It was election night 1988, and I jogged with a friend across the spotlighted grounds of the Statehouse on our way to the Evan Bayh-Frank O"Bannon victory celebration. For Indiana Democrats like us, there was the happy sense that we were witnessing history. A Democrat would be governor of Indiana for the first time in 20 years. Terrific.
But even though the Republicans had been defeated, it was not yet clear what had replaced them. Some pundits were already saying that Democrats, the party of the New Deal and the Marshall Plan, needed to abandon their liberal roots. The Bayh-O"Bannon campaign was long on image and short on substance, which led to the nagging question that hung over the victory party. What kind of Democrats are they? Too soon, we got the answer. Bayh built a budget surplus - and a national political profile - by relentlessly slashing Indiana"s health coverage for the poor and disabled. Bayh denied residential psychiatric care to severely emotionally disturbed children, and led the nation in the number of low-income families cut off from assistance. Bayh built new prisons but refused to fill vacancies in state agencies entrusted to protect the environment, health and workplace safety. Bayh shut down Central State Hospital and wouldn"t fund community services to take its place. What kind of Democrat was this? Advocates for low-income Hoosiers will tell you they had more success during Republican Robert Orr"s administration than they did during Evan Bayh"s tenure. In 1996, O"Bannon took over. What kind of Democrat is Frank O"Bannon? By all accounts, the governor is a genuinely nice man. But in his policies, he has continued down the poor-punishing path blazed by Bayh. Just last month, O"Bannon was sued because Indiana violates federal law by waiting months before ruling on Medicaid applications. Disabled people have racked up huge medical bills and even become homeless waiting for their applications to be acted on. Until another judge put a stop to it last week, O"Bannon was also docking poor people"s food stamps because of errors committed by his own administration. There are thousands of victims of Bayh-O"Bannon policies, some of them profiled in the pages of NUVO: Michael Parrish, who after a childhood of sporadic mental health care is now held in solitary confinement in the psychiatric ward of a state prison. Brandy Davis, who had to leave her job because the state cut off child care assistance for her children and 6,700 other low-income kids. Corletta Beard, one of several who died - died - after she could not pay for her prescription medicine because Bayh-O"Bannon denied her Medicaid assistance. A "big business" Democrat O"Bannon says he is now focused on fixing Indiana"s limping economy. That is a good thing, of course. But it becomes less of a good thing when the economic recovery plans provide a swift kick to the same Hoosiers the recession has already knocked down. Last year, O"Bannon pushed for and signed a landmark tax restructuring bill. He eliminated corporate gross income taxes, reduced homeowner property taxes and phased out the business inventory tax. Large corporations are thrilled, as are owners of seven-figure homes in Hamilton County. Low-income folks are not so happy, since they get hit harder by the increased sales and gas taxes and soon will see rent hikes due to property tax increases. Then last week, O"Bannon unveiled his $1.25 billion Energize Indiana economic development plan. Part of the plan is to make permanent last year"s increase in research and development tax credits and elimination of inventory taxes. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce cheered, The Indianapolis Star editorial page nodded its approval. But once again, poor folks have reason to watch their backs. Two-thirds of the money for the Energize Indiana plan would come from the settlement of the nationwide lawsuit against the tobacco industry and from selling bonds backed by future payments on the settlement. Just last year, the General Assembly decided that the tobacco settlement money should be saved for health needs like children"s health insurance and prescription drugs for seniors. Now O"Bannon wants to raid the tobacco fund to pay for yet another business tax cut. Which makes many Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly angry, along with the AARP, the American Lung Association and other health advocates. Stephanie DeKemper, president of the Indiana Minority Health Coalition, says O"Bannon"s plan would violate the original intent of the tobacco lawsuits: compensating Hoosiers who are suffering from the impact of tobacco. "Has our state leadership decided that the needless suffering and death was for one more building or to benefit big business through inventory tax relief?" she asks. "Economic development is critical. But find another way to fund it." One way governments used to fund important projects was through tax dollars. Democrats used to make a compelling case that taxes, especially when paid by the wealthy who could best afford them, were a good investment in a safe and healthy society. Democrats once were the party of Social Security, Medicare and Head Start. Democrats once were the party that cared about Michael Parrish, Brandy Davis and Corletta Beard. Frank O"Bannon will soon finish his term. Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan has decided not to run in 2004. As their party"s hopefuls line up to be considered, there is a question we should ask these would-be governors long before any victory party can begin. What kind of Democrat are you?