Erika D. Smith

The real story of Mike Pence’s Indiana

Signs voicing displeasure with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump line a street in Indianapolis. The “Pence Must Go” signs have been a staple in this city for month.
Signs voicing displeasure with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump line a street in Indianapolis. The “Pence Must Go” signs have been a staple in this city for month. Erika D. Smith

With Democrats starting their convention in Philadelphia this week, most of the country has mercifully moved on from the political circus that was last week’s Republican National Convention.

But not Indiana.

Here, in the shadow of one of the slew of new apartment buildings rising in downtown Indianapolis, a “Pence Must Go” billboard sits in the same place it has for months. In neighborhoods, signs with the same words still stick up from lawns.

For many Hoosiers, it’s still sinking in that their governor, Mike Pence, is going all right – potentially to Washington as vice president in a Donald Trump White House. Indeed, it’s baffling how a man with such an uneven record and a knack for disastrous decision-making could ascend to such political heights and be regarded so highly at a national level.

The spectacle in Cleveland last week did little to explain that. Nor did Pence’s speech, although it was measured, inspirational and delivered with perfection. It was exactly what the Republican Party needed.

But this is Indiana, and Hoosiers – and former Hoosiers like myself – know many things about Pence, and his habit of haphazardly leading from behind, that other Americans just don’t know. At least not yet.

It’s why there was surely a collective scoff in Indianapolis when Pence, bragging last Wednesday about amassing a $2 billion budget surplus and cutting taxes, declared that he also made “record investments in education, roads and health care.” People in this capital city, which has often found itself at odds with Pence, know better.

And it’s why my heart sank when Trump, in his speech last Thursday, promised: “We will bring the same economic success to America that Mike brought to Indiana.”

That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.

Because behind those numbers that Pence is so proud of, there’s a state with a high poverty rate, a consistently small percentage of college graduates, a crumbling road system, air and water chock full of pollutants, and cash-strapped social-services agencies struggling to serve people who need help most.

It’s true that, under Pence, Indiana has saved a lot of money and, because of that, maintained a credit rating that’s the envy of many states. But what I want to know is, who and what is all of that money being saved for? What’s the point of hoarding money if people are suffering?

It doesn’t appear to be for infrastructure.

For years, the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature have resisted a sustainable, long-term solution to fix roads and bridges. It took a sinking bridge along Interstate 65 to change that.

The bridge had been neglected for so long that the state had to close it to make repairs. But the problem was that the bridge was a link in the vital corridor between Indianapolis and Chicago, and the detour, which lasted months, meant often lengthy journeys through small towns and cornfields, tractor-trailers and all.

The outcry miraculously made it to a tone-deaf Pence, who shuffled through a $230 million, short-term package to repair roads and bridges. Instead of raising taxes, he tapped the surplus – finally.

That, I guess, counts for that “record investment” in roads.

On that record investment in education, it’s true that Indiana finally – finally – decided to invest in preschool. Until recently, it was one of only 10 states that didn’t provide funding for it. Pence, to his credit, pushed through a pre-K pilot program over the objection of some Republicans in the Legislature. Still, the funding is reserved for only a fraction of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds.

Pence, catering to conservatives who detest federal involvement in education, actually turned down $80 million in federal funding that would’ve served even more students. That was in 2014. Earlier this year, under pressure and up for re-election, he changed his mind.

I have to believe that kind of reactionary, partisan, small-minded thinking has a lot to do with Indiana’s dismal rates of educational attainment. Only about 34 percent of Hoosier adults hold a two- or four-year degree, and the state ranks 40th in getting an education beyond high school.

Those numbers don’t bode so well for attracting the kind of companies – stellar credit rating or not – that hire highly skilled workers and pay living wages. So instead, under Pence, Indiana has doubled down on logistics and manufacturing.

Indiana now has more manufacturing jobs per capita than any other state, which is fine for now. But as every Rust Belt state around Indiana would surely attest, stacking the economy with jobs that can be exported is ultimately a losing game in a global economy in which automation will soon become the norm.

Why Pence doesn’t seem to get this is beyond me.

Indiana remains one of the cheapest places to live in the country, but because wages are so low and grow so slowly, families increasingly can’t afford to live here without some sort of financial assistance. More than 1 in 3 Hoosier families earn incomes that are below what they need for economic self-sufficiency, according to the Indiana Institute for Working Families.

Of course, a lot of this is simply red-state mentality. Indiana doesn’t invest in things, including its people. That was true long before Pence came along as governor, and he hasn’t done much to change the thinking or make the state better. There’s a reason he was in danger of losing re-election to a Democrat.

Republicans, in general, prefer a more limited role for government, and that showed in the applause from delegates in Cleveland. But on the scale that it’s happening in Indiana, voters should be asking, at what cost? Because it’s higher than many Americans might think.

Indiana deserves a better governor than Mike Pence – and the United States sure deserves a better vice president.