News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 15, 2014

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Coauthor of election laws may have to worry about own race

INDIANAPOLIS — Connie Lawson had a speech ready for the state Republican party delegates who picked her as their Secretary of State candidate, putting her at the top of an all-female ticket in November.

But she never got to deliver it.

Instead, time was stolen by a fight over same-sex marriage, a contentious contest for the State Treasurer’s slot, and the headline-grabbing remarks of outgoing Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who said the nation was going the way of Nazi Germany.

As the two-day convention ground to an end, exhausted delegates retreated for home. Rather than speaking to empty chairs, Lawson graciously said a brief thank you.

“I didn’t get to say what a good job our office has done,” said a clearly disappointed Lawson.

Appointed as Secretary of State two years ago, Lawson replaced her disgraced Republican predecessor, Charlie White, a nakedly ambitious politician removed from his post after being convicted of felony voter fraud.

So this is her first statewide run, but not her first rodeo. Lawson, a grandmother who rides cutting horses, spent two terms as Hendricks County Clerk and 16 years in the state Senate. But coming from a Republican district, she’s never really faced a tough campaign.

Until now. Democrats are preparing to launch an aggressive campaign to recapture an office they haven’t won since 1998.

When Lawson, 63, was put into office, she was generally welcomed by Democrats and Republicans. Never known as a partisan flame-thrower, Lawson had prided herself on being part of a group of hard-working female legislators who took up the causes of neglected children, disabled adults and the mentally ill.

“It was my job to make sure people who didn’t have a voice in the hallway were heard,” said Lawson, referring to the influence-rich lobbyists who pack the hallway during the legislative session.

Lawson’s new task was to rid the office of her predecessor’s taint and erase the image that it was just a stepping stone: Both Democrats and Republicans have used it as a launching pad for higher office.

She promised to focus on her duties as the state’s chief election officer, enforcer of state securities regulations, regulator of automobile dealerships, and manager the state business services division. For that, she won her accolades.

“They wanted to see somebody in that office who would worry about the services and not about the politics,” she said.

But it is a political office, described as the second-most powerful job in the executive branch of the state government.

That’s true in the 39 states that elect secretaries of state, because they’re charged with most aspects of their state’s elections. Lawson has wide-ranging responsibility for everything from maintaining voter rolls to sending out absentee ballots to counting votes.

Soon, she’ll be launching a purge of the voter rolls, prompted by a lawsuit that claimed Indiana’s voting rolls were filled with dead people and others long gone from the state.

Democrats, including her opponent, the well-regarded Marion County Clerk Beth White, will be watching how she handles that.

Despite Lawson’s best hopes, the race is likely to be a highly partisan and increasingly expensive battle over an elected position that many Indiana voters know little about.

That’s already happening in the key presidential battleground states of Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada, where there are fierce partisan battles over voting rights. Prompting the millions of dollars pouring into these races are the wave of controversial GOP-led voter identification legislation, challenged repeatedly in court by Democratic groups arguing that they are intended to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

As a state senator, Lawson co-authored Indiana’s voter-ID law — one of the first in the nation — and pushed through other election-reform laws. That makes her vulnerable, though she’s ready with a defense: “We made reforms to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” she said.

Lawson has never really relished a hyper-partisan fight, but the race may change that: “I want to run a positive campaign,” she said. But I’ll stick up for myself if I need to.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI Statehouse Bureau. Reach her at maureen.hayden@ indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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