House Speaker Brian Bosma managed to, if not upstage, then share the stage with an estimated 15,000 teachers and their supporters who flooded the Statehouse Tuesday.
As they turned the hallways into rivers of red for their “Red For Ed” rally and filled the Rotunda with jeers and cheers, Bosma told lawmakers in the House chamber the 2020 session will be his last.
His decision was only somewhat surprising, as rumors that Indiana’s longest-serving speaker of the House might be ready to hand over the gavel had floated for a while. But it was surprising he chose to make the announcement that day, the single-day organizational meeting that generally is a perfunctory precursor to the legislative session that starts in January.
For Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican, going into the legislature was akin to joining the family business. His father Charles served in the Senate, across the second floor from the House, from 1960 to 1980. Bosma was first elected in 1986 to the House, and frankly was suited to the more bare-knuckled House where budgets are born and governors are second in power to the speaker when the legislature is in session.
I first met Bosma when I started covering the legislature in 1991. He was already a key player, becoming minority floor leader in 1994 before ascending to the top minority leadership position in 2000. The 2004 elections — which saw a national GOP tide and Mitch Daniels’ victory as governor — allowed him to finally overcome Democrat-drawn legislative maps to become speaker.
Among his achievements: Live-streaming legislative sessions and committee hearings so the public could watch without driving to Indianapolis and eliminating lifetime health insurance for lawmakers.
He defused a PR snafu for Republicans when one member refused to back a resolution honoring the Girl Scouts by pointedly eating Girl Scout cookies at the podium. He showed his conservative streak by backing efforts to ban same-sex marriage and to pass the religious freedom law that caused a national furor — but was politically savvy (or lucky) enough that most of the repercussions hit then-Gov. Mike Pence and not him.
One of his biggest challenges came in 2011, when Democrats held enough seats to stop votes by not showing up. They fled to Illinois to stop anti-union right-to-work legislation from passing. Through the standoff, Bosma adopted his mantra: “Keep Calm and Carry On,” even sipping from a coffee cup with that slogan at his regular media availabilities. And though the bill was pulled that year, Bosma won in the long run. The next election gave the GOP a supermajority and the ability to pass that and anything else they wanted.
As he spoke Tuesday, Bosma trumpeted his tenure’s greatest hits of road funding, economic development and balanced budgets, including the first budget he helped pass in 2005. It came, he touted, with no tax increase.
True, state taxes didn’t rise. But the budget contributed to property tax increases the next couple years so steep that voters rebelled. The GOP lost the House, making Bosma minority leader again until the 2010 elections.
The legislature is a series of chain reactions. Those property tax hikes led to property tax caps which led to changes in how schools are funded. And the education reforms of which Daniels and Bosma were chief architects led to more and more charter schools; vouchers even for families who can afford private school tuition; and changes in accountability that tie teacher evaluations to constantly changing standardized tests.
And all that led to Tuesday’s rally of teachers yelling that enough was enough.
Bosma told the teachers: “I get it.”
But unless major changes pass this session, those frustrations will be the next speaker’s headache, not his.
Bosma is leaving while he is on top. The next election, shaping up as a good year for Democrats nationally, likely will erase the GOP supermajority in the House.
Even he would have had to fight harder for re-election. He only won the Marion County portion of his district by 17 votes in 2018, and the full district by about 3,700 out of 34,000 votes cast. It’s grown more Democratic since, and in 2020 he would have faced campaign flyers and ads, rather than just whispers, about allegations of a 1990s affair with an intern.
By leaving now, he also doesn’t have to deal with budgets that are going to get harder to cobble together in ways that satisfy public education needs and a 2021 redistricting in which too many Republicans are going to be seeking safe districts.
His timing is good. And he can tell the next speaker: “Keep calm and carry on.”
Mary Beth Schneider is an editor with TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists.