LEADING QUESTIONS: GOP pillar reflects on party, mentors and Legislature

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Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk about the habits that lead to success.

J. Murray Clark grew up in a household where politics wasn’t just dinner-table conversation—it was an occupation, passion and way of life.

His grandfather on his mother’s side was Frank McKinney Sr., one of Indianapolis’ business and civic leaders in the mid-20th century and the Democratic national chairman in 1951-1952. His uncle, Alex Clark, served as mayor of Indianapolis from 1952 to 1956, and ran again in 1967 only to lose in the primary to fellow Republican Richard Lugar. His father, Jim Clark, served in the Indiana House of Representative in the early 1960s.

“In my family, growing up, politics and public service were a way to give back to the community,” said J. Murray Clark, 54. “It was a noble exercise. Today, folks look at politics in a much more jaded way. Politicians are described in the pejorative.

“That’s not the way I grew up. You didn’t have to be in politics—that was one way to give back. But you darn well had to give back in some way.”

A graduate of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Clark followed closely in the footsteps of his male mentors. Like his father and uncle, he became a lawyer. He worked on political campaigns, served for four years on the Washington Township Advisory Board, and in 1994 was elected to the state Senate from District 29, holding the seat through 2005.

Clark also flirted with higher offices. He was mentioned as a top candidate to replace Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith, had Goldsmith succeeded in his 1996 run for governor. David McIntosh named Clark his running mate in the 2000 governor’s race, losing to the Democratic ticket of Gov. Frank O’Bannon and Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan. And in 2004, Clark forged his own campaign for governor but eventually made the “brutally difficult” decision to drop out and grease the skids for fellow Republican candidate Mitch Daniels.

“I felt like Mitch and I probably shared a fair amount of supporters, but to most of them he was varsity and I was junior varsity, So we decided to hook up instead of fight each other,” said Clark, who became Daniels’ campaign chairman.

“When you make a decision like we did, first to run for lieutenant governor but then to run for governor, you have to be 110 percent committed,” Clark said. “You have to put your whole heart and soul into it. And not just the candidate, but my wife, my family, a lot of people who were behind us. And it’s brutally difficult when you back away from that.”

But Clark’s role in state politics was far from over. Daniels in 2006 nominated him to become state GOP chairman, a post that Clark accepted. He suffered barbs in 2008 when, despite a strong statewide performance by Republicans, Indiana’s presidential vote swung to Democrats for the first time since 1964.

“It stung, and it still stings,” Clark said.

In 2010, the Indiana GOP won control of the House of Representative and increased its majority in the state Senate. Republicans also picked up two Congressional seats to give the party a 6-3 edge in Indiana’s U.S. House delegation. Clark resigned as chairman soon after.

Clark now devotes much of his time to the practice of law—and specifically in the sectors of government, real estate and construction—as a partner at Faegre Baker Daniels. But even in private practice, he has taken on a more public role as leader of the multistate firm’s Indianapolis office.

His duties include acting as local spokesman for the firm, managing the Indianapolis staff, and being its representative for community outreach, civic activity, and governmental affairs.

In a sense, it’s a political position. “It does fit that bill a little bit,” Clark said.

As the local, state and national elections near, Clark finds himself with a much diminished role as a political operative. That’s alright by him.

“I don’t miss being chairman, per se,” he said. “Running an organization like the state party is tough duty, and a lot of it is raising money. And it’s harder to raise money for organizations rather than candidates. Much of my time was spent raising money for the party. That part I don’t miss.

“I miss the people. I miss the political side, working on political strategy and so forth.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with IBJ, Clark discussed several milestones in his career in politics. In the video at top, he reflects on the influence of the male mentors in his life, some of his biggest challenges as a state senator, and his decision to leave the 2004 gubernatorial race.

In the video below, Clark describes his role as state GOP chairman, his fundraising tactics, and the fallout from the 2008 election. He also assesses the "a bit fractured” state of the Indiana GOP, and how the mainstream elements of the party reconcile themselves with the tea party movement and evangelical voters.

Clark also is an occasional contributor to IBJ’s “Forefront” section dedicated to civic and political discourse. You can find his thoughts on the requirements for the state’s next governor here, and on the next generation of Republican leaders here.

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