Among the favored speaking venues of state Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson are fourth-grade classrooms where Hoosier schoolchildren are taught Indiana history.
It’s where the 27-year veteran of the Indiana General Assembly — and the first woman to hold a leadership position of her kind — likes to illustrate a talking point by writing the word “power” on the blackboard.
With an eye especially toward girls in the room, Simpson delivers this message: “Power can be used for good.”
She’s convinced that’s so, even though in numbers she’s the least powerful leader in the legislature.
The 65-year-old lawmaker, lawyer, grandmother and self-described “progressive” from the small town of Ellettsville heads the 13-member Democratic caucus in the state Senate that is dwarfed by a conservative Republican “super majority.”
After the GOP sweep of the 2010 elections, Republicans took possession of 37 seats in the Senate, giving them enough bodies to make a quorum and conduct legislative business without a single Democrat showing up.
That same election tipped the scales for Republicans in the House, but to a lesser degree. So while most House Democrats took a long walk in the 2011 session — leaving town for five weeks to protest bills they saw as anti-labor — Senate Democrats stayed behind to fight as best they could.
For Simpson, it felt like a losing battle when she couldn’t stop what she describes as the “radical agenda” of Republicans who de-funded Planned Parenthood, launched private-school vouchers, wiped out local gun-control laws, and dramatically reduced the power of teachers’ unions.
Shortly before the end of the 2011 session, she sent out a Twitter tweet that read in part: “Awful day in Senate today. No citizen left unscathed by Repub majority.”
Now Simpson is bracing for the 2012 session, which begins in early January and is expected to be as raucous, if not more so, than the last one.
“It’s frustrating to be a woman in the Indiana Senate as it is,” Simpson said. “And it’s frustrating to be in the minority. But being a Democrat woman in the Senate has never been so frustrating.”
Yet if Simpson worries about the diminishing power of her caucus, political observers say she still has clout.
Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of the weekly Indiana Legislative Insight, said Simpson’s heft comes, in part, from her seniority — she’s the second-longest serving senator — and her tenacity. “She is a tireless advocate for her issues and for her caucus,” Feigenbaum said. “There is nothing you can put in her way that will keep her from pursuing what she sees as best for her constituents and her caucus members.”
Brian Howey, longtime chronicler of Indiana politics for the Howey Political Report, said Simpson is adept at using the bully pulpit of her position to challenge the party in power, both on and off the Senate floor.
“If you’re the Senate Democrat leader, you don’t have clout when it comes to getting legislation through or stopping legislation,” Howey said. “Instead, you have to try to shape public opinion.”
Going into the 2012 session, Simpson has been working to shape public opinion about Republican leaders the Statehouse. She’s been chastising them for executing power with a heavy hand in the last session and dishing out doses of disrespect to Democrats by cutting off debate and manipulating procedural rules to fast-track controversial legislation.
It’s a charge Republican leaders deny. “I am disappointed she sees it that way,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, who describes the 2011 session as one of the most difficult in Statehouse history.
“I don’t think anyone was treated with disrespect.”
Simpson doesn’t appear to be backing down. Just a day before legislators met for their ceremonial Organization Day in November, she gave a public finger-wagging to Long after the Fort Wayne Republican announced that his top legislative priority would be the contentious “right to work” bill. That’s the legislation — which undercuts union power in the workplace by banning labor agreements that require all workers to pay union dues – that sent House Democrats packing last session.
That Long broke with past protocol and announced it at a surprise press conference with his GOP counterpart, House Majority Leader Brian Bosma, without telling her first is a sign of what’s to come in January, Simpson said: “I expect it to be a very partisan and divisive session.”
Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.