Indiana is a right-wing, conservative state. Somehow, however, the state seems to fly under the radar of the national media when they address the right-leaning activities in other states like Texas and Wisconsin. This is curious because it has frequently been Indiana at the forefront of many of the right-wing laws that have garnered attention from the national media in other states. Indiana has been ground zero in privatization of public resources, voter ID laws, assaults on reproductive rights, lax environmental regulations and dismantling unions – to name a few pet right-wing initiatives.
Several years ago, much of the media attention was focused on far-right-wing, anti-union activities in the Wisconsin legislature. While this attention was warranted, what was missed was that Wisconsin’s neighbor, Indiana, was engaged in similar anti-union and ultra-conservative legislative initiatives. Governor Mitch Daniels, governor at that time, and the Republican-controlled House and Senate had advanced many of the same types of laws that were garnering attention in Wisconsin. One of Daniels’ first tasks upon becoming governor was to delegitimize the state’s public service unions. The unions had been lawfully recognized as a bargaining unit by executive order. Daniels, with a stroke of a pen, decertified the public sector union, saying that government worked better without them. This garnered some media attention, but not enough to raise the alarm in other states. Daniels continued his assault on unions by pushing charter schools on poor black communities like Gary, Indiana, and, in his final days, by signing so-called “right to work” legislation. The latter issue did pique the interest of national media, but only mildly.
One of Daniels’ initial acts as governor that did get some media traction was his decision to privatize the administration of the state’s welfare support system. He awarded a $1.34 billion contract to IBM to deliver the state’s welfare system. This taxpayer giveaway met with little resistance and culminated in disastrous results – with IBM eventually suing the state of Indiana when Daniels rescinded the contract. His next big privatization scheme was to lease the state’s toll road. He leased the state’s toll road, which happens to run through the poor communities of Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, but the governments and citizens of those communities received nothing in return for the lease. This move also displaced many former state toll road employees. Daniels never advanced any progressive jobs agenda that would put the state’s poor and minority citizens to work in good-paying jobs. His answer to the state’s poor job creation was to privatize everything and bust up the unions. Despite this record, Indiana is not mentioned among the pantheon of conservative states in America.
Daniels also enacted one of the first voter-ID laws in the nation despite the fact that studies had shown that voter fraud in the state was negligible and unworthy of legislative resources and attention. The conservative credentials of Daniels and the Republican-held legislature were on full display for the nation, yet the nation barely noticed. Indiana’s Democrats showed themselves to be simply moderate Republicans, and, although they picked their battles and voiced opposition at times, they were never able to rally their constituents to action, mainly because many of them were implicitly in agreement with many of Daniels’ actions.
Whenever Indiana did get mentioned in the national media, Mitch Daniels was largely portrayed as a decent governor and his presidential ambitions, despite his extreme conservatism, were not signaled as a red flag. Under Daniels, Indiana’s legislatures, along with Daniels’ education secretary, Tony Bennett, advanced the Arne Duncan-esque education program of charters, more charters, blame the teachers and vilify the teachers’ union’s program for poor black school districts. Most of the charters in Indiana are, of course, in poor, black communities, and they have not appreciably improved the educational lot of the children of the parents chareters were sold to. Also by pushing charters and school vouchers (under the banner of “choice”), he economically minimized one of the only stable workforces in places like Gary: the teachers and their union. All of this flew under the radar in the national media. A simple, sustained coverage of Indiana would have revealed a Republican agenda in full swing during the full eight years of the Daniels governorship.
Indiana’s Republican congress and governor also engaged in a very public attack in the culture wars. They sought to enact Arizona-style immigration legislation, which would have allowed police officers to stop “suspected” illegal immigrants. They enacted laws that sought to limit the right of women to make their own reproductive decisions and introduced legislation that would legalize the drug testing of women who receive government assistance. When other states engage in this practice, the media attention is glaring, but for some reason, Indiana’s case was barely covered by the national press. Indiana has also been at the forefront of pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Once he left office, Daniels, who is now president of Purdue University, launched an attack to censure the use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the curriculum at the university. This too gained some media traction, but Daniels was not portrayed as an arch-conservative, and the state that he governed, and the school that hired him to be its president, were not characterized as being deeply backward and conservative, evidence of same notwithstanding.
Environmental groups likewise largely ignore the state. Indiana ranks 49th out of 50 states in environmental regulations that protect its citizens, yet no appreciable media attention is focused on this. Indiana has no environmental justice regulations; its metropolitan planning organizations, particularly in northern Indiana, advance policies that encourage urban sprawl and all of the social and environmental results attendant to it and still, no coverage from media that cover these issues.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) is widely seen in Indiana’s environmental circles as being severely pro-business instead of pro-environment. The BP Amoco facility in Whiting, Indiana, is the second largest tar sands processing plant in the country. BP invested 3.8 billion dollars in the plant for the purpose of facilitating the processing of tar sands. IDEM issued a permit for BP to engage in the processing, as it has done with other polluters in the state. The lax environmental regulations and the pro-business culture of IDEM are directly in line with the conservative nature of the state.
The election of Mike Pence, the arch-conservative former congressman, as governor was likewise not described as a continuation of Indiana’s hyperconservative politics. Pence, a Tea Party favorite, once claimed that Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. He also said of Limbaugh, “He’s a man about opportunity of all Americans, regardless of race, creed or color, and I think that’s why he’s so admired and appreciated all across America.” Yet, there seems to be no clamor justly characterizing a state that elects men like Pence and Daniels, as ultraconservative or right-wing.
It seems that most of what goes on in Indiana goes largely unreported, or when it is, it is not portrayed as a part of the right-wing agenda. This is probably due in part because Indiana’s citizens do not protest as loud and long as do citizens of other states. The most progressive portion of the state, which is in the Gary area, has been beaten down economically, and its representatives in the state legislature are old and trending conservative. The majority African-American population in Gary is progressive, but it has suffered economic disinvestment and isolation for the past 40 years or so, which has muted much of its progressivism. Gary was Detroit before Detroit became the poster child for neoliberal economic policies. Weakening Gary is particularly troubling since populations like Gary’s have been at the center of the right-wing attack in the state, just as cities like Detroit, Newark, Benton Harbor and other majority black cities have shouldered the brunt of the right-wing policies of their respective state governments. Yet, Indiana’s neoliberal policies and their effects on Gary, the site of the historic black political convention, go unreported even in Chicago media outlets – where Gary gets its news. In fact, the northern part of Indiana, the most politically progressive part of the state, receives all of its news from Chicago and has more cultural and political affiliation to the windy city than to the Hoosier capital.
Then, there is the Indiana government’s relationship to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Current governor Pence and former governor Daniels both spoke at ALEC functions and have spoken highly of the entity. Daniels’ former superintendent of schools, Tony Bennet, who relentlessly ushered in the privatization of Indiana’s schools, especially in black communities like Gary, has also spoken at ALEC events. Indiana has consistently had between 20 and 29 state legislators with known ties to ALEC. Even after the ALEC-crafted “stand your ground law” (which Indiana has a version of), caused many legislators and companies to back away from the group, Indiana’s legislators moved closer to it. The Indiana connection to ALEC is as deep and cozy as it gets, and the laws pushed by the state’s legislators make Indiana a virtual ALEC subsidiary – or at least a willing testing ground for ALEC’s legislative efforts for the rest of the country. Indiana companies Eli Lilly, Wellpoint and BP either are, or were, on ALEC’s board. All of this should be headline news for the national media. Oddly, it’s not.
The national media should call the politics, governors and legislatures of Indiana, what they are: archconservative. Indiana should be spoken of in the same way that Wisconsin, Arizona and Texas are. The state should be seen as deeply anti-immigrant, institutionally racist, anti-poor, corporatist, privateering, anti-choice and conservative. Indiana, in fact, has been at the forefront of the conservative agenda in the states, and it should be known as such to the rest of the nation. This is important because as long as Indiana flies under the radar, national civil rights, environmental, civil liberties and other progressive organizations will not focus their efforts on assisting their local affiliates to fight against Indiana’s regressive political climate. At a minimum, the national media should hold a bright light to what’s happening in Indiana so that the voters in the rest of the country can accurately assess how far to the right presidential or vice presidential candidate Pence is and – given ALEC’s success in the state – the media can issue citizens of other states a warning about what’s in store for them.
About the Author: Bryan K. Bullock is a civil rights attorney and community activist in Gary, Indiana. He was formerly habeas counsel for detainees in Guantanamo Bay.