This summer, Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann has spent as much time away from her desk as behind it, embarked on “Listen and Learn” tour of the state, with the goal of visiting each of Indiana’s 92 counties by year’s end.
In her travels, she’s toured a pickle factory in northern Indiana and the world’s largest hard-boiled egg distributorship in Southern Indiana, and covered a lot of territory in between.
But much of her time on the tour has been spent in closed-door meetings with local elected officials, community leaders, business owners and farmers, getting them to tell her how state government can do a better job serving local communities.
“I want them to speak to me as if the governor was there, in the most candid words,” Ellspermann said. “And I state that at the beginning of every session: ‘I’m not here to just get the good news. I want to know what’s really happening. Tell us what we what we need to hear and tell us as honestly as you can.’ ”
The responses to that request have been wide-ranging. She’s heard about crumbling infrastructure, shrinking school budgets, and the shortage of skilled workers, to name a few. She’s also heard complaints about the slow response of state agencies to local concerns, and worries about the unforeseen impact of government mandates.
What she may be hearing most: gratitude from the locals, who feel like their voices often aren’t heard by powerbrokers in the Statehouse.
“How many politicians do you know who really listen to what you have to say?” said Hartford City Mayor Ben Hodgin, a Democrat who met with the Republican Ellspermann when she came to his town this summer. “With her, you really do feel like she’s interested in what you have to say.”
For Ellspermann, 53, the Listen and Learn tour is about getting to know Indiana better — and Indiana getting to know her.
Last summer, she was a relatively unknown freshman lawmaker from a small town in Southern Indiana when she was picked to be then-candidate Mike Pence’s running mate. But Ellspermann had proved her political moxie two years earlier when she won her first-ever election by taking down then-Democratic House Majority Leader Russ Stilwell.
In waging that campaign, Ellspermann emphasized her accomplishments as an industrial engineer who’d built a successful management-consulting business doing problem-solving for public and private clients.
She’s bringing those skills to the Listen and Learn tour, she said: “Good solutions bubble up when you’re hearing good information from those people who are closest to the problems.”
Ellspermann’s willingness to spend a recent morning meeting with local leaders in the small town of Spiceland impressed Nate LaMar, president of the Henry County Council and international regional manager for the county’s biggest employer, Draper Industries.
“We often feel like we’ve been left behind,” said LaMar of the small counties in Indiana. “I was really glad to see someone from the executive branch reach out beyond the doughnut counties (around Indianapolis) and into rural Indiana.”
In a recent column for Howey Politics Indiana, LaPorte County Democrat Shaw Friedman described Ellspermann’s listening tour as “a tremendous gesture and a reach-out to previously forgotten and neglected parts of Indiana.”
That’s how GOP state Sen. Jean Leising of Oldenburg sees it, too. “I’m from a rural district and even as a Republican legislator, I’m always wondering: ‘Does someone at the top care about what we think?’ ”
Leising sat in on the Henry County meeting with Ellspermann and left feeling impressed. “She’s a strong woman,” Leising said. “She’ll go back and bend the governor’s ear and not just taking marching orders from him.”
Veteran reporter Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, said Ellspermann is engaging in smart politics. “In this era of gridlock, taking the listening concept into communities across the state will serve the Pence administration well. People want to feel they are being heard. They want to know that their leaders in Indianapolis know their concerns, fears and aspirations,” Howey said.
The tour may also serve Ellspermann well in the future, Howey said. He pointed to two former lieutenant governors, Republican Robert Orr and Democrat Frank O’Bannon, who crisscrossed the state during their tenures, developing contacts, making jobs announcements, and building strong networks of support. Both successfully capitalized on those experiences when they later decided to run for governor.
“These types of tours will help Lt. Gov. Ellspermann if she is ambitious and wants to break Indiana’s ultimate political glass ceiling and become Indiana’s first female governor,” Howey said.
Ellspermann downplays that possibility, saying the purpose of the tour is to help her and the governor shape policy in a way that will counter the feeling among local communities that the state is “doing something to them, not with them.”
“We’re only in our first year,” Ellspermann said, of why the tour seems to be going so well. “I’m listening, not defending. In this first year, I can pretty much do that. Down the road it will be harder not to defend why we did this or why we did that.”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org