On the face of it, the battles between Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and supporters and staff for Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, have been a unifying force for state Democrats. But the fighting has exposed a deep rift within the party over how students are educated.
The most recent squabbling, at a State Board of Education meeting a little more than a week ago, spurred Democratic board member Gordon Hendry to write a letter outlining his frustrations with Ritz.
"I'm a proud Democrat who can remember the days when my party held the governor's office and the superintendent was a Republican. We never saw someone angrily walk out of a meeting, withhold information from fellow board members or file a frivolous lawsuit against them to make a political point," wrote Hendry, a deputy mayor under former Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, in a letter to the editor distributed by Pence's staff.
The Indiana Democratic Party fired back a day later with a joint letter from Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, and Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Crothersville. The pair wrote that Pence "undermined Ritz's Department of Education by creating a duplicative education bureaucracy, called the Center for Education and Career Innovation, which is stacked with staffers earning six-figure salaries. He also has appointed a State Board of Education that spends its meetings sharpening political axes, further proof the governor is actually less than willing to work with Ritz."
Most Democrats still seem to line up with Indiana's teachers unions and public school advocates, opposing sweeping changes pushed by former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and former GOP schools superintendent Tony Bennett and adopted by Pence. But a sizable -- and influential -- group of Democratic leaders wants their peers to pick up the cause of charter schools, vouchers and other changes.
"In this case, I think the Republicans have it right: people want choices," said Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, former chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.
In his case, he said he worries more families would flee the city if they were forced to send their children to Hammond's poorly performing public schools. But he adds that the state's teachers and public school leaders feel like they are "under attack," in part because of a clampdown on funding from the state.
However, McDermott, who is pondering a run for governor, said Pence needs to back off Ritz.
McDermott, Hendry and other Democrats backing sweeping education changes remain the exception, not the rule. The broad support from Indiana Democrats for the state's teachers unions is no surprise; the unions are one of the few remaining financial backers for Democrats in a state dominated by Republicans.
Of course, the party labels are somewhat nebulous in Indiana. Unlike other states in which voters are asked to register with a party, Indiana determines affiliation based on which party's ballot was pulled in the most recent primary. Republican operatives working the 2012 elections regularly pointed out that Ritz was a Republican, based on that measure, long before she was a Democrat.