By Lesley Weidenbener
On the day that Republican Mike Pence announced a "Big Red Truck Tour" to campaign across the state, his Democratic opponent John Gregg attacked him for using his Silverado pickup as an election year prop even though he voted against plans to bail out the company that makes it.
Gregg said at a debate Thursday in Fort Wayne that the General Motors plant in town – which makes Silverados – would be nothing more than the "world's largest indoor flea market" had Congress and President Barack Obama not stepped in to control the company's bankruptcy.
"That ain't a prop," Gregg said of Pence's pickup. He told debate-watchers it's 120,000 jobs that Pence "didn't raise one finger to help."
But Pence, who represents the state's 6th District in the U.S. House, said he voted no because he objected to the federal government's plan to put taxpayer money into GM and Chrysler. Instead, he said, he supported alternative proposals to help the auto industry.
"We had an opportunity to provide a backstop and federal loan guarantees that would've brought private investment through a structured bankruptcy that would have left them better than they are now," Pence said. "I wanted to do it without putting taxpayers on the hook."
That position, he said, was consistent with his earlier fight to block President George W. Bush's plan to bailout the banking industry. "I lost that fight and I fought it hard," Pence said. "I'll take a strong stand for taxpayers every time."
The back and forth was part of the last of three debates in a race that features Pence, Gregg and Libertarian Rupert Boneham. It was a forum that took place in the studios at WFWA Chanel 39 in Fort Wayne and was broadcast throughout the state – though a technical issue meant that the first 12 minutes of the event were blacked out for viewers in most of Indiana.
The debate took place just 12 days before the election and it covered issues that had been absent in the candidates' earlier meetings.
Boneham – answering a question from a nurse from Warsaw – said he'd support legalizing marijuana for medical use, as 18 states and the District of Columbia have done in some form.
Gregg was more reluctant. He said he'd oppose the overall decriminalization of marijuana, something a committee at the General Assembly studied last year. But he'd be more open to a discussion about its use for medical purposes.
"I'm a cancer survivor. I didn't use that but I had all kinds of pain," Gregg said. "I'm not inclined to (do it) but I would want to listen."
Pence was completely opposed to the idea. "I've seen too many people become involved with marijuana who've had their lives sidetracked as a result," he said. "We need to get more serious about confronting the scourge of drugs."
Trish Kolberg of Granger asked the candidates about teaching creationism in science classes. She referred to a bill passed earlier this year by the Indiana Senate that would have allowed districts to incorporate creationism into their curriculums – as long as they added other religious teachings as well.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, killed the bill, saying it likely ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution.
During the debate, the candidates largely sidestepped the question. Gregg ignored it completely, choosing instead to use his time to talk about his other education policies, including plans to create preschool pilot program. After the debate, Gregg said that current law allows the Old Testament of the Bible to be taught as literature.
"That's a good place to leave this," he said.
Pence said during the debate that he preferred to leave curriculum questions up to local school boards. Afterwards, he said he was unfamiliar with the creationism legislation and wouldn't comment on it specifically.
Boneham, though, said teaching creationism in public school is a bad idea. "If that bill came to my deskÉ I would not be able to sign it," Boneham said. "If we want our children to just be taught creationism and not evolution, we should find those alternative schools" that will teach it.
The one-hour debate was not without plenty of jabs. Gregg used his opening statement to call Pence a "career politician" and accuse him of trying "to shut down the entire government" over issues related to funding for Planned Parenthood.
Pence has repeatedly – and unapologetically – fought to end all government funding for Planned Parenthood, even for non-abortion services. Gregg, who also opposes abortion in most cases, supports Planned Parenthood funding for cancer screenings and other health services.
Pence appeared much more aggressive Thursday night than he's been in past debates as he tried to counter Gregg's attacks. He challenged Gregg's "career politician" label, saying the Democrat had served more years in politics than he had.
And he accused Gregg of overseeing deficit budgets during five of the six years the Democrat served as speaker of the Indiana House.
Gregg said it was "laughable that a U.S. congressman lecture anyone about" deficits.
But some of Gregg's budgets did spend more than the state took in tax revenue, which ate away at the state's surplus. That was in part due to new tax cuts, but the General Assembly also increased spending during that period.
As the major party candidates bickered, Boneham used the opportunity to remind voters that they have an alternative.
"Do we want to continue down the same path and continue to elect the same type of person?" Boneham said. "That is why I am running – to give a new voice, to give a new choice in the race for governor."
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.