Last Tuesday’s cold start to the 2014 legislative session was warmed by the standing ovation given to House Minority Leader Scott Pelath following his traditional opening day remark.
It was an amiable gesture by the 66 other House members who made it through Arctic weather to deliver the quorum needed to kick off what will be a short but consequential session. For some, it was an empty gesture.
Had the day been better weather-wise, with a clear way for all 69 House Republicans, neither Pelath’s words nor his presence would have been needed. In a General Assembly ruled by super-majority Republicans, the Democrat from Michigan City and his partisan allies are too often treated like the Greek mythological character Cassandra — prophetic but ignored.
Pelath took on a tough job after longtime Democratic leader Pat Bauer was deposed in a messy coup just 15 months ago. Unlike Bauer, who was openly hostile to his GOP counterpart, Pelath has been cordial in his dealings with the House majority leader, Speaker Brian Bosma.
But, to borrow on another analogy, Pelath also has led a Greek chorus of super-minority Democrats who realize that promises of bipartisanship made when Republicans were coronated in 2012 may have been empty. In a Statehouse under the stranglehold of one party, the minority chorus sees itself as the expression of the fears, hopes and judgments of merely mortal Hoosiers.
Pelath did so in that speech. After graciously thanking Bosma and telling colleagues, “In your faces, I see many of the things we like about Indiana,” he got down to it.
In contrast to what’s become the Republican rhetoric of Indiana as the “greatest state in the nation,” Pelath offered a litany of woes. Among them: Plunging household incomes, which have declined by a greater percentage than those of 47 other states in the last decade; a rising infant mortality rate now among the nation’s five worst; and a thinning college-degreed population, an indicator that Indiana’s best and brightest are leaving and not coming back.
“Too often, we believe our own rhetoric,” he continued. “We high-five our press statements on the budget surplus [close to $2 billion.] Or we pat ourselves on the back as Indiana tags along behind a national economic recovery. Or we extend symbolic assistance to people while at the same time reducing their resources. Of these activities, we can all live with less.”
He ended with a plea: “Let’s keep listening to each other as we tackle Indiana’s real challenges with ingenuity and optimism.”
It was those words that likely triggered the ovation - not the dig he got in when calling the contentious fight over the same-sex marriage ban a “national embarrassment.”
The only job in the General Assembly more humbling than Pelath’s may belong to Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane. The mild-mannered attorney from Anderson heads a caucus outnumbered 13 to 37. When he took the job in late 2012, he exhorted his members to raise their voices, knowing as they might that “we’re going to get our brains beat.” Late last week, Lanane and his chorus put forth an agenda that includes health care coverage for more than 400,000 uninsured Hoosiers, state-funded preschool for every 4-year-old who needs it, an end to pay discrimination for women, and a raise in the minimum wage.
Lanane knows his caucus’ dissenting voices, and votes, don’t always count.
It’s his job, he said, to make them heard.
“If the public hears only one side of the issue, of course, they’re going to accept that,” he said. “And that’s not the way we do it in a democracy.”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden