Following a sleepless night of celebration after his election win, Eric Holcomb started building his cabinet the next morning essentially from scratch.
Gubernatorial candidates, said Chief of Staff Earl Goode, typically spend the last two to three months of a campaign building a transition team and coming up with an action plan for assembling an administration in the event of a win.
But Holcomb’s run for governor—which officially began in late July after former Gov. Mike Pence joined Donald Trump’s presidential ticket—was anything but ordinary.
Still, Goode recalled that Holcomb, who has largely served behind the scenes in state politics until now, was clear-eyed about his priorities.
Holcomb’s ideas to improve the skills of Indiana’s workforce and attack its opioid problem are what convinced a wary Goode—former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ chief of staff—to assume the same role in Holcomb’s administration when he “had no intention of doing this again.”
“I’d like to be associated with a governor that made a difference in those two areas,” he said. “Mitch had a reputation as a change agent and Mike had a reputation as steady. I think Eric will prove to be a governor who’s balanced, a good balance between [thinking about] the future … but with a lot of focus on now.”
Holcomb told him after the election, Goode said, that he wanted to build a team that was, above all, “competent.”
“We’re not just trying to get names,” Goode said. “We’re trying to get people who have the competence that can truly make a difference in his administration.”
The result is a collection of leaders who have served in government before. In fact, all but a handful of the nearly 50 agency heads, cabinet members and key Governor’s Office staff members Holcomb has selected worked in either the Daniels or Pence administrations—or both.
But many are in new roles. After 12 years of Republican leadership, Goode said, it was important to give existing team members different challenges “so their blood gets flowing again.”
For instance, INDOT Commissioner Brandye Hendrickson is returning to her human resources roots to become director of the Indiana State Personnel Department. Lori Torres, previously an INDOT deputy commissioner, is now inspector general. Deputy Health Commissioner Jennifer Walthall will now lead the state’s Family and Social Services Administration.
But there are new faces, too—people Goode hopes will bring new energy to the team.
Typically after more than a decade of leadership in the same party, Goode said, the A team can devolve into the B team or C team because the A-listers have burned out and dropped out. But he said he has heard from lawmakers that say Holcomb is “putting together an A team.”
Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness, who will become INDOT commissioner, said it was “not an easy decision” to leave his elected office. But he said the offer to become INDOT commissioner was “an opportunity that I really couldn’t pass up.”
As the state’s long-term transportation needs—and how to pay for them—have become a top legislative issue this year, McGuinness said he believes he can bring to that conversation some perspective about what local communities really need.
“Sometimes we overlook what is important on Main Street in Kokomo,” he said. “Let’s have some good, solid collaboration with those locals.”
And Elaine Bedel is leaving the private sector, where she ran financial planning firm Bedel Financial Consulting, to become president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. She called joining Holcomb’s team “a life-changing decision.” She has known the governor for several years, and said the two have bonded over their alma mater, Hanover College.
With the exception of working in economic development for former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith during his first term in the early 1990s, Bedel has spent her career in the private sector. She said she “hopes that means I can bring fresh eyes” to government.
“For every dime we put out there [in economic development incentives], we absolutely have to have a return,” Bedel said. “It’s not a good use of taxpayer money unless we can turn it around to do good for Indiana.”
Holcomb’s administrative choices have earned high marks from Republicans and business leaders. And Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said he was taking a wait-and-see approach to Holcomb’s new team.
Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar said he believed Holcomb “struck a good balance between moving [deputy agency heads] up, bringing some folks back, and bringing in some new energetic and talented blood.”
He specifically complimented the selection of Goode as chief of staff.
“There’s no steadier hand in a pressure cooker situation like the Governor’s Office is,” Brinegar said.
What businesses care most about, he said, is “maintaining the overall culture of state government that was started with Mitch Daniels.”
“That mind-set continuing is as much or more important,” Brinegar said, “than the specific people in specific agencies.”•