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January 7, 2013

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE Daniels will leave a lasting legacy

INDIANAPOLIS — Love him or hate him, there’s one area of consensus on the soon-to-be departing Gov. Mitch Daniels: He transformed Indiana state government in ways few of his predecessors ever did.

In 2004, he was the first Republican in 16 years to take the governor’s office and he wasted little time firing up what he called a “freight train of change.”

One of his first acts in office was to sign an executive order doing away with collective bargaining for state employees. One of the big pieces of legislation he signed into law in his final year in office was the “right-to-work” bill that bars labor contracts from requiring nonunion members to pay union dues.

There was much more in between than room in this column to list. He pushed for the property tax caps that are locked into Indiana law; championed the creation of the nation’s largest voucher program that gives low-income parents public dollars to put their children in private schools; outsourced the Indiana toll road and the welfare system to private entities; and changed our clocks when he shoved the state onto daylight saving time.

Brian Howey, longtime chronicler of Indiana politics and publisher of Howey Indiana Politics, has described — with more much eloquence than I can muster — how transformative Daniels has been both politics and governing.

In the forward, he wrote for a book that contains excerpts from speeches Daniels made over 22 years, Howey lists Daniels among the 10 governors in Indiana’s almost 200-year history who were true change agents.

Given how we cautious, conservative, stubborn Hoosiers tend to loathe change, that’s a big deal.

“Whether you regard him as a hero or adversary, few Hoosiers will argue the notion that his eight years at the Indiana Statehouse have been impactful and have altered the trajectory of the state at a time when just about everything is changing on a global scale,” Howey wrote.

Daniels officially leaves office when Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence is sworn in Jan. 14. Daniels’ impact has been, and will be, measured in so many ways — with praise and disparagement.

For me, part of the measure will include a small moment I witnessed in August, when Daniels welcomed a group of Muslims who came to pray in the Indiana Statehouse.

They were there at Daniels’ invitation. In his first year in office, Daniels started the tradition of the Governor’s Iftar Dinner as an annual event conducted during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

As the event began, I saw a young college student approach Daniels to introduce himself. What was so touching about it, as I later wrote, was the fact that the young man was an immigrant from war-torn Syria, born in a country now governed by a ruler who wouldn’t think twice about killing him.

Yet on that August evening, he was chatting warmly with Daniels, who is the grandson of Syrian immigrants, and who is an evangelical Christian who’s served two presidents in the White House.

The young man left the encounter saying Daniels inspired him.

“He makes me want to do something good with my life,” he told me.

Daniels left the encounter saying he how pleased he was that the dinner had become such a tradition.

“Since the beginning, I’ve been conscious of the imperative to serve everyone,” Daniels said, “people of all faiths and people with no faith at all.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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