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November 23, 2012

On the other side of power, State Senate minority leader finds solace in the fight

INDIANAPOLIS — The new minority leader in the Indiana Senate has some advice for his Democratic colleagues in the other legislative chamber that goes something like: Keep your chin up and stay in the fight.

State Sen. Tim Lanane, elected last week as floor leader of the 13-member Democratic caucus in the Senate, has spent the past two years in the position House Democrats now find themselves in: on the other side of a Republican supermajority.

It’s not a fun place to be. The super power of a supermajority means the party in power doesn’t need a single member from the other party to cast a vote, or even to show up, to pass a law.

“There is a tendency to say, ‘Oh well, it’s over. What can we do? We know we’re going to get our brains beat,’ ” said Lanane. “That makes the role of the minority even more important.”

For Lanane, a 60-year-old attorney from Anderson, that role means making sure he and his members make their dissenting voices heard during the legislative session — in committee hearings and on the Senate floor — even if they can’t make their dissenting votes count.

“At all times, the duty of the minority is to challenge the majority on their thoughts and ideas,” Lanane said. “Because that’s what the public expects and that’s what they deserve.”  

Lanane brings that kind of intention and optimism to a job vacated by state Sen. Vi Simpson, an Ellettsville Democrat who gave up her minority-leader role when she became John Gregg’s running mate in the race for governor.

Gregg’s loss to Republican Mike Pence, plus the GOP’s take of 69 of the 100 seats in the state House, makes Lanane’s job all the harder.

But he doesn’t give much voice to discouragement. Lanane has spent all 14 years of his legislative career in the minority; while Republicans have only had supermajority control since 2010, they’ve had the majority of the 50 seats in the state Senate since 1978.

For Lanane  — a mild-mannered man who seems to favor the process of policy-making over a political grappling match — that’s meant raising a dissenting voice when needed, but it’s also meant crafting alliances on cross-party issues when he can.

The latter includes some election-related legislation he carried with Republican lawmaker Connie Lawson, who is now Secretary of State, and the bill he co-authored that put into place new outdoor-stage safety rules in response to the fatal stage collapse at the 2011 State Fair.  

Lanane’s patience with the legislative process comes in part from his long interest and involvement in politics, first awakened in 1960 when then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy made a visit to Anderson. Lanane was just 8, but as a kid in an Irish-Catholic family, “it was a big deal. We were all very excited,” he said. Another childhood memory: handing out books of matches at a polling place; they were emblazoned with the name and face of his uncle, a local politician.

After Lanane got his undergraduate degree at Ball State University, he went to law school at Indiana University, married into a politically involved family in Anderson, and later ran his sister-in-law’s primary campaign for the state legislature. She lost, but it led to another race, in which he managed the winning campaign of Anderson’s Democratic mayoral candidate, Mark Lawler, in 1987.

Lanane stayed active in local politics and in 1997 was picked to fill the state Senate seat vacated by Bill McCarty, when McCarty was appointed head of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

The past two years in the legislature may have been the least fun for Lanane. He opposed some major legislation that Republicans pushed through, including the creation of the nation’s largest voucher program for private schools, and the so-called right-to-work law that banned labor contracts that require employees to be members of a union.

He has some dread about the next session, in which he expects the return of some divisive social issues that may include more abortion restrictions, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and a bill to teach creationism in public schools — all measures he and most of his caucus members oppose.

If and when they do, Lanane will lead the small chorus of dissenting voices in the debate. “It’s the duty of the minority,” he said. “You can’t shirk it. If anything, you have to be even more committed to dive in.”  

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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