State Government and Politics and Government & Economic Development and Government

Indiana House Dems lose political hot-button

January 8, 2012

Indiana  Gov. Mitch Daniels' decision to rescind strict new security procedures at the Statehouse took the heat off him and his administration at the start of what was already guaranteed to be a raucous 2012 session. But it also deprived Indiana's House Democrats a major political tool they could have used in their continuing boycott of a divisive labor bill.

Indiana's House Democrats' ardent opposition to the Republican right-to-work measure seemed to flag Friday as they entered their third day of boycotting the House. The measure bars businesses and private unions from mandating that workers pay union fees and has become a proxy for the national battles between Democrats and Republicans and organized labor and business.

A few days before the 2012 session kicked off this week, state safety officials announced they would place a 3,000-person limit on the number of people who could be in the Statehouse at any time and keep protesters from bringing in large signs, bullhorns and other gear. They called it a safety precaution for people in a building which had never had an occupancy limit placed on it before. Union leaders and Democrats called it a move to stifle public opposition to the divisive labor bill.

Most Democrats say they've already benefited from the blunder. But some also admit that if Daniels had dug his heels in they would have benefited more. Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, said she felt like the bad publicity forced Daniels' hand, but that it still would have been easier for Democrats to keep fighting

"We could have had the rat here," Summers said, referring to the giant inflatable rat seen at many union protests.

Daniels rescinded the new measures just hours before lawmakers began the 2012 session of the Indiana General Assembly. Hundreds of union protesters packed the building on the first day of session and many more snaked around the side of the building waiting to get in.

While standing by his public safety officials and their assessment, he added that he did not want to curb public access from the start of the session.

"We should err on the side of openness and hope there's not a problem," Daniels said. "If one develops, then we'll look at that."

Rolling back the new access rules back was the best thing Daniels could have done, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics.

"It was good from a PR standpoint in terms of media outlets and what they think," he said. "I also think it took an issue of the table so Democrats weren't able to use that as another reason to get riled up. Although they seem to have a long enough list that taking that off the table doesn't seem to change things that much."

House Democrats meanwhile are hoping that a political stigma has now been attached to the 2012 session. Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said he thinks the political damage itself can't be rescinded.

"Even Ray Charles could see that was directed at minimizing the movement's presence," he said.

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