May 27, 1997.
It seems like an innocuous date today, but in reality it was the high point in the executive career of Gov. Frank O’Bannon.
This was the day the Indiana General Assembly reconvened in a special session, the fifth of the previous decade. It found the two 1996 gubernatorial opponents – O’Bannon and Republican Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith – tag teaming and speaking to House and Senate caucuses of the other party to forge an epic deal.
When the dust settled, the package had been hammered out on the new NBA arena for the Indiana Pacers and $30 million in extensive renovations for the Indianapolis Colts at the RCA Dome. Both teams were threatening to leave the state, and within days of the final gavel there was an announcement that the NCAA was moving its national headquarters to the White River State Park, that there would be an 18% increase in workers compensation benefits, and a cut in the inheritance tax.
Frank O’Bannon has been gone for a decade now, stricken by a stroke at a Midwest-Japan trade meeting in Chicago and passing away on Sept. 13, 2003. Ten years passing is a good time to reassess the legacy of a governor and several things stand out when it comes to this gentleman from Corydon.
Scan the Indianapolis skyline and there stands Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, home of the Pacers, and the NCAA Headquarters at White River State Park, which enhanced the sports-oriented economy of our capital city. A few blocks away is the Indiana State Museum, an interactive venue that celebrates each of our 92 counties and the legions of Hoosiers who emancipated slavery, helped invent the automobile, television, 2 percent milk and the Bloody Mary (yes, a Hoosier figured out tomato juice).
Even more important is Ivy Tech, which Gov. O’Bannon fashioned from an educational backwater and transformed it into the state’s community college system, with more than two dozen campuses bringing higher education at low cost to some 130,000 students.
That 1997 legislative session and the community college system are the two greatest aspects of Gov. O’Bannon’s legacy.
There were disappointments along the way. O’Bannon didn’t pull the trigger on property tax reform until a full-blown crisis in 2001 threatened to dislocate many Hoosiers who could no longer afford their homes. There were dislocations and loss of life as the state struggled to decentralize homes for our mentally challenged brothers and sisters.
But in retrospect, we find policy architects building foundations.
Gov. O’Bannon’s top priority in 1999 was full-day kindergarten. The seething rivalries between the governor and Senate Republicans, and the fratricide between House and Senate Republicans got in the way of what was best for our children. It was Gov. Mitch Daniels that was able to take the foundation O’Bannon had identified and bring it to reality. And Daniels would give glowing commencement addresses to Ivy Tech, rightfully pointing out how vital it has become for our state.
Daniels was clearly an activist governor. Frank O’Bannon was a facilitator and an arbitrator, allowing the legislature to thrash out the details. I asked him about that after the 2002 special session that brought about temporary property tax relief and he said, “I’d say that’s a good observation. We’ve got split houses here, one Democrat, one Republican.” He noted that Govs. Doc Bowen and Bob Orr had GOP legislatures, and yet barely got their historic tax and education initiatives passed. “It’s a tremendous difference,” O’Bannon said.
He governed the way Gov. Roger Branigin did back in the 1960s. A reporter once asked Branigin about his policies. “Son, I don’t do policies, I do personalities,” Branigin responded.
So that fateful May in 1997, as Mayor Goldsmith was appealing to Democrats, Gov. O’Bannon went to speak to House Republicans. “It was a great experience,” O’Bannon said. When he finished speaking, O’Bannon heard a Republican ask, “Well, how can we trust people on the other side?”
“I said, ‘I’ll tell ya, you can trust me because I’ll veto it. That’s the thing that can hold this together.’”
I’ll never forget the last time I saw Frank O’Bannon. He keynoted the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association banquet on Aug. 23, 2003. I was at a table with other journalists and we had all heard the governor speak many times. Ho-hum.
O’Bannon took to the dais and began speaking and something jarred me. I picked up my reporter pad and began taking notes on what would be his last public speech. The governor recalled how New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt attended a National Governors’ Association meeting in West Baden in 1931 and marveled at the hotel there with the largest free-spanning dome in the world. O’Bannon himself was steering his state through a tough recession and the governor was trying to buck up his party and keep the faith in the foundations. “We’re not in decline, we’re in ascent,” O’Bannon drawled.
And O’Bannon talked of West Baden Springs Hotel architect Harrison Albright, “who stood on top of the dome as the supports were taken out” while the local citizens looked on. The governor explained that many thought the dome would collapse, instead of standing for the next century.
“I feel like I’m on that dome tonight,” O’Bannon said.