MERRILLVILLE — As America hurtles toward potentially the most divisive and offensive presidential election in its history, a cornerstone of Northwest Indiana's legislative delegation reminded Region business leaders Tuesday that government does not have to be dysfunctional.
State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said she learned over her 34 years at the Statehouse that personal relationships, built on respect for differences and a commitment to work for the good of the state, can overcome partisan quibbles and produce superior public policy.
"The gridlock that has gripped the federal government over very simple tasks is causing serious issues throughout the nation," Rogers said. "This does not have to be the case. This is not how we conduct ourselves in Indianapolis."
"The Indiana General Assembly is my Statehouse family. We work together to get things accomplished."
The Times Media Co. honored Rogers' commitment to getting things done for the Region at a luncheon attended by more than 400 people where she was named a "Partner in Progress" and inducted into The Times Business & Industry Hall of Fame 2016.
She said it isn't always easy in government, or business, to make progress — especially when partisanship or divisiveness may momentarily be more rewarding — but in the long run the only way to get anything done is to listen to others, remembering they are as passionate as you, and to keep talking until a compromise is reached.
"There may be a time and a place for these differences to come to the surface, but at the end of the day there are still things that need to be accomplished," Rogers said.
In contrast to Washington, D.C., which she said can't seem to do much of anything, Rogers noted that in 10 weeks Hoosier legislators this year forwarded 216 proposed laws to the governor, of which 59 percent passed the Republican-controlled Senate unanimously.
She said negotiation and compromise are what make government work at the state level. Their absence in Congress is responsible for the chaos and uncertainty in federal policy.
"Remember ... only through working together can progress continue to move our communities forward," Rogers said.
Her commitment to bipartisanship and cooperation was severely tested in 2006 when Rogers was just one of two Democrats to cross party lines by supporting Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' plan to lease the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years in exchange for $3.8 billion.
Rogers lost her post as assistant Democratic leader as a result of her vote, but she said partnering with Daniels produced a greater long-term benefit by creating the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
"We worked together and got the RDA $100 million in that bill, $20 million for the Gary airport and also a minorities in the construction trades operation. So I thought it was a vote that was well worth it," Rogers said.
Daniels, who became president of Purdue University after completing his second four-year term as governor in 2013, said there was no lawmaker he admired or enjoyed working with more than Rogers.
"She was legendary before I got there; I soon found out why," Daniels said. "Earline always put the interests of her district, her part of Indiana first, but she also thought about the whole state and all its people all the time."
"At a time when a lot of people take stances for purely partisan reasons, she only ever thought about the public interest."
Rogers is not running for re-election this year after representing Gary and other Region communities in the Senate since 1990. The retired Gary schoolteacher also served eight years in the Indiana House.
She said she never expected to seek public office but decided to run after a Gary teachers union meeting where her colleagues encouraged her to be a voice for education and labor at the Statehouse.
"Many times people see things in you that you don't see in yourself," Rogers said.