News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 5, 2012

New House Democrat leader offers more seats at decision-making table

By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — The nameplate outside the office of the House Minority Leader wasn’t the only thing that changed when Indiana House Democrats ousted their longtime boss in a dramatic coup late last month.

Gone, too, is the big desk where the now deposed leader, South Bend state Rep. Patrick Bauer, once sat, replaced by an oval-shaped conference room table with multiple chairs.

It was put there this past week by seven-term state Rep. Linda Lawson. She was tapped by her fellow dissidents to lead them through the tough election season ahead in which they fear losing more ground to Republicans who dominate the Statehouse.

“I don’t want this to be a place where people are afraid to come into and just have a conversation,” said Lawson. “I don’t want it to be off limits to anybody.”

Lawson, 56, is a former police captain from Hammond lauded by colleagues for being both inclusive and wary of power.

In that, they say, she’s the antithesis of Bauer, a pugnacious political leader known by friends and enemies alike for his autocratic style in his 10 years as caucus leader.

Lawson, who long favored back row seats in the House chamber — a place usually reserved for rookie lawmakers — said she’d rarely been in the office she now occupies. That changed in 2010, when Bauer picked her as a deputy, naming her as the minority floor leader and moving her up to a front row.

“This is not something I ever wanted to do,” Lawson said, sitting at the conference table in her new office. “I’m not kidding: I’d been in this room maybe 10 times up until two  years ago.”

The move comes at a critical time: Going into the November election, House Democrats hold 40 seats in the 100-member House. They fear losing even a few seats, which would give the GOP a super-majority in the House. Republicans already hold a super-majority in the Senate, meaning they can pass legislation without a single Democratic vote.

Lawson — a self-described progressive who admits to being arrested outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — was the surprise pick to fill the role unwillingly vacated by Bauer on July 26, after a majority of House Democrats met in a Lafayette union hall and voted him out.

But she appears to be a welcome one, chosen in part to repair some of the damage done by the public exhibition of an intraparty struggle. Bauer bitterly opposed his ouster,  calling a press conference to declare the vote to remove him illegal. He blamed disgruntled, intraparty enemies who found him too old, too short, and too “follicly impaired” — his reference to his baldness that he covers with a toupee.

State Rep. Terri Austin, an Anderson Democrat who helped oust Bauer, said Lawson’s standing — as a respected, experienced legislative leader who craves collaboration over control — makes her the “right person at the right time.”

That sentiment is echoed by state Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, who broke from his caucus by refusing to take part in the Bauer-led walkouts in the last two sessions that were designed to stall GOP-backed legislation opposed by union labor. Stemler said Lawson, who took part in the walkouts, disagreed but respected his decision. “She’s a fair- and open-minded person who’s willing to hear you out,” Stemler said. “That’s all you can really ask.”

Lawson even won praise from House Republican Speaker Brian Bosma, whom Bauer gleefully took on as a political enemy. Bosma called Lawson a “very capable individual and experienced and respected leader,” noting her work as past chair of the House judiciary committee. “We don’t have to agree on everything to be able to work together,” Bosma said. While Bauer has painted his forced removal as a painful and embarrassing betrayal that will damage the Democrats’ chances of holding steady in the Statehouse, Lawson and others involved with the matter say that’s not true.

Lawson said the action was taken after several closed-door meetings with Bauer, including one last September when state Rep. Ed Delaney, a respected Indianapolis lawyer who rarely claims center-stage, pleaded with Bauer to unclench his tight hold on power.

Delaney and Lawson both believed that Bauer had led them to becoming the “party of No” — offering objections and obstruction but no positive message of what it meant to be a Democrat.

“I thought we needed to look outside the ‘granite’” Delaney said, referring to the Statehouse, which is built of stone. “I thought we needed to switch from defense to offense.”

Delaney said Lawson is a leader who will get them moving in that direction. “She’s a modern moderate Democrat — concerned about people’s welfare but also about public safety,” Delaney said.

Lawson came into the job knowing it’s temporary. After the November election, House Democrats will meet again to decide on a leader. Lawson isn’t sure if she’ll even stand for the job.

“I liked sitting in the back row,” she said. “After we move a few more Democrats up, I’d like to get back there again.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.