By Olivia Ober
A majority of the Democrats in the Indiana House voted in a closed-door meeting Thursday to replace their leader - just three months before an election that will determine whether they have any clout at the Statehouse next year.
Rep. Linda Lawson of Hammond emerged from a union hall in Lafayette at about 3:45 p.m. and announced that members had chosen her to replace Rep. Pat Bauer of South Bend. She becomes the first woman to serve as leader of a House caucus.
"This is not something I've ever really wanted," said Lawson, who had been serving as minority floor leader. "It's just happenstance."
Bauer conceded defeat, even though he'd claimed just a day before that the caucus meeting was illegal. "It is what it is," he said.
The coup grew out of criticism that Bauer wasn't inclusive enough about caucus decisions and that he wasn't appropriately handling Democratic campaigns. He also led members into two years of ill-advised boycotts of House business that failed to stop the GOP majority from passing anti-union legislation.
"These last two sessions have been difficult because we tried to fight a fight that was tough and monumental," Bauer said.
But on Thursday, Democrats who voted for a change downplayed their differences with Bauer. Lawson said the leadership change was not a matter of condemning the choices Bauer made in office, but of the party moving forward.
"While Representative Bauer has done some very positive things during his term, we feel this is time to move forward," Lawson said. "It's time to put a leader in place that will work side by side between all the members of our party in a respectful, positive and constructive manner."
Bauer - a fiery, old-style politician who has led the caucus for a decade, including a stint as the chamber's speaker - did not attend and neither did most of his remaining supporters.
Bauer said he was disappointed but happy the caucus picked Lawson to replace him. He said Lawson - a police officer - is tough enough to handle a tough job.
"You can't please a lot of people because when you're in the minority you can't do much other than respond," he said. "I'm glad she's a working person who knows the value of the people who work with her."
Democrats are also trying to prevent Republicans from winning enough House seats to do meet without them. Currently, the GOP has a 60-40 majority in the chamber - the result of sweeping victories two years ago. With seven more seats, the Republicans could provide their own quorum for business.
On Thursday, members of the caucus said the decision was far from a personal attack on Bauer. They said it was more of an effort to move the party in a new direction and to get more Democrats elected in the future.
"All of us love and respect Pat," said Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary. "But now we need a new direction. We need to look forward to the future, and we believe that is best done by leadership. It is not a matter of disrespecting Pat Bauer."
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker issued a statement congratulating Lawson on her new role and said Democrats would push to gain seats in the General Assembly.
"We remain focused first and foremost on electing more Democrats to the Indiana House in November and beyond," Parker said. "We believe working Hoosiers and middle-class families deserve a voice in government they are not currently afforded under unyielding Republican control, and we will fight every day to bring bipartisan representation back to the Statehouse."
On Thursday, Bauer - who was first elected in 1970 - said he'd spent only about a third of his legislative career in leadership positions and was willing to move back into a similar role. He said he has no plans to give up his seat. He's up for reelection this year.
His tenure as the Democrats' leader didn't end without success stories. During the years when the party controlled the chamber and he was speaker - and earlier the chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means chairman - Bauer won additional funding for education and university construction and helped build Ivy Tech Community College.
And before he became a leader, Bauer was one of the legislature's most ardent environmentalists.
"I don't want to take anything away from his successes," Lawson said of Bauer, "but when the members of our caucus look for leadership, they have decided to go in a different, more positive direction."
Olivia Ober is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.