The Making of the Modern State Senate Pro Tem: Part 1, In the Beginning…

Note: The original version of this piece has since been adapted into a three part series that will run in Howey Politics Indiana as a guest column over the next three weeks. Each new installment will be concurrently republished on this site.

With the news last week that Senate President Pro Tem David Long will retire in November, journalists, lobbyists, and legislators alike are already starting to size up his legacy. For most, figuring out where Long ranks compared to other Pro Tems is complicated primarily by the fact that for nearly 40 years Hoosiers have only experienced two of them. What most don’t realize, though, is that the history of the position–at least the modern version of it–only extends back another decade from there.

So if you want to rank the influence of Indiana’s Pro Tems, your only real five options are:

  1. Phil Gutman, the man who made the position what it is today and helped usher in some major reforms to the structure of Indiana’s government during the years from 1970 to 1976 (a period that saw eleven constitutional amendments adopted, nine of which changed state government);
  2. Bob Fair, the Democrat who got his one term from 1976-1978 during the only two years of the last fifty that Democrats controlled the chamber, and saw some of his own party turn against him by the end of the long session because they thought he wasn’t hard enough on a Republican Governor;
  3. Chip Edwards, who had just settled into the position by the time he was indicted on federal bribery charges near the end of his two-year term in 1980 (and then convicted of extortion, lying to a grand jury, and corruptly influencing a grand jury witness before the year was out);
  4. Bob Garton, whose vast legacy stems as much from the deals he cut or the modernization and transparency he brought to the legislative process as it does from then length of his 1980-2006 tenure (which made him the longest serving Pro Tem not just in the state, but in the country); and
  5. David Long, who has served second longest of the bunch at twelve years–just about half of Garton’s tenure, but twice as long as Gutman’s–and whose strong but steady leadership has consistently received high marks, even while overshadowed by the personas of Governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence.

But enough others are writing the pieces that will make the comparisons between Long and his predecessors. Instead, I’ll look at how leadership in the State Senate has evolved over the course of the Indiana’s history, and why there are ultimately only four others to compare Long to.

It was Indiana’s original constitution in 1816 that made the Lt. Governor–then a separately elected office from the Governor–the President of the State Senate, and along with the title gave the right to participate in floor debates and cast votes on all legislation (and to cast the tie-breaking vote in the event the vote was equally divided). Additionally, though the position was established in Article IV which defined the executive branch, the constitution made clear that the Lt. Governor was to be seen as the legislative leader in the Senate because it tied the level of compensation to the compensation of the Speaker of the House. Meanwhile, the original rules established by the State Senate gave its President the ability to create committees, assign members to each committee, assign legislation to each committee, determine bill conferees, and so on. In other words, the Lt. Governor served much the same role in the Senate as the Speaker did in the House, and ran the chamber with the same level of power we would associate today with the Pro Tem.

So with the Lt. Governor serving as the true presiding officer of the Senate, the President Pro Tempore (a Latin phrase that means “for the time being”) served a more ceremonial role to keep the chamber running on the days the Lt. Governor was absent. If there was a vacancy or extended absence in the office of Lt. Governor, the Pro Tem might get the chance to fulfill the role as a true presiding officer–but this was so rare that it only happened ten times in the 95 regular sessions and 24 special session leading up to 1970.

Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that the Pro Tem was more an afterthought than a true authority figure in the Senate is that the position isn’t mentioned at all in the 1816 constitution’s legislative article (Article III), and is only mentioned as necessary in Article IV in the event of the absence of the Lt. Governor (and even then, the election was limited only “for that occasion”). As such, the position was treated as an afterthought, with members not being elected to the post until an absence occurred. Even then, a Pro Tem wasn’t likely to serve more than a day or two, and a different Pro Tem might be elected if the Lt. Governor missed a day the next month.

When Indiana adopted a new constitution in 1851, the contours were very much the same: The Lt. Governor was still separately elected from the Governor, was still the President of the Senate, and treated on par with the Speaker of the House; and–whether by rule or by tradition–the Senate by this time accepted that it was the role of the Lt. Governor to serve as the Presiding Officer. But the rise of political parties in the mid-1830’s meant that control wasn’t always necessarily complete: If the majority party in the Senate wasn’t the party the Lt. Governor belonged to, they could be expected to exert political influence to ensure their members were on the right committees and their legislation moved. Nonetheless, the Pro Tem was still very much an afterthought.

The first sign of trouble for this arrangement came near the end of 1869 session as the legislature considered ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to give blacks the right to vote. Democrats in both chambers resigned en masse the day the ratification vote was scheduled, preventing a quorum and ending the legislative session. Governor Conrad Baker ordered a special election for the 54 vacant districts (37 House seats and 17 Senate seats) so that a special session could be held to address ratification. In every single one of the 54 elections, the Democrat who had resigned won back his seat, raising the prospect that the Democrats would resign again during the special session.

In fact, that’s precisely what happened, and on May 13, 1869 15 Senators and 41 Representatives quit on the spot–but the Republicans were prepared. When the Democrats in the Senate attempted to announce their resignations, the Lt. Governor was in the midst of a five day absence. In his place, a freshman Republican named Isaac P. Gray was chosen to serve as Pro Tem, and Gray had a plan to ensure the Senate voted for ratification. As the Democrats began their walkout, Gray ordered the doors to be barred and guarded against anyone leaving, and he hurriedly called up the question of ratification. During the roll call, each time a Democrat’s name was called, Gray had a Republican answer, “Present, not voting.” Each Democrat’s vote was recorded as such. With a quorum secured and enough Republican votes to push through ratification, the deed was done.

When the Democrats objected that they hadn’t actually cast votes, and there was no quorum because they had resigned, Gray gave them a chance to debate the matter on the Senate floor. After they made their arguments, Gray cleverly noted that Senate rules only allowed sitting members of the Senate to participate in floor debate, and thus their participation proved they hadn’t actually resigned.

This made Gray an enemy of many legislative Democrats, and his actions in 1869 were something they would never forgive–not even after he renounced the Republican Party and was elected as Lt. Governor as a Democrat in 1876; legally succeeded to the office in Governor in 1880; or when he was duly elected Governor as a Democrat in 1884. So when Gray began talking to party leaders about his desire to become a U.S. Senator when the spot opened up at the end of 1886, legislative Democrats were hell-bent on denying him the spot. The stage was set for one of the most infamous showdowns in State House history, an event that would raise the profile of the Pro Tem and give the office some power for the first time.

Next Week: Part 2, The “Black Day” of the General Assembly

Selected Bibliography

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