling through this recession or who send their kids to public school,” he said.
Daniels called such criticism “partisan bunk” and said he can document improvement in services, including reducing the average number of days needed to process a tax return to 16.5 in 2010 from 30 in 2005.
“We measure everything, so I can show that service levels have improved, even though many of the departments delivering that service are smaller or leaner,” he said.
Margaret Ferguson, chairwoman of the IUPUI political science department, described Daniels as “enigmatic” and said he doesn’t often provoke strong reactions, which makes him successful with moderates.
“Even among ideologues, you don’t have this sort of visceral hatred of Mitch Daniels,” Ferguson said.
Daniels in 2004 won his first bid for office when he became the first Republican governor in 16 years after waging a statewide campaign in a recreational vehicle. He was re-elected in 2008 with 58 percent of the vote.
Born in Pennsylvania, Daniels moved to Indiana with his family in 1959 and started working for former Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar in 1971 while attending Princeton University in New Jersey. He continued to work for Lugar when Lugar was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Daniels then was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan.
Daniels also was an executive at Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., maker of drugs such as the antidepressant Prozac, and he was budget director for Bush from 2001-2003 before leaving to run for Indiana governor.
On his first full day in office in 2005, Daniels signed an executive order abolishing collective bargaining for state workers. It didn’t spark protests that similar measures did in Wisconsin and Ohio this year, and Daniels said his goal was to eliminate rules that prevented consolidation of agencies to “make government work more effectively.”
He counts among his major accomplishments the 75-year, $3.8 billion lease of the Indiana Toll Road in 2006. It is the largest such transaction nationwide and has allowed the state to invest $334 million in the toll road and $2 billion on 200 state road and bridge projects, Daniels said.
Leasing the 157-mile toll road across northern Indiana was a mistake because the state lost control over the asset, Bauer said. A Bloomberg analysis in June showed the venture is meeting debt obligations only by borrowing money and may default before loans mature in 2015.
However, that’s not a concern for the state, and it reinforces what a good deal Indiana got, Daniels said.
“Indiana collected its gigantic profits” he said. “If they’ve overpaid, then somebody’s shareholders will take a loss or somebody will, as I say, take a haircut.”
Brinegar points to Indiana’s 4.6-percent increase in gross domestic product last year—which was third in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis—as evidence of an improving business climate under Daniels. Indiana is one of nine states with the top bond rating from all three credit-rating firms, Daniels said.
Other economic indicators aren’t as sterling. Indiana has lost 148,000 jobs, or 5 percent, during Daniels’ tenure through June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s sixth-worst among U.S. states, data show.
Short of being president, Daniels said he wants to influence the national debate on public policy and has a book set for release in September called, “Keeping the Republic.” It’s a reference to the answer that Ben Franklin gave in 1787 when asked what kind of government he and the framers of the Constitution had formed: “A Republic, if we can keep it,” he said.
Daniels said he hasn’t decided what he might do after he leaves office, saying, “I’ve always been a lousy career planner. Every so often the phone rings, and I guess it’ll probably ring at least once more.”
Daniels said he hopes his term will be remembered as a time when Indiana became active, aggressive and trend-setting.
“That has never been our image, ever,” he said. “You read any history of this state and it’s always about being conservative and cautious and let somebody else try it first. And nobody says that anymore.”