TERRE HAUTE —
The gesture by the extreme conservative Republicans in the Legislature seems astonishingly generous.
Their political arch-rival, the Indiana Democratic Party, lingers mainly through its name recognition. It wields no force in state-level government, with Republicans holding super majorities in the House and Senate, and the governor’s seat. Most of all, the Hoosier Democratic Party has long lacked an identifiable personality with whom voters can identify. With Evan Bayh — the former governor and U.S. senator — out of public life, Democrats have no equivalent of a Mitch Daniels or a Mike Pence.
The hard right of the GOP is working on that.
By appearing to be controlling, paranoid and politically vindictive in their legislative response to Glenda Ritz becoming the new state superintendent of public instruction, those zealous Republicans have unwittingly highlighted the stark contrast of her rational, likable style for millions of Hoosiers to see. Once she defeated charismatic and controversial Tony Bennett in the lone Statehouse Democratic victory in November, stunned Republicans could have let Ritz drop the GOP education reform steamroller into a lower gear — as voters overwhelmingly chose her to do — and return the superintendent’s role to a less-headline-grabbing situation.
The extremists chose otherwise. As a result of their intransigence on the public stage, households from Angola to Mount Vernon now know Glenda Ritz. She is the new face of the Indiana Democratic Party.
It would be hard for Hoosiers to dislike what they are seeing in her. She is appealing in ways that those trying to undermine her are not. Ritz has treated Republicans in power as if she and they are members of the same team. (Such a concept is rare nowadays, but in Ritz it is a virtual reality; she was a life-long Republican before switching parties to take on Bennett.) Ritz solicits Republicans’ input on policy changes and has promised to properly manage reform programs she opposed. She has focused on common-ground education improvements, backing Gov. Pence’s push for revitalized vocational training in high schools.
Yes, Ritz has no choice but to accommodate the majority party, given the political realities in the Statehouse. Still, Ritz has sincerely embraced compromise — a trait the people want but party-line politicos detest.
Last week, Republicans unmoved by her outreach forged ahead with bills to strip her authority and pointlessly penalize teachers unions that supported her campaign. House Bill 1342 threatened to shift oversight of the private school voucher program from the Indiana Department of Education (headed by Ritz) to the Office of Management and Budget (controlled by Pence). Why? To guarantee that vouchers would be handled by an “impartial” manager, the bill’s author told the Indianapolis Star.
Impartial? Really? Pence, a staunch voucher proponent, is no more impartial to the concept than Ritz, who opposed them. To her credit, she told the Star, “I took an oath to uphold the law. I may not personally agree with vouchers but I have a responsibility to uphold the law.” Pence told the Star he supports the takeover bill.
Admirably, House Speaker Brian Bosma — increasingly a voice of reason in the capital — interceded and dropped HB 1342, for now. But two other political payback bills — one forcing Ritz to share oversight of the grading system of schools, and another prohibiting districts from permitting voluntary payroll deductions of teacher union dues — stayed alive.
Through it all, so far, Ritz has stuck to the high road, approaching quality education as a nonpartisan issue. Her detractors look petty and manipulative. Hoosiers are noticing. Those images will be hard to forget.