Capitol Crossroads: Surprises for Pence in shift to executive branch
INDIANAPOLIS — Chances are Gov. Mike Pence will face a lot more “Dani the deer” dilemmas now that he has shifted from 12 years in Congress to running a state government.
It’s not that Pence should expect wildlife outside his Statehouse office anytime soon. But there will be plenty more surprises for the newly minted executive as he moves through a four-year term running the state.
He caught his first surprise after the story of a Connersville couple facing charges for rescuing a deer quickly rocketed up the chain of local and national media last week. Midway through his third week in office, Pence told reporters he stood by his Department of Natural Resources but was seeking a briefing.
It was an honest answer, if not the most politically salient one, as House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, showed the following day when he suggested a “gubernatorial pardon” of the couple was in order.
Pence still is working through his honeymoon at the Statehouse, that halcyon period every new executive gets where partisan fighters lay down their weapons and the press corps retract their claws while the new leader wraps his head around something as expansive as state government.
It’s a big change for a politician who spent 12 years running a congressional office in Washington, where he had more freedom to pick and choose which issues he would tackle.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, has praised the skills Pence developed as a congressman and given him high marks for translating those personal skills in the Statehouse.
“I think he’s doing great,” Long said. “The biggest thing he’s done is try to reach out and meet people and start building relationships. That’s part of the legislative process. He’s been a legislator in Washington and he’s quite skilled. I’ve been just impressed watching him operate.”
And where he’s been able to plan, Pence has made sharp moves. He is personally meeting with all 150 senators and representatives this session — a time-consuming task certain to pay dividends as he calls on them later to approve his priorities. And his press team has made some improvements, delivering a public schedule of the new governor’s whereabouts daily.
But surprises abound, planned or not. At the same news conference where he announced Lake County Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura would take over the embattled Department of Child Services — a move that was broadly praised by Democrats and Republicans — Pence was asked whether DNR officers were wrong in investigating Jeff and Jennifer Counceller, the couple who rescued an injured deer from certain death and then faced charges after keeping her for two years.
The next day, his tort reform proposal was withdrawn by its Senate author amid the threat it would never find its way out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. At the same time, a handful of stories appeared showing that Pence had withdrawn crucial state support for a $1.3 billion fertilizer plant on his first day in office. The move was not discovered publicly for two weeks.
The public surprises are a new phenomenon for someone who successfully ran a highly disciplined campaign for governor just a few months earlier. Pence was able to live by a tight campaign script for a handful of reasons: He had a massive cash advantage over Democrat John Gregg that allowed him to dominate the Indiana airwaves, and the incendiary Senate race was drawing more media attention than the gubernatorial battle.
But that tight campaign script, which he stuck to in his first State of the State address, has led critics to wonder when he will move past platitudes.
“I thought the State of the State was good, but there’s a point where the broad visions have to be turned into legislative specifics,” said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “I can’t point to a group of bills right now where I know this is the governor’s bill.”
Pence has put his name on the budget he submitted to lawmakers shortly after taking office, but he has yet to formally endorse a series of measures lawmakers say he asked them to submit for him.
“I’m not mad at the governor. I want the governor to do a good job,” Pelath said. “I think he still is in his honeymoon period, but it’s not going to last for that much longer because we’re going to see distractions that are going to happen here in the General Assembly and it’s going to make it harder for him to be able to maintain the political muscle he needs to really be able to lead the state.”