INDIANAPOLIS — Becoming Indiana's attorney general is not, historically, a path to the governorship, or any other higher office.
Yes, Democrat Attorney General Alonzo Smith served as an interim lieutenant governor from 1886-89, and Samuel Jackson was briefly in the U.S. Senate in 1944. In 1992, Attorney General Linley Pearson won the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but nearly quit before the convention ended in a dispute over composition of the ticket. In 2016, Attorney General Greg Zoeller lost a 9th Congressional District primary to mostly-unknown Trey Hollingsworth, formerly of Tennessee, who used family wealth to win the nomination and the seat.
In the television age of Hoosier politics, Attorney Generals Edwin Steers, John Dillon, Ted Sendak, Pamela Carter, Jeff Modisett, Karen Freeman-Wilson and Steve Carter saw the office as the capstone of their political and legal careers, though the appointed Freeman-Wilson later became the mayor of Gary.
Our governors during this modern era have been lieutenant governors, House speakers, state senators, congressmen or wealthy businessmen.
The notion of the state's top lawyer becoming a governor or U.S. senator began after Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill took office in 2017. By the next year at the GOP convention in Evansville, there was considerable chatter on the evangelical right about a Hill challenge to Gov. Holcomb two years hence over a platform plank dispute. That did not happen after Hill tripped over his own protruding anatomy at a sine die party, disgracing himself to the point that he lost a convention renomination battle to former congressman and secretary of state Todd Rokita in 2020.
Since taking office last January, Rokita has become the most political attorney general in modern times. He has used his office to join the anti-COVID vaccine fight against President Biden, while filing amicus briefs urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. He has attempted to prevent Gov. Eric Holcomb from suing the General Assembly over the constitutional right to convene a special session. Last year, there was a media report that found Rokita was receiving consulting funds from health care businesses after taking office.
“Todd Rokita is a walking conflict of interest, and he has voided himself from any credibility while serving as Indiana’s attorney general,” said Drew Anderson, spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party. “Rokita represents an Indiana Republican Party that has no vision for the state and would rather use political offices to push a dangerous ideology than simply get things done for our families.”
The Holcomb-Rokita feud entered a blowout phase over the past 10 days after Rokita told WSBT-TV that he didn't believe COVID-19 statistics from the Indiana State Department of Health, coming as a little under half of the population has rejected vaccination and a fifth surge began swamping hospitals (at this writing, only 12.8% of the state's intensive care unit beds were open).
Rokita said he didn't "believe in any numbers any more and I'm sorry about that. They are politicized. This has been politicized since day one."
At a rare press conference on Wednesday Holcomb said, “I will say I was stunned and somewhat blindsided by the attorney general. It is quite serious when you accuse anyone of inflating numbers. If there is a thread of evidence, he needs to take that to the state's inspector general."
Holcomb added, "Anyone spreading misinformation or disinformation ... to me is attempting to fan the flames of confusion.”
Rokita defended his remarks, saying in a series of Twitter postings on Wednesday, "I stand by the concerns of a significant number of Hoosiers and Americans about the politicization of COVID reporting. Also, there are examples from across the country that I hear daily as I travel the state ... where non-COVID illnesses or deaths are inappropriately categorized as COVID, which further creates fear. Dying with COVID (where the primary cause of death is some other co-morbidity) is not the same as dying of COVID, for example."
This feud comes as the state faces a medical crisis, coming from the delta variant. The omicron variant's full impact is still weeks away, prompting Health Commissioner Kris Box to say, "We expect to see a very steep rise in the next few weeks. Our hospital census is at the highest level in an entire year. The number of people hospitalized with COVID has increased 700% since June. Our positivity rate is hovering around 40% and all of our counties are in orange or red advisory level."
“We have never had this many total patients in our hospitals and we will soon match or surpass the greatest number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic,” says Indiana Hospital Association President Brian Tabor. “Serious staffing shortages persist throughout the health care system and our capacity is extremely strained. The vast majority of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in Indiana are unvaccinated.”
The University of Washington's Health Evaluation and Metrics site is forecasting 25,931 total COVID-19 deaths in Indiana by April 1. It projects the spike in use of ICU beds will reach its peak on Feb. 22 with close to 3,000 Indiana hospital beds needed, which is 2,000 over current capacity.
This comes as close to 19,000 Hoosiers have died from COVID. A feud atop our state government is the last thing we need during this crisis. Holcomb and Rokita could have used their bully pulpits to energetically advocate people to vaccinate. Instead, this dreary pandemic persists amidst our political divisions.
Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @hwypol. The opinions are the writer's.