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October 22, 2012

For Democrat Gregg, politics is about the personal

He says face-to-face interaction is his best shot

INDIANAPOLIS — In John Gregg’s book about his life in politics, the Southern Indiana Democrat opens the first chapter with a somber quote about the moral roots of public service and a humorous description of himself as a  “burrheaded pudgy kid.”

It’s classic Gregg: A mix of the smart and serious, infused with some down-home charm.

Gregg, a lawyer who spent eight of his 16 years in the Indiana legislature in the powerful position of speaker of the House, is employing some of that charm offensive as he runs for governor in a state he described in his book as “really, really Republican.”

His campaign’s early TV ads are set in small-town Sandborn where he grew up. Featuring his mom, his church pastor and ladies at the local beauty salon, the ads are what Indiana political analyst Brian Howey calls “folksy cornpone.” Gregg’s signature mustache, mimicked on his campaign literature, has prompted comparisons to the avuncular actor Wilfred Brimley.

After spending a recent weekend criss-crossing Southern Indiana, shaking hands with voters at dinners, festivals and a parade, Gregg sounded confident.

“I always felt like if I could meet all 3.1 million Hoosier voters, I could win hands down.”

He made the comment knowing that recent polls had him trailing his Republican opponent Mike Pence, a U.S. congressman with a big fundraising lead.

Gregg, 58, shrugged off a question about the polls.

“You know, good guys can win,” he said.  

Gregg’s challenge is to convince voters that he’s good for Indiana, while his opponent is not. He describes Pence — whom he’s known since both men were in law school at Indiana University — as someone he likes personally but vehemently disagrees with in political philosophy. He paints the conservative Pence as an extremist, with a divisive social issues agenda; he portrays himself as a moderate-conservative Democrat with a plan to boost the state’s economy — which includes a cut in the state’s gas tax — and with deep experience in state government.

“The biggest challenge is to get people to look beyond the party label,” Gregg said. “If they look at the record rather than the rhetoric, there’s a clear choice here. It’s my job to get them to do that.”

And, while doing that, to poke at Pence.

“Come on, Indiana,” he said. “Who wants a congressman to run their state? That’s a failed institution.”

Gregg has been on the campaign trail since May 2011, taking about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said. With a deficit in campaign funds, and in name recognition early on, Gregg said he’s had to maximize the number of voters he meets.

He talks a lot about bipartisanship and his record as legislator and speaker. In his latter role, he made allies in the Republican-controlled Senate to get legislation passed; for two years in that job, when the House was split 50-50 along partisan lines, he found some common ground with the Republican who served as co-leader.

Gregg is proud of an award he won in 2002 from Governing Magazine as one the best “public officials of the year.” He won it along with then-House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican who now has Gregg’s old job as House speaker. They won the award for their joint effort on major tax legislation that generated massive new revenues for the state and helped close the state’s $1 billion budget gap.

Gregg wrote about the challenges of building bipartisan bridges in his 2008 book, “From Sandborn to the Statehouse” — including the deals that had to be cut and the egos that had to be massaged. He also wrote about his decision not to seek re-election in 2002, so he could spend more time with two young sons and more time building his private law practice. His time off from politics also included a turn as the interim president of Vincennes University.  

Gregg wrote, too, about the calls he got from people asking him to jump into the 2004 governor’s race. The same kind of calls came in 2008. He declined both times.

Not because he didn’t think the eventual winner, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, couldn’t be beat, he said.

He said “Nah!” after asking himself this question: “Do I want to spend two years running for governor, raising money, calling people every day asking for money, attending fundraisers?”

He changed his mind this time around, coaxed by Democratic leaders around the state to do so. They thought then, and still do, that Gregg — who describes himself as a “gun-totin’, Bible-quotin’ Southern Indiana Democrat” — would appeal to enough independent voters and moderate Republicans to beat his GOP opponent.

To shore up the Democratic base, Gregg asked a liberal to join his ticket: state Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, a well-respected, longtime legislator from Ellettsville.

“Nobody could carry a bucket of water next to her,” Gregg said.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Gregg has enlisted help from some Democratic superstars, among them former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh and former President Bill Clinton.

But his plea to voters remains personal.

“People are more polarized than ever,” Gregg said. “But I tell you, if you can get people to sit down and start chatting with you, then it’s all right. You just got to break the ice.”

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