Historically, successful politicians have been skilled at making the electorate feel good, proud, or optimistic about things. The recent fear-based campaigns notwithstanding, it is conventional campaigning that dictates this as a rule. If it is possible for a candidate to avoid “going negative,” do it. If you are an incumbent and can claim ownership of some positive circumstance, then jump all over it. It doesn’t matter who or what is truly the cause anyway, right?
Gov. Mike Pence’s latest challenge is an unforced error that should not have been allowed to happen. Democrats don’t even seem to be prepared for it. Pence had an indisputable bright side in his campaign war chest, of which no one in their right mind could imagine him losing. And that bright side was Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann.
The news broke that Ellspermann has interest in leaving her post to become the new president of Ivy Tech Community College. In and of itself, this is a great idea for the college. And there is no institution in Indiana in need of a shot in the arm more than Ivy Tech. It’s graduation rate and student debt performance of late has been horrendous. Its leadership is turning over prematurely. The mess there is a golden opportunity for her.
I have some experience with this kind of thing in government work: Find the biggest mess available and volunteer to fix it. It’s a foolproof way to show your worth. Strong leadership will show results here. Count on it. And if she ends up with this job, a question that should not even need asked, she will undoubtedly be even more politically strong afterward. It’s a good move for her. Maybe even a great move for her, and Indiana will do well as a result also.
And that’s the end of the good news.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine how this unfolded in the Pence administration. If I were governor — and I think the state can be thankful that I am not — and Ellspermann came to me saying she wanted to do this, I would have done almost anything to convince her otherwise. Not having her on the ticket in 2016 as his running mate is a big deal for Pence’s re-election bid. A monumental deal in fact. Anyone who sees it otherwise just isn’t paying attention.
Since the inauguration in January of 2013, she has been on her “Listen and Learn” tour, visiting all 92 counties. The people of this state have gotten to know her. She has assembled and led a task force to study and address rural broadband deployment, an all but certain 2016 campaign issue. This work resulted in legislation on the matter with more almost certainly to come. And she has taken her role as a woman in government seriously with her engagement on behalf of Carly Fiorina’s participation on the main stage of the GOP presidential debates making national news.
I was lucky enough to hear her speak at the opening luncheon for the Lugar Series, a women’s leadership program, in October. The series’ tag line of “Excellence in Public Service” gave her the appropriate format to call out for more women leaders in all levels of government. She is a graduate of the program, and one of its best. Coupled with her degrees in Industrial Engineering from Purdue, and her Ph.D. in the same subject from the University of Louisville, she has a near perfect resume to remain on the re-elect campaign.
Oh, and there isn’t a memorable misstep on that resume either. I just wish there had been some polling done on her before this week. I’m betting her favorables are off the chart.
But she may be off the team for re-election now. And while everyone in government is replaceable, Indiana Republicans will not be able to make up the ground they lost here. Her three years of work can’t be replaced in 10 months, even if her replacement is unequivocally awesome.
Which leads us back to the baffling nature of this news. How could the Pence team let their one indisputable bright side get away? All that has come from them on the matter is that they have encouraged her to pursue the Ivy Tech job. What? The options available to them to better handle her desire to go to Ivy Tech and win re-election simultaneously are almost infinite.
It is as if they don’t know a good, or great thing when they see it.
Sue Ellspermann has been the consistent bright side of the Pence team from the start. Since the road started getting truly bumpy for them this Spring, she has remained unscathed and productive.
Being unable to recognize one of the clear successes of the term, and see how to use it to boost the optimism of voters, is a bad sign for the governor. On the bright side, I am confident that she will continue to be a leader in Indiana no matter how the dust settles on this one.
It is the administration she leaves behind and their political recovery from this that remains far more uncertain.