Encouraging words eased any jitters Tonya Pfaff felt each time she stepped to the podium in the Indiana House.

Nerves wouldn’t seem unusual for a freshman state representative such as Pfaff. A dose of uneasiness has likely hit hundreds of new lawmakers in the General Assembly’s two centuries. Yet, Pfaff — a 51-year-old high school math teacher from Terre Haute — discovered she had a unique support group during the 2019 legislative session, which wrapped up last week.

Women comprise the majority of the Indiana House’s Democratic Party caucus now, a first for either political party. Seventeen of the 33 House Democrats are women. That’s a significant ratio considering there are only 35 women of either party in the entire 150-member General Assembly. Of course, all Democrats remain massively outnumbered by Republicans in Indiana’s House (67 to 33) and Senate (40 to 10). Still, the historic niche for Democratic female House members provided Pfaff with extra assurance in her debut inside the Statehouse.

“Whenever I go to the microphone and speak, I always get a little bit nervous, still,” Pfaff said the afternoon of April 26, barely a day after a marathon finish to the session. “I’ll walk back [to my seat], and I’ll have texts [saying], ‘Nice job.’ And they’re always from the other women in my caucus. And I don’t think the men do that for each other. So, being a woman, we just really support each other.”

Male colleagues were helpful, too. Representatives seated to Pfaff’s left and right were quick to answer when she’d say, “What just happened?”

She received mentoring from retired lawmaker Clyde Kersey — who served 22 years in the same District 43 seat Pfaff won last November — and current Rep. Ed Delaney, a Democrat from Indianapolis. And, she collaborated with fellow Terre Haute area lawmakers Reps. Bob Heaton and Alan Morrison, and Sen. Jon Ford — all Republicans — on legislation to bring a casino to Vigo County.

“Everyone is just so incredibly nice and so helpful,” Pfaff said. “You go over there and people want you to succeed.”

Contentious moments arise, nonetheless. Pfaff disagreed with a proposal to fund optional firearms training for teachers, raising several concerns including the chance that a student could steal a teacher’s weapon at school. She also unsuccessfully pushed an amendment that prohibited any participants in active-shooter training to be shot with plastic pellets after teachers received wounds in an incident at Monticello.

“This kind of training saves lives, but there is no need for people to actually get shot during training,” Pfaff said.

Eventually, the entire bill failed to pass.

Pfaff authored four bills herself on topics such as allowing voters to register at the polls and making kindergarten mandatory for 5-year-olds. None moved forward. Given the other party’s super-majority dominance, that’s not surprising. Despite the difficulty in advancing a Democratic bill, Pfaff saw positives in the session. Opposing opinions altered or helped to derail some bills, she said. Being a voice of dissent often carries little notoriety.

“I’ve learned to work with a lot of Republicans on the committees I’m in. Although I don’t always get credit for my ideas, at the end of the day if it changes the course of the bill, I’m satisfied,” Pfaff said.

Landmark election

It’s not unusual for Terre Haute to be represented by the minority party. As a Democrat, Kersey operated in that position for his last four terms. It’s also not unusual for a Democrat to represent the city. Only one Republican since 1982 has held the District 43 seat, after its redistricting. But it is unusual for that representative to be female. Pfaff is the first woman elected as Terre Haute’s representative since 1944, when Emma Mary May — a co-founder of the Terre Haute League of Women Voters in 1920 — won as a Democrat.

May joined a wave of 14 women statewide who served in the House in the 1940s, according to an Indiana University study in 2010. Just 12 women had held House seats prior to World War II and after 1920, the year women won voting rights through the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Today, women hold 23.3 percent of the Indiana General Assembly’s 150 seats. That’s an all-time high, yet it falls short of the national average. Women make up 28.7 percent of state legislatures, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports.

For Pfaff, being part of the Indiana House Democratic Caucus’ first female majority felt “empowering.” She also sensed no slights as a women in dealings with Republicans during her first session. “I didn’t ever notice a man-woman thing,” she said, “but I’m also a freshman.”

Her interactions with legislators of both parties impressed Rep. Ryan Hatfield, a second-term Evansville Democrat who sits next to Pfaff.

“One of the keys to being effective in the Legislature is working to have relationships both in the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Caucus, and to forge compromises,” Hatfield said. “Tonya Pfaff was masterful at forging those relationships.”

Her ongoing experience as a Terre Haute North Vigo High School teacher also proved valuable, Hatfield said, with numerous education-related issues being debated. Pfaff helped “provide real-life applicability” with her comments, Hatfield said.

While education matters remain a priority for Pfaff, and its funding consumes the largest chunk of the state budget, she “was surprised at the number of [other] issues that came up.” Bills related to economic development, problems concerning the Department of Child Services, health care, lakefront issues specific to Lake County, opioid addiction services and, yes, gambling competed for legislators’ time, too.

“On a local level, as you can imagine, I spent about four months talking about the casino,” Pfaff said, “and that has such a huge impact on our community.” Her support of legislation to bring a casino to Vigo County — shepherded by Republican Sens. Jon Ford of Terre Haute and Mark Messer of Jasper — was bolstered by Pfaff’s “many, many” conversations with legislators from other casino cities.

“Overall, [having a casino has] been a positive in every community,” Pfaff said. The legislation requires a referendum vote on the casino by Vigo County voters, a step Pfaff favors. Voters will answer the referendum question during either this fall’s Terre Haute municipal election, or the county’s primary next May. 

“I strongly believe that the people of this community need to be the ones that decide whether we have it or not,” Pfaff said.

Her efforts on the casino issue and others impressed Ford, now in his second Senate term. “I think Tonya did a great job,” Ford said Tuesday. “She represented her district very well, and really made a good name for herself.”

Remembering his first year in the Statehouse, Ford said newcomer legislators benefit themselves by listening. Bills and the concerns surrounding them come at rapid pace. Advice matters. “I think Tonya was very open to learning from others,” Ford said. “I think that helped her.”

Adjustments for family

Indeed, Pfaff didn’t hesitate to seek her colleagues’ insight, and the assistance provided to lawmakers, such as researchers from the state’s Legislative Services Agency. “If you’re not one to ask questions, whoa, you’d be lost,” Pfaff said. “And I’ve always asked a lot of questions.”

Seeing firsthand the winding path bills follow before hitting roadblocks or becoming law enlightened Pfaff. “Just learning the process has been absolutely amazing and fascinating,” she said. “It really kind of gives me more faith in the bills that we’re passing, in that there’s so many checks and balances in the system. I’m not saying I agree with all the bills.”

In fact, she often disagreed. After all, most of the bills that reached the governor’s desk bore Republican names. Pfaff adapted to serving as a source of checks and balances.

“I’ve always surrounded myself with like-minded people, in values and morals and beliefs,” she said. “So going over to the House, where there’s 67 Republicans and 33 Democrats, everyone there — they’re good people. I just don’t agree with a lot of their fundamental principles. So it’s really opened my eyes to what other people are very passionate about. I’ve shaken my head a lot this session.”

The rigors of political work weren’t foreign to Pfaff. Her dad, Fred Nation, served as press secretary to former Gov. Evan Bayh, and her brother, Todd, serves on the Terre Haute City Council. Still, her victory over city attorney Eddie Felling in last November’s District 43 race created a new twist for Pfaff and her own family — husband Chris, and their four kids. Three of their children are in college. The youngest attends North.

Being a wife, mom and legislator driving back and forth to Indianapolis weekdays “is hard,” she said. Pfaff recalled forgetting to pick up her daughter from school once during the session. “As a mom, that doesn’t go away,” she said.

Pfaff reflected on her first lawmaking experience in an interview on a Friday afternoon at the Tribune-Star. The following week, she would resume her routine as teacher-wife-mom, following her legislative break from teaching high school.

“Kate, my 15-year-old, is at North. I’ll be back in the classroom on Monday,” Pfaff explained, grinning. “She’s very excited about that, to get her mom back.”

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

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.