The Making of the Modern State Senate Pro Tem: Part 3, Taking Back the Senate

As covered over the past few weeks in Part 1 and Part 2, from Indiana’s founding in 1816 until the “Black Day” of the General Assembly in 1887, the Lt. Governor served as the State Senate’s true presiding officer, and the Pro Tem infrequently played a ceremonial bit role. After Republican Pro Tem Isaac P. Gray used his limited power and some political cunning to essentially trick Democrats into ratifying the 15th Amendment, he made lifelong enemies in the Senate Democrat caucus. That didn’t change, even after he became a Democrat himself and was elected Governor. Gray’s bid for the U.S. Senate–which was voted on at the time by the state legislature, and not the Hoosier electorate–in 1886 led to an escalating political chess match between the Democrat Governor and his rivals in the Democrat-controlled State Senate that culminated in the physical beating of a Republican Lt. Governor on the Senate floor, and an ensuing State House riot that lasted for four hours.

Ultimately, Gray would not only lose the Senate race, he would lose his political career: He earned the nickname Sisyphus on the Wabash after being nominated for Vice President at the Democrat National Convention in 1888 and 1892–and then losing the floor vote both times after stories of his “Black Day” involvement were told. But the riot had greater national implications than a Hoosier also-ran at a party convention: It built up a head of steam for the nascent national movement to directly elect U.S. Senators by leading to a series of U.S. House resolutions in the 1890’s calling for as much; those resolutions, in turn, led to ratification of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913, taking the election of U.S. Senators away from legislatures and giving it to the people.

The other bit of fallout from this ordeal is that from 1888 onward, the first matter of business the State Senate majority took up each session was to elect a President Pro Tem to serve for the entire session. No longer would they wait for the Lt. Governor’s absence to spot-fill the position. The political pressure the majority party could exert on a Lt. Governor regarding committee assignments and legislation was now acutely known: With the majority united behind a single member who served as spokesman for the party’s desire–and, more importantly, who could easily fill the role of presiding officer–Lt. Governors of the opposite party had little choice but to seek the input of the Pro Tem on matters of running the chamber or risk being denied a seat at the dais. Lt. Governors of the same party were given more leeway, but took input from the Pro Tem all the same for the sake of party unity. The Lt. Governor was still technically in control of the chamber, but the Pro Tems were asserting themselves for the first time.

This arrangement seemed to work well for the better part of the 20th Century, but–especially when the Pro Tem and Lt. Governor were from different parties–the power balance was slowly shifting.  Ironically, while Lt. Governors who belonged to the majority party ostensibly had more control, it was an intra-party fight between Republicans–-coupled with some massive reforms to how Indiana’s state government operated–-that ultimately proved to be the breaking point of this arrangement.

The 96th General Assembly that met in 1969 sent to the voters three constitutional amendments to begin reorganizing state government, one amendment for each branch. The legislative amendment would allow the General Assembly to meet annually instead of every other year, with a “long session” in odd-numbered years so that the state budget could be completed, and a “short session” in even-numbered years to keep up with modern demands. Unlikely as it may seem given the historic nature of potentially passing three constitutional amendments at once, perhaps the more consequential bill for the State Senate was that year’s budget.

Near the end of the session, Republican Lt. Governor Dick Folz had to name conferees for the budget bill. Folz, who had never served in the legislature himself and was in his first year in the job, ignored the input of Pro Tem Allan Bloom and Finance Committee Chairman Joe Harrison and named his own conferees to the bill. This blatant disrespect for what was by now a long-standing tradition of Pro Tem input rubbed many Senators the wrong way, chief among them Phil Gutman.

The summer after the session ended, Gutman started making phone calls to his colleagues, teasing the idea of a concerted campaign to “let the Senate run the Senate.” Voters were on the verge of modernizing the legislature by adopting a constitutional amendment to allow annual sessions; perhaps the rules needed a bit of modernization as well–-especially if the Lt. Governor wasn’t going to respect the tradition that accompanied them.

On November 3, 1970, voters approved all three amendments, with the legislative amendment passing by a 14-point margin. Two weeks later, on November 16, Senate Republicans met to choose their first leader of this new era of the General Assembly. Gutman had spent a year-and-a-half rounding up colleagues for his Pro Tem race with the slogan “Take Back the Senate.” But it wasn’t a message that was embraced by all: His opponent was Les Duvall, who ran in part to defend the honor of the Lt. Governor–-and probably felt compelled to do so since he was one of the two Republican budget conferees Folz had named that led to the showdown. When the dust settled, Gutman narrowly won by a single vote, 15-14. When the Senate caucused a week later, Gutman made good on his campaign pledge, introducing a new set of Senate rules that stripped the Lt. Governor of all his powers save those granted by the Constitution: He could preside over session, and he could cast a tie-breaking vote. It was now officially a ceremonial position as far as the legislature was concerned, and all the power to run the chamber lay with the Pro Tem.

The humbling of the office wasn’t yet complete, though. With no real legislative responsibilities left to speak of, some saw no need for the position to be elected on its own ballot line, and so the 97th General Assembly passed a proposed constitutional amendment that required the Lt. Governor to serve as a true running mate to the Governor. The 98th General Assembly concurred, and voters approved the measure in 1974. In the span of just four years, the Lt. Governorship lost its legislative duties and then lost its ballot spot. Perhaps the greatest irony in the whole affair was this: In additional to Duvall, the other Republican budget conferee that Folz selected was Bob Orr. As a result of that one move by Folz, Orr would become the first Lt. Governor to never have true legislative authority when he was elected in 1972, and would then become the first Lt. Governor forced to run on a ticket with a Governor in 1976 (It is worth noting, however, that Orr–with the necessary support of Governor Otis Bowen, and through his own support as Governor of John Mutz–transformed the Lt. Governor’s office into the modern administrative workhorse it is today).

The first decade of this new arrangement saw three Pro Tems breeze through. Gutman retired from the legislature after six years in the post. Bob Fair, the only Democrat to serve as a modern Pro Tem, lost the support of his own party just months into the job after they accused him of being too soft on Governor Bowen’s budget (one Democrat committee chair gave a floor speech in which he called his own Pro Tem “arrogant…pompous and sanctimonious”; he only stopped when a Republican–then-Sen. Mutz–invoked Senate rules against impugning the motives of another senator). Chip Edwards was well on his way to federal prison by the end of his term, having been indicted on bribery charges in the middle of his second year, and convicted on multiple counts before the year was up.

It’s not surprising, then, that by 1980 many wondered if a mistake had been made. The new power structure seemed too unstable, too prone to legislative abuse, and too open to influence peddling (a fear that was stoked in 1982, when an IRS investigation into Edwards also caught up Gutman, and he was convicted himself on two counts of extortion related to his time as Pro Tem). But little did anyone know that the election of Bob Garton in 1980 would bring about the longest period of stability the chamber has ever known–a stability would continue even after he surprisingly lost his 2006 primary (normally a harbinger of chaos) when David Long was chosen as his replacement. Ditto for the advances in transparency both men have made, first as a response to the corruption scandals of Edwards and Gutman, and later as the state entered the era of the internet. And so in 2018, as people contemplate Long’s place in the annals of Pro Tem history, it’s notable that the widespread concerns of 1980 are gone. Far from a desire to go back to the old system, most observers today assume the current arrangement has always been the natural order of things.

Selected Bibliography

  • Walsh, Jusin E. “The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978”, published by the Select Committee on the Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1987 (pages 641-645)
  • Indiana Referenda and Primary Election Materials“, published by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research in 2002 (Part 12: Referenda Elections for Indiana has constitutional amendment language presented to voters through the 1970’s)
  • Borst, Lawrence. “Gentlemen, It’s Been My Pleasure: Four Decades in the Indiana Legislature“, first published in 2003 (pages 104-107 cover Gutman’s Pro Tem campaign)

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