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July 22, 2012

BRIAN HOWEY: Extinction of the Bauersaurus?

When I was a high school page for House Speaker Kermit Burrous back in the early 1970s, I remember standing at the Speaker’s podium for a photo with him, and looking out across the House chambers as members gathered for the session. I saw Chet Dobis and Jeff Espich, and, of course, the little giant, the martinet of the St. Joe, one B. Patrick Bauer.

I’m 56 years old now, and those guys are still there! I have a term for the public servant who doesn’t know when to hang it up: Feet firsters. You know how that goes: The only way they’ll leave the Statehouse or U.S. Capitol is feet first, on a stretcher to either the ambulance or the hearse.

This year, 2012, is becoming the anti-FF. It began in the days and then hours leading up to the February filing deadline when a slew of long-time legislators decided to hang it up. The first was former Ways & Means Chairman William Crawford.

U.S. Rep. Dan Burton came to the House floor where his career began and declared he would retire. Burton was smart enough to read the tea leaves after winning reelection in the 2010 Republican primary with a paltry 29 percent of the vote. Then came the parade of House Democrats: Reps. Chet Dobis, Dale Grubb, John Day, Nancy Dembowski, Dave Cheatham and even the relatively youthful looking Dan Stevenson.

All had had it. They cited a polarized atmosphere, special interests willing to spend huge bucks against them, and they saw angry voters who make political dinosaurs vulnerable.

As were Senate Finance Chairman Larry Borst in the 2004 Republican primary and Senate President Pro Tempore Robert D. Garton in the same humbling method two years later. Both lost to little known challengers.

These leaders accrued nicks, cuts, barnacles, and vociferous enemies and insurgent PACs with an array of conspicuous and hidden agendas.

This was a precursor to the most epic retirement party of all: U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar’s landslide loss to Richard Mourdock in the May Republican primary.

Republican pollster Christine Matthews — half of the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll team — observed after the April 30/May poll that while 15 percent of pending Republican primary voters were voting for Mourdock due to ideology and Tea Party issues, a vast majority decided to retire Lugar because of his age and that he had “been there too long.”

That may be the message Hoosier voters are trying to deliver this year: No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, there are limits to how long we want you doing our bidding in Washington and Indianapolis, or even at City Hall.

A decade ago, it was almost unfathomable to think that a Lugar, Burton, Garton or Borst could be dislodged from their perches. Today, no one is safe.

The behavior of Hoosier voters belies the need for term limits.

Which gets me back to Democratic House Minority Leader Bauer, who has survived two caucus coup attempts since June 28.

The reason that a good chunk of his House caucus is up in arms is that a state legislator has an ear to the ground and is attuned to what the folks back home are saying. They hear: “We’re mad as hell.”

But more emphatically, Bauer’s oversight of the 2010 campaign when Democrats went from a majority to a 40/60 minority has been a calamity for the party.

Informed and reliable Democratic sources tell me that in early fall of that year, polling showed veteran State Reps. Bob Bischoff, Paul Robertson, Sandra Blanton and others losing by big numbers. All lost in a big way.

In the meantime, resources were not directed into tighter races that the party could have retained. They included campaigns of State Reps. John Barnes, who lost to Cindy Kirchofer by 598 votes; Ron Herrell, who was defeated by Mike Karickhoff by 818 votes; Joe Pearson, who lost to Kevin Mahan 7,198 to 6,121; Bob Dieg in the seat vacated by State Rep. Trent Van Haaften (who ran in the 8th CD) and lost by four votes to Wendy McNamara; and Mike Goebel in the seat of retiring State Rep. Dennis Avery, who lost to Ron Bacon by 164 votes; as well as House Minority Leader Russ Stilwell, who lost to current Republican lieutenant governor nominee Sue Ellspermann by 880 votes.

Those tactical decisions have been disastrous for the Indiana Democratic Party and its core constituencies. Right to Work is the classic example. Republicans easily passed it with votes to spare, allowing potentially vulnerable freshmen like State Rep. Mike Karickhoff and State Rep. Tom Dermody, both representing heavily unionized areas, to vote nay.

Had House Democrats been able to hang on to 45 seats, the Right to Work issue would have been much more arduous for the GOP, with more political implications for the 2012 cycle.

Some House Democrats now see a dinosaur — a Bauersaurus — who missed the asteroid trail that lit the primitive night skies in 2004, 2006 and now 2010; the one that brought climate change.

There’s climate change in the Statehouse, and if you use a Grecian formula, a walker, an oxygen canister, if you keep losing your bifocals and you think tweeting is for the birds, well, it just might be time for you to go home.

Brian Howey publishes at Find him on Twitter @hwypol.

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