It’s always amusing to watch otherwise smart people do stupid things.
I’m thinking about the way the members of the self-proclaimed education reform crowd have let Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz get under their skin.
Let’s take stock of where things are.
Two years ago, Ritz, a Democrat, upset the incumbent, Republican Tony Bennett, even though most of the people in the state had no idea who she was. Hoosiers voted for her because they couldn’t stand Tony Bennett and much of what he represented and Ritz’s name was the closest thing they could find to an “anyone but Tony Bennett” line on the ballot.
As soon as Ritz won, every Republican – and some Democrats who say they want education reform – vowed to corral her and make her life difficult.
They have honored that vow.
Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, created a shadow department of education designed to thwart Ritz at every turn. The state board of education – a body with every member appointed by a Republican governor – has engaged in non-stop skirmishing with Ritz and even recently rewrote the board’s own rules to try to strip her of influence. And education board members, along with other folks in the education privatization amen crowd, have kept up a steady stream of newspaper columns and letters to the editor blasting Ritz for every imaginable sin.
In the process, they’ve built massive name recognition for Ritz. Normally, achieving statewide name recognition is an expensive process for a political figure, one that requires significant fundraising efforts and advertising buys.
In this case, Ritz’s opponents have delivered it to her as a gift.
Even better – from her perspective, that is – they have done it in a way that has cemented her image with her constituency as a kind of latter-day Joan of Arc defying and fighting an array of bullies who seize upon every opportunity to oppress, belittle and demean her.
And, of course, oppress, belittle and demean all the people who voted for her.
Is there one thing Gov. Pence, the education board members or the education reform camp followers have done that is likely to change the minds of Hoosiers who voted for Ritz the first time around?
To the contrary, all of their efforts just have made her more formidable.
It didn’t have to be this way, even if they did want to play hardball with her. They likely would have won if they had engaged in what they say they want – a public debate about education in Indiana.
When Ritz took office, they could have asked what her plans for improving the state’s schools were. If they didn’t like those plans – as they undoubtedly wouldn’t have – they could have conducted lengthy and public discussions about how much the Ritz “agenda” cost and hung the price tag around her neck like an anvil. If she had expressed reservations about, say, vouchers, they could have expressed alarm about how she wanted to trap students, many of them black and poor, in bad schools. They could have made her seem like the aggressor and cast themselves as the defenders.
But they didn’t.
Maybe they were so locked into fighting with – and attempting to break – the teachers’ union that they couldn’t see straight. Perhaps they have become so accustomed to holding and wielding power that the idea of a loss knocked them for a loop. Possibly the notion that the voters might not support their plans, even if they hadn’t explained those plans particularly well, sent them into a panic that managed to override both their political instincts and their common sense.
Who knows? It might have been a combination of all three. The result, though, is that Gov. Pence and other Republicans were confronted with a molehill two years ago in Ritz. Since then, they’ve packed and pounded so much dirt onto that molehill that they’ve built it into a mountain.
With enemies like these, Glenda Ritz really doesn’t need friends.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.