AP NEWS

Holcomb, Gregg see things very differently

October 23, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS – Both major party gubernatorial candidates – Democrat John Gregg and Republican Eric Holcomb – are naturals on the stump.

Holcomb sheds his suit jacket quickly once inside Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island, inhaling two coney dogs before chatting with a bevy of well-wishers. You can’t miss him on the trail – he towers over most people at 6 foot 4. But he’s affable – from kissing babies at a fish fry to shooting hoops on the road.

Gregg is just as large in personality if not height – a gregarious man with southern Indiana flair and a pile of funny political stories going back decades. In the car on a fall day, he and his campaign team point out each time they see a Gregg yard sign, and he says “groundswell” with a smile. Just moments later, he comforts a Ball State student who pulled him aside in tears with concerns about the 21st Century Scholars program.

Both men are history buffs. Gregg reads voraciously and Holcomb has a political memorabilia collection anyone would envy, including documents signed by 40 presidents. One of his prized possessions is a tri-fold campaign flier for a fundraiser with John F. Kennedy when he was running for president in 1960. Kennedy came to Notre Dame to support the 2nd District congressional candidate and signed the program personally.

Gregg rivals that with a rocking chair given to J. Manfred Core, the Indiana Democratic Party chairman in the early 1960s, from JFK himself. Gregg found it in 2014, and now the chair is back in Sandborn after 52 years.

But that’s where the similarities end for the two men.

Gregg has bounced around in his career – from working for several coal companies to having a private law practice before joining a larger firm. He also was a radio talk show host and had a stint as interim president of Vincennes University.

He served 16 years in the Indiana House, including six as Speaker of the House. During two of those years, there was a 50-50 party split in the chamber – which he points to as proof that he can work across the aisle with Republicans.

Holcomb has thrown his share of shade at Gregg for deficit spending in the early 2000s and his involvement in creating a lifetime health care perk for legislators. Indeed, Gregg and his family are still covered by that program, even though it was discontinued for new lawmakers.

Gregg’s response is to point out that Republicans led the Senate the entire time he was speaker and that all decisions were bipartisan.

“I’m not here to tell you who to live with, who to love. I’m not going to any of your doctor visits,” Gregg says of controversial abortion legislation and opposition to gay rights. “I tell people I won’t embarrass the state as governor.”

After college, Holcomb spent several years in the Navy, including three years on special assignment in Portugal. Since returning to Indiana, his work experience has all been political in nature.

He worked for former U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, then moved to Indianapolis to help Mitch Daniels run for governor. He spent 16 months helping Daniels, then moved to the governor’s office. He also ran Daniels’ second campaign before being named chairman of the Indiana Republican Party.

After that stint, he went to work for Sen. Dan Coats before Coats decided not to seek re-election; then Holcomb stepped into the race. But he suspended that effort and became lieutenant governor in March after Sue Ellspermann left the position to become Ivy Tech’s president.

He then jumped into the gubernatorial race after Gov. Mike Pence became Republican presidential nominee Donald’s Trump running mate in July.

Holcomb hangs his hat on the turnaround helmed by Daniels and his role in it.

“That whole turnaround of the state of Indiana had a huge impact on my view of where we are now,” he said. “The problems that remain now are tougher.”

Holcomb has essentially had a 100-day campaign – something he thinks the electorate could get used to. But he isn’t worried about any disadvantage in fundraising, saying he has the financial means to get his message out.

“I think the sense of urgency has been advantageous,” he said.

Recent reports show that Holcomb has $2.8 million cash on hand, while Gregg has $4.8 million cash on hand.

Gregg had relished a rematch with Pence – who he lost to by just a few points in 2012 – but the race turned suddenly in early July with speculation that Pence would be joining Trump.

“We knuckled down and focused on fundraising,” Gregg said. “Our message is the same. Mr. Holcomb said he is of the same mind as Mike Pence and is quite proud of the administration.

“Our campaign hasn’t lagged. The support is still there from independents and moderate Republicans that I need.”

When not campaigning, Gregg likes to spend time with his two grown boys or cook in the kitchen with his wife. From hunting and riding four-wheelers in the riverbed to spending the day on the backhoe yanking stumps, it’s a different world in Sandborn. Without a reliable internet connection at his house, Gregg’s wife keeps an office at his mother’s home a few miles down the road.

Holcomb lives in northwest Indianapolis. His wife, Janet, is often featured in Holcomb’s speeches as a staunch Second Amendment supporter. In fact, she is a certified firearms instructor.

She took on that role after a second home break-in. During the first, they weren’t home. The second time, the burglars broke into a car outside and used the garage door opener to get in and steal her purse and some other items. The couple was asleep and didn’t hear anything.

The next day, though, the culprits used the stolen credit cards. There were purchases for pancake house gift certificates and eight car batteries – later returned for cash. Despite video footage, they were never caught.

Janet Holcomb took a class with the Boone County sheriff and realized she’s a great marksman.

“For her, it’s all about the peace of mind and the psychological effect of being able to protect herself,” he said.

Gregg has pushed an infrastructure plan without taxes and a universal prekindergarten option for all Indiana students. But Holcomb bristles at the cost – he favors a small expansion for at-risk kids. Gregg also has an infrastructure plan relying on trust fund dollars to bond, while Holcomb is awaiting recommendations from a task force on long-term sustainable road funding.

Holcomb described his leadership style as a consensus builder – something Gregg said he did his entire time in public service.

Polls have varied, showing either Gregg leading or the race too close to call.

“We’re running like we’re 20 points behind. I have never been over-confident,” Gregg said. “You have to tell yourself you can win because there are long days. We’ve got a great ground game. We are keeping the base rallied up. We won’t quit until 7:01 election night.”

Holcomb said he wants to tackle the drug epidemic, continue the Regional Cities program and double-track the South Shore railroad while giving troopers a raise.

“One of the chief responsibilities of the governor is to challenge Hoosiers to take it to the next level,” Holcomb said. “We’re in a great position with a strong foundation to do that.”

nkelly@jg.net