BY MAUREEN HAYDEN
The office of state treasurer has historically been low-profile, but in June 2009, the man who held the position sprung into the headlines.
Richard Mourdock, a conservative Republican from Southern Indiana elected to the position in 2006, was being vilified in the press for his decision to stand in the way of a government bailout of the bankrupt automaker, Chrysler.
Mourdock, who oversaw state pension funds that had invested millions in Chrysler debt, was the sole holdout among creditors. The others had caved to pressure brought by the automaker and the Obama administration to OK a deal that would use taxpayer money to save the car company.
His actions, Chrysler officials said at the time, would cause the collapse of the company, wiping out thousands of jobs in Indiana and across the nation.
“Lonely,” is how Mourdock describes his feeling at the time. “I remember thinking, ‘There are 305 million Americans and I’m the one guy who has to do this?’”
What a difference 16 months make.
On Election Day, Mourdock won his re-election bid for the office, garnering more votes than any other candidate in the state. With 1,042,758 votes cast for him, he had a healthy margin of 62 percent to 38 percent over his opponent, Democrat Pete Buttigieg.
Among the counties where Mourdock won was Howard County, where about 6,000 people are employed by Chrysler, General Motors and the Delphi auto parts maker.
Buttigieg ran a campaign based on opposition to Mourdock’s actions in the Chrysler matter. The state spent $2 million in legal fees to intervene unsuccessfully in the Chrysler case.
“Sometimes standing up for what you believe gets you killed at the polls,” Buttigieg told his hometown newspaper, the South Bend Tribune, after his defeat. “You have to accept that. That’s part of politics.”
The same words could have come from Mourdock, who counts Abraham Lincoln among his heroes. On his desk is the Lincoln quote: “The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.”
Not everybody saw the cause as just. After Mourdock filed a lawsuit last summer to try to stop the Chrysler bailout, his office e-mail and personal e-mail crashed — shutting down from the volume of angry messages from autoworkers and others who were convinced Mourdock risked thousands of jobs for a principle.
The principle, Mourdock said then and now, was the rule of law. In the deal to save Chrysler, Mourdock said, bankruptcy laws were skirted. Unsecured creditors were given a much better deal than secured creditors, which included the Indiana Teachers Retirement Fund, the State Police Retirement Fund and the Major Moves Construction Fund.
Mourdock was accused of partisan politics, but he’s defended the decision.
“As the state treasurer, I had the fiduciary duty to protect those funds,” Mourdock said. “That fiduciary duty doesn’t carry a Republican or Democrat label.”
If Mourdock felt lonely in that role, he did have one important ally: Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who was also under pressure by top Chrysler executives and others to get Mourdock to back off.
Daniels defends Mourdock.
“Indiana doesn’t have a finer public servant than Richard Mourdock,” Daniels said. “He is all principle and all idealism.”
The election put Mourdock back into his Statehouse office for another four years, but there’s already speculation about his political future.
He’s not ready to talk about what that might be. Instead, he’s spending his free time thanking coordinators of his campaign. That includes county-level coordinators he recruited in Indiana’s 92 counties — many of them self-declared “Tea Party” supporters won over by his stance against the Chrysler bailout.
Late last week, Mourdock was still looking over Tuesday’s election results that made him the top vote-getter.
“I’m still just a little stunned by it all,” he said.
Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org