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March 6, 2011

House Dems flex political muscles and show they still have some

INDIANAPOLIS — For much of the past week, I’ve been like the Indiana House Democrats: Missing in action.

I was felled by a nasty case of the flu. They ditched the Statehouse — and stayed ditched — to flex some political muscle. In a quorum-busting move, the party out of power in the Statehouse showed they still had some power after all.

Before a fever overtook me, I traveled to their “hide-out” — a dreary Comfort Suites hotel off Interstate 74 just outside Urbana, Ill.

Here’s what I saw: Some weary-looking legislators — many in blue jeans and sweatshirts — camped out in a nondescript conference room with their laptops and coffee cups.

When I arrived, they’d been there for five days. When I wrote this column, the majority of the House Democrats who’d fled the state in a headline-grabbing effort to stall some labor and education legislation were on their 10th day there.

For all the drama that accompanied their departure on Feb. 21, life at the $99-a-night Comfort Suites looked pretty mundane.

There’s a laundry room but no bar at the hotel. There is an indoor swimming pool, but it’s small and the handful of children I saw splashing in it — all with a traveling youth sports team — whined that the water was cold.

Most of the action I witnessed took place in the lobby, where visitors stayed clung to their coats since every time the front doors opened, a blast of cold air blew through.

The containers of complimentary coffee were long emptied, though a stack of Wall Street Journals — the weekend issue — remained untouched. On the front page: a flattering profile of their nemesis, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, accompanied by a picture of him on his motorcycle. The headline: “The Governor Who Cut His State Down to Size.”

On the day of my visit, scores of supporters showed up to stage a small rally in the parking lot. The crowd size paled in comparison to the thousands of slogan-chanting, sign-carrying protesters — led one day by Hollywood actor Danny Glover — who’d been crowding in or around the Statehouse the week the House Dems fled.

But the sentiment seemed the same. Representing public school teachers and other union workers, they saw the fugitive lawmakers as heroes in an epic battle between good and evil.

When they spotted the diminutive Democratic Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, they greeted him with applause — and some noisy kisses from some of the middle-age women in the crowd.

Later that evening, a small group with a different point of view took their place outside the entrance to the hotel parking lot. Standing in the dark, they waved signs telling the Indiana lawmakers to “Go Home!”

If and when they’ll heed that suggestion remained uncertain by this week’s end. My flu-induced fever had broken by Thursday, just in time for me to read the flurry of news reports on seemingly failed efforts to reach some compromise that would return lawmakers back to the Statehouse.

Those stories were later topped off by threats from Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma to invoke a House rule that would allow him to fine the missing Democrats $250 every day they stay out unless they return by Monday.

Those news stories were all I needed to know I was on the path to wellness. I’d dreamed some strange dreams while I was ill, but none quite as strange as the reality that’s been unfolding in this session of the Indiana General Assembly.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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