×

KEVIN LEININGER: What is it about voters some Hoosier politicians don’t like — or trust?

Should the Indiana Legislature really choose candidates for U.S. Senate? Not if history is any guide. (AP photo)
Jesse Bright
Jim Buck
Kevin Leininger

The fighting between Republicans and Democrats in the Indiana General Assembly was so bitter that members of one party refused even to show up in order to prevent action by the other.

That’s not a description of the current legislative session or even Democrats’ 2011 attempt to thwart Republicans’ “extreme” agenda by exiling themselves to Illinois, preventing the quorum needed to get things done. The year was 1857 — and the history lesson should make today’s Hoosier legislators think twice before usurping even more authority from the voters they supposedly serve.

Four years before the start of the Civil War, Republicans in the Indiana Senate refused to go into joint session with the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives for a reason as simple as it was important: to prevent the selection of the state’s two U.S. senators until the GOP could gain control of the entire Legislature.

If such a scheme sounds like a refugee from some smoke-filled back room, it should: The election of U.S. senators has been the responsibility of American voters, not state legislators, since passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. But now that a Hoosier legislator has proposed giving his peers control of the nominating process (voters would still pick the winner), it’s important to understand why the Constitution was changed in the first place.

State Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, believes the federal government and its debt have both grown too large and believes states would have more power to check Washington’s appetites if they had more influence in the U.S. Senate. So he’s sponsored a bill that would have state conventions select each party’s candidate, just as they already do for six other statewide offices, including lieutenant governor, school superintendent and attorney general.

“People in our communities that know us trust us with that responsibility,” Buck said.

History urges skepticism.

When the Republicans bolted in 1857, Democrats simply ignored the state law requiring senators to be elected by joint resolution and unilaterally filled the seats with incumbent Jesse Bright and Graham Fitch, a physician. Republicans objected, of course, and it wasn’t until the next year that the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee agreed to seat the two men.

That same year, Republicans did gain control of the Indiana Legislature and elected two senators of their own: Henry Lane and William McCarty. In 1859 the U.S. Senate ruled in favor of Democrats Bright and Fitch, saying Indiana Republicans had no authority to fill seats that were not vacant.

If voters aren’t perfect — and the record proves it — how could their elected representatives be endowed with special character or wisdom? Buck’s proposal seems destined to fail, as it should, but the same cannot be said for other similar attempts. Last year Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill making the education superintendent an appointed position effective next year, and the GOP-dominated Indiana House just advanced a bill that would eliminate 13 township assessor positions in nine counties, including Wayne Township in Allen County.

Current superintendent is Jennifer McCormick, a Republican who most recently suggested private schools should lose state vouchers if they “discriminate” — a progressive euphemism for being faithful to biblical teaching. Few conservatives will mourn when she leaves office, and perhaps county assessors really could lower costs by incorporating the township assessor jobs. But the voters elected McCormick, just as they decided in 2008 to eliminate some township assessors and retain others — including Wayne, where the assessor just happens to be a Democrat.

Maybe that explains it.

As for Sen. Bright, appointed by those Democratic legislators, not the voters, he was expelled from office in 1862 for supporting the Confederacy. So much for legislative infallibility.

Sure bets?

Representatives of Barrett & Stokely of Indianapolis on Thursday will update members of the Capital Improvement Board on their two big downtown projects: the $68 million “Lofts at Headwaters Park” and an unnamed $89 million project just east of Promenade Park. But none of the nearly $38 million in restaurant tax revenues the city has requested for those and two other downtown projects — including the proposed $43 million headquarters for Ruoff Home Mortgage — are on the agenda.

“Negotiations are continuing regarding all the details of the projects,” city spokeswoman Mary Tyndall told me. “When the agreements are finalized, then those projects will go to the various governing bodies for discussion and approvals . . . The city never (said) . . . that any project was a ‘sure bet.’ ”

Maybe not, but it sure didn’t seem that way when Mayor Tom Henry was holding press conferences about them before the election.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.