When it comes to mobilizing a political campaign, candidates are always trying to stand out to get publicity, whether it be appearing in commercials, putting up billboards, or simply knocking on doors. Visibility is always crucial to getting elected to office. However, never in the history of the Indiana General Assembly had a candidate utilized a blizzard to help them get elected—that is, until 1978. This is the story of Bill Montgomery and a storm that made history.
It all began that winter. Bill Montgomery at this time was a law student trying to figure out what to do with his life. On one casual evening hanging out with friends in Indianapolis, he posed to them the following question: “What do you folks think I’m good at?” Eagerly, several of Montgomery’s friends chimed in that they felt he would be good in politics. And then, the stars began to align in Montgomery’s mind. Recently, he had watched “The Candidate,” a film about a lawyer who is recruited to run for office, and now his friends were encouraging him to launch a political career. So, Montgomery began to reflect more on the idea in the days to come, eventually deciding to give it a shot. In turn, he began reaching out to local community members connected to politics to see what may be possible.
After talking to several people, Montgomery officially decided to throw his hat in the ring, despite being unsure of his chances due to the lack of name recognition. Thinking about the need for publicity, Montgomery started brainstorming (no pun intended) ideas with his college roommate, Mel, at DePauw University, while simultaneously a blizzard swept across Indiana. According to Montgomery’s Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative interview, Mel brought up the fact that Montgomery’s father once completed the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska and still had sled dogs. Mel proposed, “Why don’t you play on this blizzard and you know, come up with some energy themes, and drive a team of sled dogs to the statehouse and file your declaration of candidacy?”
Initially, Montgomery considered the idea too outlandish, but gave it some thought. Not long after, Montgomery started to warm up (pun intended) to the possibility of launching possibly the most unique candidacy announcement in the history of the Indiana General Assembly. He contacted his father, who agreed to loan him several sled dogs to transport him to the statehouse. However, Montgomery still had to ensure that this would generate good publicity, so he decided to utilize his connection as the sports editor of the campus paper, The DePauw, and informed the Sports Information Director at DePauw Pat Aikman about his plan. Aikman loved this idea and informed his contact at the Indianapolis Star, Tom Keating, about the plan. With his plan in motion, Montgomery managed to obtain a police permit for his six-block trip and convinced two people to help handle the dogs.
Thus, on February 16, 1978, the day had finally arrived to make campaign history in Indiana. Little did the City of Indianapolis know that Saint Nick was not the only man with a sleigh to make an appearance this winter. And so it began. At the young age of 27, Montgomery careened down snow-packed Senate Avenue with his sled dogs to announce his campaign for the Indiana House of Representatives. To his own surprise, one TV crew was already in the area when he arrived. This resulted in Montgomery being televised, creating buzz across the state about this mysterious new legislative candidate. Additionally, the following week Keating featured Montgomery in a Star article titled “Spotting Publicity Hounds.” Keating concluded that, while unfortunate, the “ability to attract attention from the media often transcends all other talents. . . . So, when a young man with an unknown name launches a political career, exposure has the be the first order of business.”[i]
In the Star article detailing Montgomery’s innovative campaign strategy, Montgomery told the paper “’I know this was a gimmick. I needed something to set me apart. Maybe this isn’t the way it should be done, but I couldn’t think of anything else.’”[ii] Later, he took part in the Republican Primary in his district and went to bed learning he had lost by only four votes. The next morning though, his phone rang and shockingly he was told that the results were misreported. In fact, he had won the Republican Primary by eight votes.[iii] Montgomery would also win the general election, earning a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. He served from 1979 to 1982 before Governor Robert Orr appointed him to the Public Service Commission (known today as the Public Utilities Commission). However, he’ll likely be best remembered for his candidacy announcement, which serves as a reminder that sometimes fortune favors the bold in politics.
[i] Thomas R. Keating, “Spotting Publicity Hounds,” Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1978, 19, accessed ProQuest.
For most of human history, the passing of knowledge was done via oral tradition, a practice that was widespread amongst human societies all over the world. In fact, even today anthropologists have found that the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes rely on oral transmission of knowledge concerning genealogy, history, geography, and so on. However, with the invention of writing around 5,000 years ago in Ancient Sumeria, people could then pass down information in a more permanent form by documenting, rather than relying on memorization.[i] Much later, with the creation of a sound recording device in 1877 by American inventor Thomas Edison, our ability to preserve knowledge drastically changed yet again.[ii] With further technological advances over the hundred plus years since Edison’s invention, each of us possesses the ability to make audio recordings using just a cell phone. Therefore, the collection of oral history interviews is easier and more convenient than ever. Notably, this is happening at a time when there is unprecedented interest in family, local, and public history.
For those interested in conducting an oral history interview, whether for family purposes or other projects, I will go over some helpful guidelines. I base these on my experiences conducting oral history interviews with my family members and managing the Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative. To begin, before interviewing a family member, for example, it is important that you do as much background research as you can on the person you are planning to interview. This can be done by talking to other relatives, searching newspaper archives, or simply just by visiting their home and making notes about the pictures and items they have on display. Additionally, beyond researching the person you are interviewing you should also do some general research on the historical context of their life. If they lived during major events like a war or a pandemic, having general knowledge of these events can allow you to have a deeper conversation with your interviewee about what it was like to live through such experiences. It will also help you understand how the world shaped the person they became.
After you have done the necessary background research on your interviewee, you need to structure the interview, both to make it more coherent and to ensure that the most important topics are covered. For this you should prepare a list of questions, utilizing your background research. Then when coming up with questions, make sure that your questions do not elicit answers such as “yes or no” questions, but instead encourage thoughtful, detailed responses. For example, if you are curious about someone’s childhood instead of asking, “Did you have a good childhood?,” you should ask “Can you describe your childhood for me?” Display patience and invite your interview subject to summon up memories of moments long past. This will allow you to maximize the potential answer and keep your interviewee engaged in conversation. On top of this, always make sure that you have enough questions for an interview to last around an hour or more because occasionally you may talk to someone who is reserved or not used to an interview setting. If you don’t have enough questions prepared, you may end up with a very brief interview.
After preparing questions, you need to decide what type of recording device to use. Luckily, there are many different options. You can use a traditional digital recorder, your phone, tablet, or even a laptop. In terms of digital recorders, for ILOHI I use a Tascam DR-40X and a Sony IC Recorder. I use two at once, just in case one malfunctions during an interview. We are dealing with technology, after all. Additionally, if you are going to be conducting a long-distance interview, you can record via an online video recording platform like Zoom.
Lastly, in addition to preparing questions and choosing a recording device, it is standard practice in the field of oral history to request permission from the prospective interviewee before beginning. This is true even if it is a family member, because if in the future you ever want to donate your interview to a public institution, typically they will require proof that you have permission to donate your interview by providing a release form. This is necessary because release forms not only grant official permission on behalf of the interviewee but clarify their intent with the interview. Perhaps the interviewee only wants the interview to be made public after their death or they have some other restrictions about how the interview will be used. After all, it is their story, and it is up to them to decide how it is told. This may be something most don’t think about but is standard practice in the field of oral history. Examples of release forms for oral history interviews can be found on the websites of oral history organizations or universities.[iii] For instance, the University of Michigan and The University of Texas Rio Grande both provide useful guides regarding how to construct your own oral history release forms.[iv][v]
Now, when you are in the process of conducting an interview, you should strive to be an active listener and stay attentive. You never can predict where an interview might go, so always be prepared to be flexible and at an appropriate moment steer the conversation back to your original questions. Some people you interview will be more talkative than others and may struggle to stay focused on your questions. This can sometimes provide lots of interesting additional information, but also can be a distraction. Thus, you just must strike a balance.
Another situation you should prepare for is if someone wants to tell you something off the record. This can happen from time to time, because people may feel comfortable sharing a personal story with you specifically but may not necessarily want to share it with the world. In this case, ethically you must make sure the recorders are turned off and that you allow them to share this information with you confidentially. Finally, after conducting an interview, be sure to save it by multiple means. These includes, but are not limited to your external hard drive, flash drives, and online drives. You might also keep back-up copies with relatives or colleagues. The last thing you want is a precious piece of family history or the oral history project you worked so hard on lost forever simply because you forgot to back up the interviews.
Overall, conducting an oral history interview is a fantastic opportunity to preserve the voice of people in history, especially your family members. Think about how amazing it would be to be able to have a recording of your great great grandfather who immigrated to this nation. Or perhaps a recording of an ancestor who served in the American Civil War. Just imagine all the incredible family stories that could be saved. Regardless, these interviews are also so much more than just a family heirloom, because they become part of the historical record and can be utilized as part of historical research for books, documentaries, and more. That is why it is always highly encouraged that you donate them to an archive, as this will make them publicly accessible and preserved forever. Additionally, it also always a good idea to transcribe your interviews as well, so when you donate them, they are accessible to the hard of hearing. Thus, when transcribing interviews, it is common practice in the field of oral history to ensure that your transcription makes it clear who is speaking when and has time stamps by the minute. This will make your transcription much more user friendly.
Also, be sure to strike a balance between depicting their speech patterns in a transcript and making the transcript readable. You never want to change what a person says, but you also do not want a transcript filled with filler words like “uh” or “um”, or if someone has a tendency to stutter a bit when they speak, you don’t want that to distract from the interview and words repeated twice in a row can be only written once instead. Lastly, because the transcription process can be quite long and tiresome. I do recommend transcribers utilize an AI transcription software if they can, to speed up the process. One software I have used for ILOHI is called Otter.ai and is about 80% accurate.[vi] Therefore, instead of creating a transcription from scratch you can just edit a transcription to ensure its accuracy. For more information regarding transcriptions, I recommend people check out resources online, which can be found at various institutions like Baylor University, Guilford College, and more.[vii][viii]
Overall, audio recording can convey what writing cannot, a sense of a person by the way they talk and the tone of their voice, which convey clues about a person’s personality. Oral history interviews provide us with a way of coming to know a person that we have never met and that is why it is so powerful. As a result of modern technology, today we have an unprecedented way to save the present or the recent past before it becomes the long distant, or perhaps, the forgotten past. By interviewing your family members or others, their memories can be preserved forever and surely your future descendants will be grateful.
[i] Joshua J. Mark, “Writing,” World History Encyclopedia, April 28, 2011, accessed worldhistory.org.
[ii] Merrill Fabry, “What Was the First Sound Ever Recorded by a Machine?,” TIME, May 1, 2018, accessed time.com.
[iii] “Copyright and Oral History Interviews,” University of Michigan Library, accessed lib.umich.edu.
We are all familiar with the stereotype of corrupt and power-hungry politicians who do whatever it takes to win and get their party into office. This stereotype has been around for centuries and in fact still influences public perception about candidates’ motivations for running for elected office. This stereotype emerged because there have been corrupt politicians in the past, and the State of Indiana is no exception. For example, in the 1920s, the Indianapolis Times exposed the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana politics via bribes to several high-ranking politicians in the state, including Governor Ed Jackson. As recently as this year, two former members of the Indiana General Assembly (IGA) were sentenced to federal prison for breaking election finance law. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for Hoosiers and their fellow Americans to be a bit skeptical regarding the intentions of politicians. Given that citizens are the ones electing politicians, we have a responsibility to hold them accountable and look critically at their actions, since it affects our lives.
But in fairness, however, state legislators have historically come into office via a variety of different means, from different backgrounds, and with different motivations. In the course of my work as a historian for the Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI), I have found there are many elected officials who essentially stumbled into politics. This has been one of the intriguing aspects of conducting interviews for ILOHI. Take for instance, the former Republican Calvin Didier, who served in the House of Representatives in 1961. Prior to serving in the Assembly, Didier was a minister in La Porte. Members of his congregation began to recruit him to run for office, claiming they did not feel well-represented by the legislature and believed he would be a good candidate. When recounting this story, Didier remembered his puzzled reaction, saying “‘No, I can’t do that.’ I mean, you know a minister doesn’t run very often, but they pushed hard enough, in terms of wanting a candidate and apparently, I had some popularity in that small community. So, you know I said, ‘well okay nothing to lose’ and I agreed.” Subsequently, Didier would go on to win his election, showing how communities can play a major role in determining who runs for office. During his legislative service, he was known for his ability to work with both parties and get along with everyone. He also worked to prevent churches from taking advantage of their tax exemptions, feeling that even as a minister it was unethical.
However, Didier was not the only legislator encouraged to run by their community. This was also the case for former Democratic legislator Earline Rogers. Rogers served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1983 to 1990 and the Indiana Senate from 1990 to 2016. Despite Rogers having no prior interest in politics, she accepted the Gary Teachers Union suggestion that she run for office. Once elected to the Assembly, Rogers proved to be very influential in education reform, such as helping casino legislation get passed to increase government revenue to help fund education.
Alternatively, some legislators were recruited by political parties in their communities but not through the stereotypically “nefarious” ways. In one humorous instance, a former representative was chosen to run for office completely out of the blue when an outgoing representative in the IGA needed a replacement. This was the case for former Democratic Representative Jesse Villalpando, who served in the House from 1983 to 2000. At the time of his recruitment, Villalpando was a student and magician at Indiana University-Bloomington when one of his roommates informed him a man had called about a job offer. As it turned out, this man was Representative Peter Katic, who had met Villalpando only once, after one of Villalpando’s magic shows. However, before he returned Katic’s call, he called his mother. And to Villalpando’s total surprise, his mother informed him that he was running for office. As Villalpando recounts, “I called my mom first and my mom is excitable. She said, ‘I just heard it on WJOB Radio, you’re a candidate for State Representative. . . . I said ‘What did you say?’ . . . I have no idea what she is talking about.” Ultimately, despite being shocked by all of this, Villalpando would run for office, and this former representative’s decision to volunteer Villalpando as his replacement, would lead to Villalpando serving almost twenty years in the House. He was influential in helping create the CLEO bill, which would provide legal educational opportunities for underrepresented students preparing to go to law school.
Lastly, like the recruitment of Jesse Villalpando, State Senator Stephen Ferguson, was also talked into running for office by local members of the Republican Party in his community. Like Villalpando, Ferguson had no interest in running for the Indiana General Assembly and even refused to run when first asked. It was only later that Ferguson was talked into it and then went on to win his election, serving in the Indiana Senate from 1967 to 1974. He played an important role in the creation of Unigov, which had a transformative impact on the city of Indianapolis.
There are many reasons why someone runs for office, as highlighted by the dozens of ILOHI interviews conducted over the past 4 years. The legislative office comes with power and influence certainly, but the ILOHI interviews demonstrate that usually is not the driving factor for why someone runs for the Indiana General Assembly. Many legislators simply get involved because they were convinced that they could help their communities. And despite the long-standing stereotype, financial greed is not likely a motivating factor, as the pay is low in the Indiana General Assembly, since it is a part-time body. As pointed out by the Indy Star in 2021, legislators’ salaries were under $30,000. Based on ILOHI interviews, most former legislators testify to genuinely wanting to help their communities. Whether they succeeded or not is up for you to determine.
 Jordan Fischer, “The Dragon & the Lady: The Murder that Brought Down the Ku Klux Klan,” WRTV, August 22, 2017, accessed wrtv.com.
 Press Release, “Former Indiana State Senator and an Indianapolis Casino Executive Sentenced to Federal Prison for Criminal Election Finance Schemes,” U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Indiana, August 17, 2022, accessed justice.gov.
 Tony Cook, “Analysis: Part-time Legislators Earn About $65.6K/yr.” Indianapolis Star, August 15, 2021, accessed Indystar.com.
While interviewing former legislators for the Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI), I learned that many stories in the Indiana General Assembly’s history transcend politics. Some illuminate the human, humorous, and collegial side of the assembly. Perhaps one of the funniest occurred back in 1987 during a group excursion to an Indiana University basketball game. This is the story of how former Republican legislator John Coldren accidentally left former Democratic legislator Mark Palmer behind.
The night was Wednesday, January 28, 1987, and legislator John Coldren had just gathered a group of fourteen legislators, including Mark Palmer, to go see Indiana University play the University of Illinois in Bloomington, Indiana. For context, this wasn’t just any IU basketball team, this was the Hoosier team that would later go on to win the National Championship. Thus, the traveling party focused its attention on what promised to be an exciting game rather than on mundane details of getting there and back. The legislators arrived at the game and disembarked from the bus in time to watch IU beat the University of Illinois in a close game, 69 to 66. However, after the game, Palmer stepped away to say goodbye to his wife and friends who had come to the game separately and were seated away from him. Little did he know that while he was enjoying his brief parting exchange of pleasantries his ride home was already leaving. Because John Coldren and the other legislators were in a rush to be on their way, no one bothered to do a headcount as they boarded. Coldren describes the situation, stating, “We come flying out there and the van’s right there at the door and I want to beat the traffic back to Indianapolis. We get back to Indianapolis and when everybody gets out of the van at the State House, I go, ‘did anybody see Mark Palmer?’ And they said ‘no.’” Thus, the only trace of Mark Palmer was his coat that was left in the van.
Palmer recalled the episode this way: “And so when I went to where the van was parked, it was gone. And so, I didn’t know what to do.” Finding himself alone in Bloomington, Palmer was desperately trying to find a ride home. Luckily for him, he happened to know the father of Indiana University star player Steve Alford, whose father Sam had been Mark Palmer’s high school basketball coach. So, when he ran into Alford after at the game and explained the situation, he was subsequently invited to dinner with the Indiana University basketball team. As a result, Palmer dined with the team and received the offer of a ride home from one of the attendees. Due to a sudden turn of fortune Palmer found himself in a pretty good situation.
While Palmer was dining with the future NCAA champions, though, Coldren was scrambling to find him, calling Palmer’s roommate in Indianapolis to see if he had seen him. Keep in mind these were the days before cell phones and the internet. Unfortunately for Coldren, Palmer’s roommate hadn’t seen him either. This led Coldren to call the state police to look for Palmer. As Coldren describes, “I call the state police down in Bloomington, asking them if a legislator had come over to see if there was a way to get a ride back to Indianapolis…I think that made the front page of the Indianapolis Star.” Fortunately, Palmer would get home safely and Coldren would be able to stop worrying. Palmer arrived home around midnight and soon received a call from Coldren checking up on him, allowing them to piece together what had transpired.
When the legislators returned to the State House together the next day, there were quite a few jokes about the whole debacle. The House even drafted a resolution about Mark Palmer being lost and then found. Coldren would make a sign for Palmer to wear, proclaiming “MY NAME IS MARK PALMER IF FOUND PLEASE RETURN ME TO HOUSE.” Additionally, Palmer would make a humorous speech on the House floor about the incident, talking about how both Republican and Democratic legislators didn’t realize he was gone. Feigning suffering, he concluded, “The thing that hurt the worst was that no one realized I wasn’t there until they got back to Indianapolis…It was a bipartisan lack of effort.” In response, Coldren delivered his own speech and noted jokingly, “Making 14 out of 15 shots in basketball is considered good, but when you have only 14 out of 15 in a van, you’re considered a bad driver.” 
Yet, the story doesn’t end there. Palmer would get revenge against Coldren with the help of some legislative colleagues and the president of Indiana University, John Ryan. The day was February 4, 1987, and Coldren and another group of legislators would go to a game to see Indiana University play against Michigan State University. After IU’s win, President Ryan and some legislators conspired against Coldren on behalf of Palmer. At the game’s conclusion, President Ryan invited Coldren to visit the IU locker room. While Coldren was in the locker room, the rest of the legislators slipped away without him and drove home. Eventually, they let Coldren in on the joke and gave him a ride home. Subsequently, the next day on the House floor, Speaker of the House Paul Mannweiler made a statement: “John Coldren 1. Mark Palmer 1. No rematch is planned.”
 Robert N. Bell, “Party of Lawmakers Misses Mark,” Indianapolis Star, January 30, 1987, 30, accessed ProQuest.
When people think of a rivalry between the members of the Indiana General Assembly, they likely think about the rivalry between Republican and Democrat legislators. And, in today’s world of political polarization, they certainly wouldn’t be wrong. However, there is also a much less publicized rivalry at play in the Indiana General Assembly, which keeps emerging in the interviews for the Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI): the one between the House and the Senate.
Perhaps the best way to portray this rivalry comes from simply how the two chambers depict each other. This in some ways resembles the way collegial rivals like Indiana University and Purdue University alums would depict each other. When examining how former House members describe the Senate, many colorful descriptions have been used, like “House of Lords” and “Imperial.” Republican Van Smith, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1961, described the Senate as always having “a personal image of being three flights above the House and pictures the House as a bunch of disorganized kids who are irresponsible.” This belief that Senators felt a sense of superiority was also iterated by Democrat Vern Tincher, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994, 1996 to 2002, and from 2004 to 2010, when he stated “The Senate likes to consider themselves the upper chamber and we should listen to their wisdom and advice.” Smith and Tincher paint a picture of a Senate with an ego, but what about the Senators’ impressions of House Representatives?
When interviewing former Senate members, they used words like “zoo” and “rowdies” to describe the House of Representatives. Democrat Lindel Hume, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982 and in the Indiana Senate from 1982 to 2014, stated:
I always liked to say this because I think it pretty much sums it up. The Senate is like a botanical garden and the House is like a Zoo. . . . I went through a period of time, where you didn’t want to go into the House of Representatives if you were a member of the Senate or the public, because first of all it was embarrassing, the things they were doing . . . when you walked out you had pinned on to your coat or taped on your coat “kick me” or you know it was just childish stuff that was going on constantly.
This type of behavior described in the House was also echoed by Republican William Vobach, who served in the Indiana Senate from 1982 to 1990 and described the views of the House during his service as the following: “We always thought that the House was a bunch rowdies having a good time . . . They spent an awful lot of the session having fun and doing stuff where that would not go in the Senate.” From Senators’ perspectives, it seemingly was common to view the House legislators as jocular or unprofessional.
Despite the House and Senate clearly having different work environments and cultures, other factors played into disparities between the legislative bodies. After all, the situation for members serving in the House and Senate are quite a bit different. In fact, Democrat Vi Simpson, who served in the Indiana Senate from 1984 to 2012, felt that another major factor that differentiated the legislative bodies was term limits. She argued, “I do think there is a difference between a body that has a 4-year term and a body that has a 2-year term. The House is always running for reelection . . . There’s no breathing room and I do think that that has an influence on what they do and what they say sometimes.” After all, if you have four years to worry about getting reelected, instead of two, that carries a bit more power, which obviously has the potential to make you feel superior to House members. And of course, from the House perspective, if you have two years only, you may be a bit more attuned to how a Senator may carry themselves, given they have that extra two years and represent a larger portion of the population than you. Even at the federal level the Senate is often considered to be the more prestigious legislative body. As a matter of fact, a 2018 New York Times article utilized a George Washington quote to summarize the power of the Senate to stop potentially bad legislation, where Washington declared “We pour legislation into the Senate saucer to cool it.”[i] Ergo, highlighting this idea of Senate that could interpret as more wise or diligent.
Additionally, Democrat Charlie Brown, who served from 1982 to 2018 in the Indiana House of Representatives and was a member of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, pointed out that the number of legislators elected to the House and Senate also made a big difference in terms of why the House and Senate differed. He asserted, “The numbers alone mean that it’s going to be more rancor. Because you’ve got 100 opinions versus 50 . . . And also, the leadership of each chamber, how they rule . . . there are many, many occasions where Democrats in the House could not even get along with or couldn’t get their fellow colleagues, Democrats in the Senate, to agree with them.”
Interestingly, this sort of interparty squabbling was also an issue for Republicans. Republican Ned Lamkin, who served from 1967 to 1982 in the Indiana House of Representatives, stated:
What bothered me a lot was that the House Republicans and the Senate Republicans never talked to each other . . . you could pass a bill in the House that was, you thought, a perfectly good bill and you sent it to have a good sponsor in the Senate and it wouldn’t even be heard. And our positions politically were not exactly meshed, because we never really talked to each other. That really bothered me a whole lot.
When trying to examine the major sources of the tension between the House and Senate, the size of the legislative bodies certainly would make a difference. However, perhaps what is most interesting from both Brown’s and Lamkin’s descriptions is that these differences between the House and Senate caused polarization between members of the same party.
This is fascinating because overall the interparty tension between the House and Senate really does highlight the complexity of our governing system. A similar dynamic played out nationally, when tensions grew between House Republicans and Senate Republicans over the Senate G.O.P.’s deal with Senate Democrats to raise the debt ceiling.[ii] And for months there has been tension between House Democrats and a few Senate Democrats regarding some of President Biden’s legislative objectives.[iii] Therefore, politics is not always about partisan discord, because the differences in the legislative bodies also play a role in the complexity of the legislature as well. As a result, tension in the legislature can take many forms when you have different political parties, organized into different legislative bodies, with people representing different communities. The historic tension between the House and Senate—at both the state and national level— is just one example of that.
[i] Julia Jacobs, Sarah Mervosh, and Matt Stevens, “When the House and the Senate Are Controlled by Different Parties, Who Wins?,” The New York Times, accessed nytimes.com.
[ii] Burgess Everett and Olivia Beavers, “House Republicans Seethe over Senate GOP’s Debt Deal,” POLITICO, accessed politico.com.
[iii] Ron Elving, “Democrats are Having a Unity Problem. That’s Familiar Territory for Them,” NPR, accessed npr.org.
While conducting interviews for the Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative, I discussed with former Indiana state legislators quite a bit about the ins and outs of state politics. Our conversations covered topics like how legislators find themselves in politics, how the Indiana General Assembly has evolved over the years, and how elections are won and lost. Another interesting thing I learned, though, was how former legislators perceived of the general public during their time in office. In fact, during interviews I often asked former legislators about what they think the general public does not know about the Indiana General Assembly, as well as what they should know. Over the course of many interviews, I received a variety of answers. However, several important themes emerged, which some could argue, reflect a problematic trend for the State of Indiana.
For starters, the majority of former legislators that I interviewed told me point blank that the average Hoosier knows nothing or very little about the Indiana General Assembly and how it operates. Former Democratic Senator Thomas Teague, who served in the Indiana Senate from 1971 to 1978 and was the Senate Majority leader, stated the following when asked what the public does not know about the Indiana General Assembly: “Well, that would take about a library full . . . I don’t think the public knows very much at all about it. Maybe they don’t care. I think some do.” This belief was echoed by former Republican Representative Stephen Moberly, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1973 to 1990 and said “Well, they don’t know a lot about it…it’s a pretty superficial understanding of government, which is a shame.” This is obviously a big statement to make in regard to the Hoosier population and one that needs to be taken seriously, as it certainly does not bode well for our democracy and our ability to effect change in our state. Additionally, this lack of awareness limits our ability to hold legislators accountable for policies we may not like as citizens.
What exactly do Hoosiers not know about state government? First, interviewees noted that many people confuse state legislators for members of the U.S. Congress. This was pointed out by Indiana State Senator Frank Biddinger, who served from 1967 to 1969. He recounted the following story: “I would be at home, on a weekend, and . . . almost always, people would say to me, well, aren’t you supposed to be in Washington? They all thought I was a U.S. senator, I guess—they didn’t know the difference between a state senator and a U.S. senator.”
William Vobach, a Republican senator who served from 1983 to 1990, pointed out that because the public often conflates state legislators with U.S. lawmakers, there is an “idea that you have a staff that can run around and fix things and take care of agency problems…We haven’t got any of that.” He added that “there was just not understanding that we weren’t there all the time if something came up in the summer or something, you know? That, ‘why can’t you just go over and do it?’ [mentality].” This lack of understanding about basic civics and the functioning of state government is not relegated to Indiana. Recently, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation published a survey concluding that two-thirds of Americans couldn’t pass the test immigrants take to become U.S. citizens. This is an alarming fact, considering test-takers are asked to name various ways to participate in democracy.
Former legislators also felt not enough citizens understand the nuances of government and how complex it is to get a bill passed into law. This was highlighted by former Republican Senator Farrell Duckworth, who served in the Indiana Senate from 1981 to 1984. He said:
They don’t realize what it takes to get a bill passed. They just don’t realize that . . . All of the hearings and everything to get the bill through and then get it kicked back in your face from the other house and have to go through it again or it completely dies and next year you’ve got to bring it back again. They don’t understand that. They think we just go up there and write the bills and that’s it. And get a big check [chuckles]. You’d be surprised how many people think that.
This observation was reiterated by former state legislators. This fact is unsurprising; if most Americans can’t pass a basic civics test, it’s unlikely they understand the complex process of how a bill becomes a law.
Additionally, a political majority—or even supermajority—does not ensure the passage of a bill. Recently in Indiana there has been disagreement within the Republican party, specifically between the Indiana General Assembly and Governor Eric Holcomb. The controversy centers around the ability of the governor to declare a state of emergency, without the intervention of the Indiana General Assembly. Essentially, a Republican in the House authored a bill that would allow the Indiana General Assembly to convene for an emergency legislative session, in the event that the governor declares a state of emergency. The process of getting this bill passed into law proved incredibly complicated.
To summarize, after being authored it was sent to the House Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedures and passed through committee. Then it was sent to the House floor for a vote and was passed by the Indiana House of Representatives. Next, it was sent to the Indiana Senate’s Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedures, where it passed committee and was sent to the Senate floor for a vote. On the Senate floor, two amendments were made to the bill before it was finally passed by the Senate. As a result, it was sent back to the House, which disagreed with these amendments. Thus, it was then sent to the conference committee where leaders of the Indiana House and Senate get together to make agreements on bills in which they disagree. Finally, a conference committee version of the bill was agreed on and sent to the Governor of Indiana, who then vetoed it. In turn, the bill was sent back to the Indiana House and Senate, which voted to overrule the governor’s veto, which officially made the bill law. But, it is still technically not over yet because now the Governor of Indiana is suing the Indiana General Assembly over the legality of the law.
This recent event perfectly highlights how complex the legislative process is and why many Hoosiers, as well as Americans in general, may not quite grasp the ins and outs of how bills become law. And this is only a simplified version of the events. There are many other complexities of how bills become law because there are so many ways a bill can be killed or passed into law due to various legislative tactics. Republican Senator Robert Meeks, who served from 1983 to 1990, described the sometimes gritty legislative process:
Makin’ laws is like makin’ sausage. Doesn’t look good. And you know, General Assembly’s— the legislature was created to take the fighting off the streets and move it into a confined area called the chambers. That’s why it was done, take it off the streets and bring it in here. That’s exactly the way it was. So what goes on in there, in those meetings is generally not general knowledge of the public, they shouldn’t know about all that. Not that it’s bad, but it’s just that it’s sausage.
Conversely, Democratic legislator Earline Rogers noted that while there could be conflict among lawmakers, she told ILOHI that she doesn’t think the public recognizes “the camaraderie that’s there.” Political differences might complicate legislation, but “there’s a bond that political parties just can’t break up,” like the period when she and Republican colleague Tom Wyss were both caring for loved ones diagnosed with cancer.”
The last and perhaps most important thing many legislators wanted Hoosiers to know: don’t hesitate to contact your legislator. As former Indiana Senator Dennis Neary, who served in the Indiana Senate from 1976 to 1992, argued:
They need to know that their voice does count, and legislators will listen to them. They won’t always agree with them, but they will listen to them. And the more legislators hear from their constituents, the more they will react on an issue . . . that the person thinks is important.
This may seem like a basic idea, but many Hoosiers and Americans are actually quite passive politically, and don’t seem to be as interested as they could be in employing their political voices. Rep. Charlie Brown, a Democrat who served from 1982 to 2018 and member of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, described in practical terms how his constituents made their voices heard. He noted that during and after session, he attended public forums and mailed out surveys asking what legislative issues constituents wanted to pass. Rep. Brown noted that the information was “compiled by the staff and then it shows us the issues that are most important to the constituents back home.”
Indiana’s former legislators seem to emphasize that not enough is being done by everyday Hoosiers to nurture the health of the State of Indiana. Citizens should strive to be more politically active. Political passiveness towards state government may seem harmless, but bills that could one day affect your life, for better or worse, are being passed every session. We must remember that many around the world are fighting just for the opportunity to have a fraction of the amount of political influence that Hoosiers possess. The enactment of laws may not seem to be the most pressing issue in our day to day lives, but it has the potential to dramatically affect us whether we want it to or not. So it is critical to look into potential legislation and to weigh in by bringing your concerns and experiences to lawmakers. After all, they work for us.
For many former Indiana lawmakers, the legislative and technological world feels quite different from the one in which they began their political careers. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that statistically the U.S. is the only democratic nation in the world where social trust has seen a major decline, suggesting political polarization is the major driving force. Luckily, history provides us with perspective in these contentious times, reminding us of an age when things were once different and that there is always hope for change.
According to former legislators of the Indiana General Assembly (IGA), politicians have generally collaborated well and operated in an atmosphere where, despite political disagreements, most worked congenially across party lines. This is not to say that political polarization is as tense as it appears at the federal level, but Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI) interviews indicate that bipartisanship is harder in Indiana than it once was. As ILOHI’s oral historian, I found myself hearing over and over again from legislators who began their careers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that state politics have changed, that the current political climate is less collegial. This belief was echoed by former legislators of both major political parties.
When asking former Republican legislators about their impressions of bipartisan cooperation during their service compared to today, I was given the following responses. Former Republican Rep. Ned Lamkin, who served in the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1982 and was crucial in creating Unigov legislation (which merged Marion County and the City of Indianapolis), stated: “ bipartisan groups would go to lunch together every day . . . so we had really good . . . collegial relationships with one another unlike it is today . . . we really did say ‘only 10% of this is political.’” Lamkin’s African American colleague, Representative Choice Edwards, served during the 1969 session and helped pass Unigov into law. In an ILOHI interview, Edwards recounted his experience in the IGA, saying “So it went from very serious kinds of things to jovial . . . you know I believe to quote the philosopher Mencius if you ain’t laughing you ain’t living. So, I believe in . . . trying to ease tensions with laughter.”
Edwards’ predecessor, Republican Van Smith, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1961 and was chairman of former Vice President Mike Pence’s successful 2012 gubernatorial campaign, echoed these same thoughts. He reflected:
There’s not deep bipartisan political respect that there once was. I don’t know I would have as much enjoyment in the legislature as I had before. I don’t know if I would have as much fun running for public office as I had before. There is this tendency to really build extreme vitriol positions against personalities, rather than have a good discussion of issues. It saddens me, because it’s a magnification in both parties, it’s a magnification of the bitterness, the attractiveness of being bitter. . . I am a staunch Christian and it just ain’t good.
Former Democratic legislators, like Rep. Charlie Brown, who served from 1982 to 2018, too observed increasing political polarization. Brown contended:
It’s just over the last six years, that what you see at the federal level was at the local level here. It used to be that we’d fuss and fight on the floor or in committee, but then go out and have a drink or have dinner together. That changed drastically over the last six or eight years. It was a total separation and isolation of the parties as it is at the federal level. I don’t know what brought that on. We just do not have that camaraderie any longer.
Democrat Lindel Hume, who served in the House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982 and the Senate from 1982 to 2014, echoed this, stating
It’s a tale of two legislatures . . . Whether you were Democrat or Republican you had friends on both sides of the aisle and you would kid around together . . . A much better relationship across party lines and one of the reasons I decided to retire from the legislature was that it just wasn’t the same.
African American teacher and Democratic legislator Earline Rogers served in the House from 1983 to 1990 and Senate from 1990 to 2016. She noted that despite differing races or parties, her statehouse colleagues respected and related to one another, adding that the public probably wouldn’t “recognize the camaraderie that’s there.” She also recalled that while caring for loved ones diagnosed with cancer, she and Republican colleague Tom Wyss, “went through something together. . . there’s a bond that political parties just can’t break up.”
While the legislators agreed that polarization had intensified, most did not attribute it to a specific source. One major factor exists today that did not in the early careers of former legislators: the internet. The Pew Research Center reported in early 2020 the results of a survey regarding how trustworthy Democrats and Republicans found 30 different news sources. The results found that Democrats trusted 22 of the sources and Republicans distrusted 20 of the sources, showing a deep divide. The Wall Street Journal noted a few months back that mathematicians studying the role of social media in political polarization are seeing a disturbing trend, where social media sites appear designed to highlight the most contentious and extreme political posts.
According to Facing History & Ourselves, online platforms “use algorithms to expose viewers to increasingly extreme content, which can lead them to fringe political views without their realizing it. . . . Spending time in a political echo-chamber can make it easier for negative feelings toward members of the other political party to develop.” Information has become inherently political and it is harder than ever to discuss it, because so many have come to only trust information that fulfills their political biases. As a result, it is like throwing gasoline on a fire by reinforcing the idea that the other “side” is too extreme or untrustworthy to even interact with. In addition to “media bubbles,” Facing History cites “in-group bias,” or tribalism, and changing election policies like campaign finance reform and gerrymandering for increasing political polarization.
The 2021 session indicated that the party divide among Indiana legislators isn’t likely to narrow any time soon, given the recent tension in the Assembly over a proposed bill regarding a South Bend school district. When Democrats belonging to the Black Legislative Caucus expressed concerns that the bill would lead to racial segregation in South Bend, it was reported that a group of white Republican legislators booed and heckled them. The conflict moved from the House floor to outside the chambers, and there, according to WFYI, a white male lawmaker had a confrontation with a black female legislator. Democrats called for implicit bias training after the incident. While some legislators pushed back against this proposal, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that the conflict exposed serious issues in the IGA.
Perhaps, if there is one thing we can learn from former legislators, it is that things don’t have to be this way, that political echo chambers can be dismantled. The Association of Retired Members of the Indiana General Assembly, a bipartisan group founded in 2016, is hoping to restore civility and bipartisanship among legislators. An Indy Star op-ed noted the group is “joined in fellowship of our common legislative and political experiences as well as our respect for the legislative process.” Every two years, it awards legislators who demonstrate courtesy and respect for other members, are willing to find common ground, demonstrate self-discipline, and appreciate the rights of others. The op-ed’s author stated, and ILOHI interviewees confirmed, “Legislators are human and can be passionate. They can also be civil and work together for the good of our state.”
 Kevin Vallier, “Why Are Americans So Distrustful of Each Other?,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed WSJ.com.
 Mark Jurkowitz, Amy Mitchell, Elisa Shearer and Mason Walker, “U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided,” accessed Pew Research Center.
 Christopher Mims, “Why Social Media Is So Good At Polarizing Us,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed Wall Street Journal.
What if I told you there is a way to get an inside look at the politicians who govern your state? What if there was a place where you could find out not only who these politicians really are, but why they made the decisions they made? Most importantly though, what if I told you, what they do is ultimately up to you? The Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI) serves as your gateway into the lives of Indiana’s former General Assembly members.
How the Project Began:
ILOHI was created by House Bill 1100 by the Indiana General Assembly (IGA) in 2017. It is an ongoing oral history project established to record the history of the IGA—from the latter part of the twentieth century to the present day—from those who experienced it first-hand.
What the Project Does:
Essentially, interviews are conducted, transcribed, preserved, and then eventually made publicly accessible. Thus, as ILOHI’s oral historian, I travel around the State of Indiana interviewing former legislators who served as early as the 1960s. I record their stories to provide a new history of the IGA and its members and shed light on the modern political and legislative processes that help shape our state. In turn, this project will highlight the ways in which Indiana has changed over the course of the last four decades and show lawmakers’ contributions and responses to this evolution. As a result, by sharing the history of the IGA and its influence on the people, processes, and institutions of the state, we can begin to more fully understand the role Indiana plays in a national and global context.
Why You Should Care:
State government, let alone government in general, can often seem like a remote and overly-complex process in which we have no control. Consequently, this feeling of powerlessness can sometimes cause us to remove ourselves from legislative issues. However, our role as citizens is far more influential than meets the eye. These are elected officials, meaning they work for us. They are voted into positions of power, because we the people chose them in hopes they will make our state better. Although we should be involved in what they do and how they do it, it is easy to feel intimidated by political officials and the political process. That’s where ILOHI oral history interviews come in. They can help demystify elected officials and inform you about the legislative process, so that you can better understand your state and the people who serve it.
As Ned Lamkin, former member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1967 to 1982, states in an ILOHI interview:
It’s theirs [the people], and it will be whatever they want it to be, if they in fact want to have an influence. . . . The General Assembly is there to listen and respond to the needs of its citizens and if the citizens recognize that and think about how things could be better and organize to try to make them better, the General Assembly will ultimately respond.
Charlie Brown, former member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1982 to 2018, informed the ILOHI that citizens:
have as much power as they want to have. . . . I often tell folks you don’t know how powerful you are. While I’m sitting there in the General Assembly and my staff comes to me with a stack of phone messages and all of them are centered around, most of them centered around one subject matter, something that I had not been giving much attention, I said, ‘Boy, I better find out more about this.’
Ergo, legislators may be members of the IGA, but the IGA answers to you. On the other hand, perhaps you already feel confident in your understanding of the legislative process and your role in it. But maybe you question the motives of some politicians and worry that political games or self-serving interests affect the actual will of the people. After all, nearly everyone can recall a story about a corrupt politician at the state or national level. But a blanket dismissal of state government and the men and women who are elected into these positions of power removes their human aspects and motivations. This is why when government officials are examined closely via ILOHI interviews, a different side of politics emerge—one that may just restore your faith in your elected officials or at the very least helps you see a different side of the story. As a matter of fact, you may even come to think that they chose to get involved in politics because they honestly wanted to dedicate part of their lives to helping Hoosiers and the state that they too call home.
Bill Frazier, former member of the 1969 Indiana State Senate, provided insight into the responsibilities of legislators in his ILOHI interview. He says a legislator should:
Be honest, and know politics is not an excuse to be dishonest.
Overall, these oral histories are meant to pull back the curtain and reveal the intentions and perspectives of legislators as they debated the policies, wrote the laws, and crafted the budgets in an attempt to shape and better the lives of Hoosiers today. Furthermore, the insights and lessons that emerge from their experiences are indispensable in understanding how we got to where we are today. If you care about your state, want to make a difference, and change how things work, let these interviews be a source of empowerment and reveal the nature of the relationship between the IGA and the citizens of Indiana. Because Indiana ultimately belongs to you, it requires interaction between elected officials and citizens, and the more citizens work with legislators to help make our state better, the more we all benefit.