David Hoppe

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:: Indiana’s Senate Dems to lead on civil rights

by David Hoppe

Sometimes smart politics and sound public policy converge.

This doesn’t happen often enough. Look at Obamacare. Promising to fix America’s ruinously expensive way of delivering healthcare was not only good politics — helping to get Barack Obama elected president — it meant to address a real national need.

But as so often happens, the politics and policy were muddled. Getting a bill passed became more important than truly tackling the problem. Instead of achieving universal healthcare, we got what the health insurance industry deemed “affordable.”

Some previously uninsured people are now covered, but that’s a numbers game. The stratospheric cost of healthcare is still staggering, which makes health insurance as necessary (and expensive) as ever.

Outcomes like this make it easy to be cynical about the political process. And there are probably some who see the recent decision by Indiana Senate Democrats to sponsor a bill aimed at adding statewide civil rights protections for LGBT people in the upcoming legislative session as rank opportunism.

But, in this case, the Senate Democrats have it right.

Republican efforts to write discrimination into state law and call it religious freedom (better known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA) in the last session exposed a hole in Indiana’s constitutional protections as gaping as it is outdated. Sure, individual cities and towns around the state have passed their own civil rights ordinances. But this has only served to highlight Indiana’s statewide struggle to deal with the 21st century.

Democrats are not the only ones who see this as a problem. Republicans like Bill Oesterle, the former CEO of Angie’s List, as well as a slew of corporate heads, including Eli Lilly’s John Lechleiter, believe Indiana’s future viability is at stake. It’s just that Democrats are the ones out in front on this issue.

That’s where the politics come in. There’s an election coming. The RFRA has been Gov. Mike Pence’s baby; it has put him in the indefensible position of having to explain away his support for an odious law by claiming its irrelevance.

By championing civil rights protections for all Hoosiers, Democrats will force Republicans who oppose those protections into the open. This won’t matter much for many Republicans — their districts have been drawn in ways that make them almost unassailable; they might as well be members of a Soviet-style politbureau.

But in the cities and towns where most people live in Indiana, this could — and should — become an energizing force, especially in closely contested statewide races, like the one pitting John Gregg against Pence.

Gregg almost beat Pence the last time around. But his misbegotten campaign persona, portraying himself as a cracker barrel-sitting good ol’ boy, turned off Indiana urbanites. Senate Democrats are about to fix this for him. Their proposed civil rights legislation will not only put Republicans on the defensive, forcing them to argue for a retrograde Indiana identity, it gives Gregg the chance, if he can grasp it, to take a principled stand with the added benefit of bringing the state up to speed.

Politics and policy have rarely looked this good together.