News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

September 26, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Hard-working and well-meaning, Hoosiers can lose track of ‘common sense,’ too

Indiana is good.

You can live, work and raise a family here in relative peace, because most other folks want to do those things, too. We live and let live, generally. It’s always been home, for some of us, and we’re proud of that.

When it comes to Hoosiers, to borrow a tongue-in-cheek phrase from my brother, “They’s good people.”

But seriously, if you listen to Indiana candidates now running for public office, you would have to conclude that Hoosiers are more than just good people. Instead, we are the wisest Americans, and perhaps even the wisest of all humans.

What do we have that inhabitants of New Hampshire, Arkansas and Belgium lack? No, not the RV/Mobile Home Hall of Fame.

“Common sense Hoosier values.”

It’s true, apparently. Common sense must grow like morels here. The political season reminds us of that perception.

Brad Ellsworth says he “will bring Hoosier values and common sense to the U.S. Senate.” Ellsworth, the 8th District congressman, also praised fellow Democrat Evan Bayh (who is vacating the Senate seat Ellsworth seeks) for having “served the people of Indiana with integrity and Hoosier common sense for over two decades.”

In the 9th District, Rep. Baron Hill says, “I bring to Congress the Hoosier values our government needs these days.” Ellsworth, Bayh and Hill aren’t alone. “I will bring Hoosier values and common sense to Congress,” says Tom Hayhurst, 3rd District Democratic candidate. Trent Van Haaften, running for Ellsworth’s 8th District spot, says he “will fight to bring good-paying jobs back to Indiana, work to cut the federal deficit and take our Hoosier values to Congress.”

Republicans have it, too. In TV ads, Larry Bucshon, 8th District candidate, says Washington needs “a dose of Hoosier values.” Marlin Stutzman, who’s running in the 3rd District congressional race, is “standing for Hoosier values.” When the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the state’s voter ID law this summer, Todd Rokita, the secretary of state and 4th District candidate, said, “Hoosier common sense prevails again.”

Now, I’ll admit to tossing the “Hoosier common sense” phrase a few times myself. In most cases, the references were to statesmen such as Lee Hamilton and Richard Lugar, to whom presidents often turn for advice. Sometimes, though, I’ve also extolled the cumulative strengths of Indiana folks, which are many.

Nonetheless, our state has its issues. Lest we forget, we Hoosiers also do things that don’t make much sense.

Such as?

Well, 26 percent of Indiana adults smoke. That’s the highest rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not coincidentally, we also rate among the worst (40th) in annual cancer deaths.

Indiana also has the seventh-highest rate of tobacco use by women during pregnancy in the U.S. A total of 18,000 babies are born annually to moms who smoked during their pregnancies, according to the Indiana University School of Medicine. Ten percent of pregnant women drank alcohol, and five percent used illegal drugs, the IU study found.

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, Indiana is No. 2 nationally in the manufacture and use of meth, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Forbes magazine rated Indiana’s environmental quality 49th out of the 50 states, ahead of only West Virginia. One reason: The state leads the nation in toxic discharges into bodies of water, Forbes said in its “America’s Greenest States” report.

An analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Indiana a grade of D-minus for its wastewater treatment practices, according to the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. The Hoosier state accounts for 12.5 percent of the combined storm-sanitary sewer systems in America. Improvements are planned in at least 10 of the 108 Indiana communities operating those combined sewer systems, the News-Sentinel reported.

Indiana had the fourth highest total of vehicle-train collisions last year — 98 — according to Operation Lifesaver. Fourteen Hoosiers died in those crashes.

We’re also the 17th most obese state, says a study by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In Indiana, 28.1 percent of the population fits the classification of obese. To combat childhood obesity, 20 states have adopted standards for school meals that are stricter than the federal USDA requirements; Indiana has not.

That’s a rough dose of Hoosier realities. Obviously, those trends aren’t the “Hoosier common sense” referred to in the campaign ads.

Those “common sense Hoosier values” depend upon the eyes of the beholder. The phrase may have first appeared in Evan Bayh’s secretary of state campaign in 1986 and was a spinoff of Ronald Reagan’s “American values” pitch in the 1980 presidential race, said Brian Vargus, political scientist at IUPUI.

“No one knows where the phrase originated,” Vargus explained. “It is vague on purpose, to allow a voter — the majority of whom do not follow politics directly — to assume they agree with the candidate.”

In other words, in terms of effective campaign strategy, such a tactic is just common sense.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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