MAHERN: Has Legislature lost its 'do the right thing' members?

June 14, 2014

Forgive my nostalgia. I had a fairly serious health scare a little over a month ago and find myself quite involuntarily looking back.

For almost 50 years, I have been involved in politics. During that time, I have met more than a few true patriots who wanted more than anything else to enact sound solutions to very real problems regardless of party doctrine. Many of them were Republicans.

The Legislature is an incredibly representative body when it comes to talent.

At one end of the spectrum, there is the 15 percent or so that cause one to wonder, “What were the voters thinking?” For these folks, it is a good thing that breathing is an automatic response, otherwise they would suffocate.

You would not send them across the street with a $5 bill to get some change. They wouldn’t steal it. They would lose it on the way back.

How do districts around the state agree to elect these goofs?

The next 70 percent of our legislators reflect the middle of the talent spectrum. Generally of good will and average intelligence, these members attend committee meetings, listen to the debate, and try to do what seems right given the restraints of party discipline.

The final 15 percent compose the best and brightest of the General Assembly. If we had to pay them what they are worth, we could not afford them. They are that smart, that diligent and that honest and generally do the right thing as they see it despite short-term political pain or party objection.

In 1977, my freshman year in the Senate, we were considering the work product of a two-year commission to rewrite the criminal code. Democrat Pat Carroll of Bloomington and Les Duvall, Republican of Indianapolis, oversaw this effort. Among other provisions, the commission recommendations included a repeal of the sodomy statutes. Make no mistake—Les Duvall was a real conservative and a man of immense probity, but when confronted by an injustice he quietly did the right thing. And he did it 26 years before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all sodomy laws.

The rewrite of the criminal code provided for the re-establishment of the death penalty. The first amendment I offered in the Senate—in fact, the first time I spoke on the floor of the Senate—was to repeal the death penalty in Indiana.

When I filed the amendment, several of my Democratic colleagues asked me not to request a roll-call vote. They didn’t want to have to go on record one way or the other. Conversely, two Republican senators, Larry Borst and Morris Mills, assured me they would be voting for the repeal of the death penalty as a matter of conscience.

Again, make no mistake—when it came to the public purse, Borst and Mills were conservatives. They did, however, support paying for the services we authorized. They even opposed some tax cuts that would have jeopardized our fiscal standing.

When members of the Indianapolis City-County Council blocked group homes for the developmentally disabled by denying zoning changes, they successfully thwarted moving these citizens out of dank institutions into more home-like settings.

Sen. Charlie Bosma was certainly no flaming liberal, but he did understand the meaning of compassion and believed that everyone, no matter their disability, deserved a chance at improving their lives. He joined me in taking away from the council the ability to NIMBY the group homes.

Unfortunately for the commonwealth, it is not so much that way anymore.

I was lucky to serve when I did and with the colleagues I had.•


Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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