Features

INDIANA: After governor falls ill, his exit marks the end of an era

National

Issue: "Arafat: The devil you know," Sept. 20, 2003

Indiana Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan surprised the political establishment when he announced he would not seek election next year. Now, following Gov. Frank O'Bannon's massive stroke last week, he finds himself in the job he said he didn't want.

"I think all of us are in a state of disbelief that this could happen to someone who is so vital, who has so much energy," he said as acting governor last week. "But at the same time, we've got to realize, in his absence, it is our responsibility and it is exactly what he would tell us that we need to step up."

If by "step up," Mr. Kernan means only temporarily, it could signal the end of an important political era engineered by Mr. O'Bannon and U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh of a remarkable Democratic Party revival in the usually Republican state.

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Sen. Bayh-a moderate seen as a future Democratic presidential candidate-has received more of the limelight and credit, but it was Mr. O'Bannon who not only helped Mr. Bayh become governor in 1988; he also made sure the party comeback stretched well beyond Mr. Bayh's two terms in office.

He and Mr. O'Bannon were heading for a showdown in 1988, as both had plans to run for governor. Mr. Bayh had charisma, name recognition, and fundraising on his side, but Mr. O'Bannon had deeper roots in the Democratic Party. And a nasty primary between the two likely would have divided the party and given another election to the Republicans. Mr. O'Bannon agreed to run with Mr. Bayh as his candidate for lieutenant governor, setting the stage for their fall victory over the Republicans.

By 1996, with Mr. Bayh headed for a Senate victory, Mr. O'Bannon faced a strong challenge for governor from Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. Mr. Goldsmith had raised the city's reputation throughout the country through his efforts to introduce competition into city services and to hold the line on taxes.

Nevertheless, Mr. O'Bannon won the race, even outpolling Mr. Goldsmith in Indianapolis. He demonstrated that he could run as his own man, and his low-key, southern Indiana personality played well with the voters. He seemed to fit the mold of Indiana governors, in contrast to Goldsmith's image as a daring reformer from the big city.

Without his right-hand man Mr. Kernan, the Bayh-O'Bannon era would seem to be ending. Democratic candidates for governor, such as former National Democratic Chairman Joe Andrew and state Sen. Vi Simpson, are not directly linked with this dynasty.

It's up to Mr. Kernan whether the dynasty will continue.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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