As Mike Pence gets used to his new role as vice president, Gov. Eric Holcomb and other Indiana Republicans are busy unraveling his legacy. Here’s a look so far.
Dwight Adams / IndyStar
INDIANAPOLIS — Vice President Mike Pence’s fellow Republicans took a number of steps Thursday to undo his policies, just weeks after the former governor left Indiana for the White House.
His handpicked successor and former lieutenant governor, Gov. Eric Holcomb, began the day with a news conference where he announced that he was canceling contract negotiations to lease state-owned cellphone towers to an Ohio company. The Pence administration had struck a tentative deal with the company and promised it would cover the cost of more than $50 million in bicentennial construction projects he initiated.
Holcomb also pardoned Keith Cooper, who was wrongfully convicted of robbery nearly 20 years ago, and declared a disaster emergency for an East Chicago neighborhood where residents have been forced to relocate because of lead contamination.
Pence had declined to pardon Cooper before leaving office, insisting that he exhaust his legal options despite resounding evidence of his innocence. Pence’s refusal to exonerate the 49-year-old Chicago man came despite a pardon recommendation from the Indiana Parole Board and an online petition urging Pence to clear Cooper’s name that had collected more than 100,000 signatures.
Pence also had rejected a request for a state disaster emergency declaration from the city of East Chicago in December. His office said at the time a declaration wasn’t needed because federal and state agencies were already addressing the situation.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has pardoned Keith Cooper on an armed-robbery conviction. Cooper maintained his innocence since his arrest in Elkhart in 1997. He served more than eight years in prison.
Dwight Adams / IndyStar
Holcomb’s decision to change directions on those issues are the latest indication that his approach to governing may be more pragmatic and less ideological than that of his predecessor.
Last month, Holcomb said he supported local needle exchange programs to stop the spread of disease among drug abusers. Pence opposed giving local officials that ability. Holcomb has also said he supports tax increases as an option to pay for road work, which Pence opposed last year.
A spokesman for Pence did not return messages seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Holcomb also declined to comment on differences between the two administrations.
Even as Holcomb was announcing his executive actions in his second-floor office at the Statehouse, lawmakers in the General Assembly — where Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers — were in the process of overriding two of Pence’s vetoes from last year.
Pence had vetoed a measure lawmakers passed in 2016 that would have allowed private university police departments to keep many of their records secret. House lawmakers voted 93-2 to overturn the veto.
Pence also struck down a measure last year that would have prevented state environmental regulators from establishing rules stricter than federal rules until the General Assembly had an opportunity to review them. The House voted 65-29 to override that veto.
The Senate is likely to vote on overriding those vetoes early next week.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said lawmakers were cognizant of how the veto overrides might reflect on the country’s sitting vice president.
“Of course it was a concern,” he said during an availability with reporters after the veto override votes.
But he said the circumstances surrounding the bills have changed since Pence vetoed them. For example, in a dispute between ESPN and the University of Notre Dame, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in November that private universities can maintain a police force that is not subject to Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.
“I don’t know if it’s really rebuking anything as much as just a recognition that things changed.”
Indiana Senate leader David Long
“We’ve talked about them,” Bosma said of Pence. “He was aware they were going to be acted upon at some point, but quite frankly he has a lot bigger fish to fry right now than worrying about these two bills.”
Senate leader David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said he expects his chamber to vote in favor of overriding the vetoes as well.
“I don’t know if it’s really rebuking anything as much as just a recognition that things changed,” he said.
Although the House votes on the veto overrides Thursday had more than a two-thirds majority, only a majority is needed to bypass a governor’s veto in Indiana.
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, called the turn away from Pence’s policies “fascinating.”
“The Mike Pence legacy came to a very quick end today, probably the shortest one in Indiana gubernatorial history,” he said. “We just saw his final two vetoes overridden. Gov. Holcomb made the very common sense decision to address the Chicago lead problem, which has been our own Flint (Mich.) in the making. He pardoned an innocent man which seems basic human decency. And he allowed that bicentennial cellphone tower deal to die a cow’s death here in the Hoosier state.”
Andy Downs, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said Holcomb’s recent actions demonstrate a governing vision distinct from the prior two Republican administrations.
“I will say this,” Downs said. “Holcomb is certainly doing some things to establish himself as Eric Holcomb, not as Mike Pence part 2 or Mitch Daniels part 2.”
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