Nearly 30 years ago, former State Sen. Katie Wolf appeared at a “women in politics” conference in Gary. Afterward, Jill Long Thompson, then 25, marched up and asked for advice.
Thompson had her sights set on joining the Valparaiso City Council. Wolf offered her phone number. She soon found Thompson waiting on her doorstep, bursting with questions about how a female Democrat should campaign in a conservative, rural area.
“What struck me was her determination to win,” Wolf remembered. “After two hours, she said, ‘You know, Katie, this is just a stepping stone. Someday, I’m going to be in Congress.'”
It took several tries, but Thompson achieved her audacious goal. After serving on Valparaiso’s council from 1984 to 1986, she left to run for the U.S. Senate, but her bid came up short. Two years later, she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, but lost that race, too.
But the losses had a silver lining, remembered Geoff Paddock, who later served as Thompson’s congressional district director.
“Jill was developing a reputation for being a real fighter, someone you couldn’t put down,” he said. “She’d get knocked down and just get right back up again.”
Thompson’s chance came in 1989, when Republican Dan Quayle became vice president and Dan Coats filled his Senate seat. A special election sent Thompson to Washington, D.C., as U.S. representative for Indiana’s 4th District. She won re-election twice before the Republican tide of 1994 swept her from office.
Now Thompson is aiming for an even bigger comeback. Next month, Democratic primary voters will decide whether the 55-year-old is their best shot to unseat Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Her Democratic primary opponent, Jim Schellinger, often calls the governor out of touch. But Thompson goes straight for Daniels’ most advertised strength: business credentials. She says Indiana was vastly underpaid when it signed the 75-year Indiana Toll Road lease. And she says that when Daniels served in President Bush’s administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget, he low-balled the original estimate for the cost of the Iraq war.
Not well-known here
Though Thompson has three business degrees and served in the late 1990s as an undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she isn’t well-known in central Indiana business circles.
Rural issues are close to Thompson’s heart, as her three-tiered incentives plan for economically distressed counties illustrates. Her other priorities are work-force development through vocational education and associate’s degrees; capping the state tax on fuel; restructuring Indiana’s tax code; and allowing small employers to join health insurance pools.
It’s not far from the agenda that originally helped Thompson reach Congress. But it was her reputation for hard work that earned her loyal supporters in the years since.
Paddock recalls that Thompson kept a grueling schedule as a U.S. representative, and expected her staff to as well. When he interviewed for the district director job, she said she expected him to work 60 to 80 hours a week.
She flew back to her district every Thursday night, and spent the next three days making local appearances before labor unions and at hog roasts. Each Monday morning, she returned to Washington.
“We worked hard, just like she did,” said Paddock, now executive director of Fort Wayne’s Headwaters Flood Control Project. “She expected a lot of her staff, but she also expected a lot of herself. She wouldn’t ask for anything she wouldn’t do herself.”
Her work ethic was an outgrowth of her childhood. The Long family never took vacations as she grew up on their corn and soybean farm in northwest Indiana. Today, Thompson still doesn’t.
Growing up on the farm
As a child, Thompson read the Bronte sisters and dreamed of becoming a professional baton twirler.
Her ambition persisted. All the way through college, Thompson ran cheerleading camps. Her initial major was physical education, though she later switched to business.
Ultimately, she earned both an MBA and a doctorate in the subject and held faculty jobs at Indiana University, Valparaiso University and IU-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
She’s no ivory-tower academic, however. Thompson grew up modestly among livestock and tractors. At age 13, she started a house-cleaning service. She kept it up for years. Thompson says it taught her to be disciplined and efficient. As an undergraduate at Valparaiso, she woke up at 4:30 every Saturday morning and drove to tiny Wanatah, where she unloaded trucks and stocked grocery shelves for extra cash.
In the farm crisis of the mid-1980s, soaring interest rates threatened to force her parents off their 2,200-acre farm. Rates on their federal land bank loan shot from about 7 percent to 13 percent. Thompson bought some of the land and helped them reorganize and downsize. Today, she takes pride that her father, now 83, still runs the combine.
“I learned going through that you can go from being on top financially for a number of years and circumstances beyond your control can change things very, very quickly and very dramatically,” she said.
Thompson met her husband, Don Thompson, relatively late in life, at age 43. Now an airline pilot, Don Thompson at the time was a fighter pilot based in Fort Wayne. He met his wife when he visited her congressional office to discuss military base issues. They spent their first date milking cows on the Long farm.
The couple still keeps farm hours, rising before dawn. For energy, Jill Long Thompson relies on Diet Coke.
Thompson has spent most of her time outside political office as an educator. After Congress, she returned to her original career in academia and became a fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Then, in 2001, Manchester College President Jo Young Switzer called.
The pair knew each other from their days teaching at IPFW. Switzer was looking for an expert who could launch an entrepreneurial studies program with an emphasis on ethics. The program was named for deceased businessman Mark Johnston, whose widow had just set up a $1.5 million endowment.
Switzer selected Thompson, who impressed her with her preparation and knowledge. And not just about business education. Thompson had made a great effort to learn about Mark Johnston and meet his widow, Switzer remembered.
“It wasn’t a tough call. The other person we talked to had his own agenda and notion of entrepreneurship, and wanted to go that direction,” Switzer said. “Jill Thompson was more amenable to learning Mark Johnston’s vision and dream for embedding it into the college.”
In 2002, Thompson made a bid at a political comeback, running again for the U.S. House, this time in Indiana’s open 2nd District. She managed to defeat Bill Alexa, now a Superior Court judge in Valparaiso, in the primary. But in the general election, she lost to Republican Chris Chocola 50 percent to 46 percent.
Alexa remembers attempting to paint Thompson as an out-of-touch career politician. Rather than respond negatively, Alexa said, Thompson simply called a press conference on her family farm to prove her hometown roots.
“If either one of us had been thinskinned, we could have turned that into a mud race,” he said. “And neither one of us would ever want to do that.”
Yet another defeat wasn’t enough to turn Thompson off to public service. So when Democrats began hunting last year for candidates who might be able to unseat Daniels, she jumped into the fray.
“I think being a member of Congress was the best job [I ever had],” she said. “Because every day, you literally did something that made someone’s life better through constituent services. No matter how difficult the day had been, you felt good.”