INDIANAPOLIS – 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.
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 Sept. 13, 2003. Ten years passing is a good time to reassess the legacy of a governor.
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.
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.
That 1997 legislative session and the community college system are the two greatest aspects of Gov. O'Bannon's legacy.
Gov. O'Bannon's top priority in 1999 was full-day kindergarten. The seething rivalries between the governor 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.
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 Aug. 23, 2003.
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.
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.
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.