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Looking back at Daniels' legacy

Governor Mitch Daniels’ eight years in office is being remembered as a time of big changes and sweeping reform that’s left the state markedly different than it was.  Both supporters and opponents say Daniels was decisive and left no doubt as to who was in charge.  But whether changes made under the Daniels administration were positive depends a lot on who you talk to.

Ask people around Indiana politics – whether supporters or opponents of the governor – what the highlights or lasting legacies of Mitch Daniels are and the same items keep popping up: the Major Moves program leasing the Indiana toll road to a private consortium; the failure and then success of reforming the welfare system; fixing the Bureau of Motor Vehicles; education reform; building I-69 from Evansville to Bloomington; privatizing parts of state government. 

But ask Daniels what he hopes people will remember him for and he insists the memory of that laundry list will probably fade rather quickly.  He hopes Hoosiers remember him as someone who changed the culture of Indiana government.

“We’re a leadership state now and we like that and we want to continue to be so I hope that we’re in a higher gear and that the citizens of Indiana like other states admiring us and emulating us,” Daniels said.

Adam Horst, who worked on the governor’s first campaign driving the R-V which became Daniels’ trademark and climbed the ladder in the administration to become budget director, says Indiana had an inferiority complex.  Horst says perhaps Daniels’ most enduring legacy is helping reverse that by creating a culture of bettering performance in state government.  Prior to Daniels’ administration, Horst says there was no incentive to do better.

“If you think that the person sitting next to you who’s not working as hard as you is going to get the same pay raise as you get, why are you incentivized to put in longer hours or work the weekends or try to do something that might be somewhat controversial or might be a little bit risky?” Horst said. “And now, I hope, that culture has changed and folks realize, if I work hard, if I really try to make improvements, I can get recognized for that work.”

Detractors point out Daniels’ tenure hasn’t been all good.  The governor and his administration trumpet the success of Major Moves, starting with a 75-year lease of the Indiana toll road.  Howey Politics Indiana publisher Brian Howey, who’s covered the Daniels administration, says the jury is still out on the program’s ultimate success.

“They signed a 75-year lease and at some point the private company’s going to be making a lot of money and that may not look so great a couple decades down the road,” Howey said.

Daniels himself admits his legacy has not been fully decided on issues such as education reform.  From the state’s voucher program to the A-to-F school grading system and changes to teacher evaluation and licensing mechanics, Daniels says he doesn’t know for sure how they’ll look in five or six years. 

State Democratic Party chair Dan Parker contends the bulk of education reform will ultimately be rejected by most Hoosiers.

“They don’t want private companies coming in from Florida to run their schools,” Parker said. “They want to run their schools.  They pay for them and they want to control their destiny.”

But Parker says one of the more notable aspects of Daniels’ tenure has been the governor’s ability to avoid extreme partisanship.

“Mitch Daniels understands politics probably better than anyone but yet has been able to come across as not a political governor,” Parker said.

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath calls Daniels one of the fiercest political opponents he’s seen.

“Even somebody like me would never argue that Mitch Daniels has not been a powerful and aggressive governor,” Pelath said. “He has been.”

Still, Daniels says he doesn’t think of himself that way.

“Except if we think we’ve got a really good idea that’s good for a lot of people in this state then we tried not to get run off it just because somebody didn’t want anything to change,” Daniels said.

The philosophy – charging ahead with bold ideas – didn’t always work out.  Overhauling the state’s welfare system by contracting it out to IBM led to a failed partnership and lawsuits on both sides. 

Daniels received sharp criticism for the effort but changed course and righted the ship.  Even though the first deal failed in an ugly, public way, Daniels says the welfare errors are actually a validation of the notion of contracting out parts of state government.

“We discontinued with one vendor and moved to another vendor who’s doing a really good job,” Daniels said. “We’re now getting bonuses and we’re ahead of all the national standards on the second try.  I wish it had happened on the first try.”

Horst says mistakes are bound to happen when big changes are proposed.

“The most important thing is fix it, get it right,” Horst says. “And if you do get it right, I think people understand and people cut you a lot of slack.”

Several people, including Howey, Pelath and Parker say when the full impact of many of the governor’s accomplishments is felt, it may not be Daniels himself who gets the credit or the blame.  Daniels is okay with that – he says his legacy isn’t something he’s worried about.

“I don’t use the L-word, you know, because we were just trying to do something every day that we thought made good sense and let the chips fall,” Daniels said.

The impact of so much of what Daniels and his administration have done over the last eight years hasn’t been felt yet – by the governor’s own admission.  So, perhaps the best and fairest way to grade the governor as he leaves office is to award him an incomplete…and check back again in a few years.

Brandon Smith is excited to be working for public radio in Indiana. He has previously worked in public radio as a reporter and anchor in mid-Missouri for KBIA Radio out of Columbia. Prior to that, he worked for WSPY Radio in Plano, Illinois as a show host, reporter, producer and anchor. His first job in radio was in another state capitol, in Jefferson City, Missouri, as a reporter for three radio stations around Missouri. Brandon graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2010, with minors in political science and history. He was born and raised in Chicago.