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Compassionate executive

Politics | Indiana's new governor beat the incumbent by wooing crossover votes with works that speak louder than words

Issue: "Yasser Arafat: In memoriam," Nov. 20, 2004

Indiana Governor-elect Mitch Daniels calls himself a Matthew 6 Christian. He'd rather practice his faith than talk about it.

He didn't say much about his Christian faith in his successful run against incumbent Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan. Instead, he let his record of quiet service at an inner-city private school in Indianapolis speak-and, in the end, it led him to a 53 percent to 46 percent victory.

The Daniels victory was part of a pattern of party turnover in several states with gubernatorial elections this season. Republicans took the governor's office back from the Democrats in Missouri, with Secretary of State Matt Blunt winning a 51 percent to 48 percent race against Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill. Ms. McCaskill had defeated the incumbent Gov. Bob Holden in an earlier primary.

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In turn the Democrats won Republican-held governor's offices in Montana and New Hampshire. In the state of Washington, Republican Dino Rossi last week held a slight lead over Democrat Christine Gregoire in a strongly Democratic state, with several thousand votes still to be counted. If Mr. Rossi wins, the Republicans would have a 29-21 advantage among governors, up from 28-22 before the election.

In the Indiana race, Mr. Daniels won some political points for his Christian faith, even though he did not set out to use it for political advantage. He was a founder and key board member of the Oaks Academy, a school to provide classical and Christian education in the heart of what was at its inception a crime-ridden neighborhood. The school has a 50/50 white-black racial mix and a commitment to racial reconciliation, along with substantial scholarship help for needy families.

As a top executive at Eli Lilly Co., Mr. Daniels gave the school credibility with key supporters in its early years and took personal interest in a number of the students, monitoring their academic progress.

One political consequence of his involvement in the inner city was an important endorsement he received in the governor's race from William Mays, a prominent African-American businessman and Indianapolis civic leader. Mr. Mays, a lifelong Democrat, owns a chemical company as well as the state's largest African-American newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder. He attributed his unusual endorsement of a Republican candidate, in part, to Mr. Daniels's work on behalf of Oaks Academy and its poor students.

The Mays endorsement, combined with the work for Oaks, may have contributed to Mr. Daniels's capacity to endure a semi-populist attack from Gov. Kernan for Mr. Daniels's work for Eli Lilly Co. and his service on the board of the Indianapolis Power and Light Co., during its sale to the AES Corp. Mr. Kernan tried to portray Mr. Daniels as a greed-and-wealth business executive, a profile that did not fit with the Daniels record of service in the inner city or public support from Mr. Mays. Mr. Kernan's attacks, in fact, backfired, prompting editorials from a number of newspapers around the state that defended Mr. Daniels, thereby increasing his profile and his support.

Curt Smith, director of the Indiana Family Institute and a former aide to former Sen. Dan Coats, points to Mr. Daniels's work with Oaks as part of the answer to the dilemma that many political candidates face with respect to faith. "Politicians struggle to establish their credentials on matters of faith because faith has been exploited over the years," he said. "In this case works speak louder than words. A lot of the inner-city constituencies are not used to seeing white-collar Republicans in their neighborhoods. At Oaks, Mitch Daniels showed up and he made a big difference."

Ironically, Mr. Daniels made no TV commercials about his work with the Oaks Academy in his campaign and did not talk about it very much in his campaign. He also did not run as a self-conscious compassionate conservative, even though, as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bush, he had both the credential and the president's support to do so. With respect to his faith, Mr. Daniels pointed to Matthew 6 and Christ's commands not to boastfully pray or give money. "I don't like to blow my own horn," Mr. Daniels explained.

In this campaign, though, others-including his political opponents-were willing to blow it for him.

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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