Governor hopefuls square off

October 4, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS – The three candidates for governor debated jobs and the economy Monday with a healthy side of social issues.

GOP Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb said he understood why Gov. Mike Pence attempted to ban Syrian refugees last year after a Paris terror attack and would honor what the court says.

But eventually he conceded in a post-debate press conference that if governor he would not do the same.

“I would continue to allow the refugees to come in here and find safe haven,” Holcomb said.

A U.S. appellate court on Monday again struck down Pence’s ban.

Democrat John Gregg said he is glad Holcomb agrees with him now and said it is wrong to ban people based on their religion, nationality, ethnicity or race.

And he said Pence’s decision has been “a waste of our precious tax dollars.”

Libertarian Rex Bell said “we need to look at people as individuals” and “to place an entire nation and group them altogether didn’t set well.”

The three men – who were meeting in their second debate hosted by the Indiana Debate Commission at the University of Indianapolis – disagreed on whether the state should have anti-discrimination protections for LGBT Hoosiers.

Right now, it is legal under Indiana law to discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Holcomb said the two sides are too far apart and no compromise can be found on the topic. He instead supports the balance of allowing local cities and towns to pass human rights ordinances “to address the economic development side of this.”

Gregg returned to the topic several times, noting the Indiana Chamber of Commerce supports the measure and Indiana should be a welcoming state to attract and retain talent.

“The truth is this issue has hurt us economically,” he said. “We need to show respect to all Hoosiers. It’s more than economics. It’s about respect.”

Polls have shown a tight race between Holcomb and Gregg – a former state lawmaker for 16 years and Speaker of the Indiana House for seven years.

Gregg ran against Pence in 2012 and lost narrowly. He relished a chance to face Pence again given the governor’s unpopularity in the state but now is facing Holcomb, who stepped into the race in July after Pence became Donald Trump’s running mate.

Holcomb mentioned former Gov. Mitch Daniels several times but did not use Pence’s name during the debate. Holcomb was a chief adviser to Daniels and at one time ran the Indiana Republican Party.

The lieutenant governor focused on Indiana’s favorable tax climate, low unemployment rate and growing wages.

“We need to continue to do what we’re doing – on steroids,” Holcomb said, pointing to how the economy is being diversified and the number of jobs has grown to historic numbers.

But Gregg said wages are trailing behind those of other states. “Wages are again growing less than the state of Kentucky,” he said to laughter. “That’s nothing for us to brag on in Indiana. I know how Hoosiers all across the state struggle.”

In the post-debate, Holcomb focused more clearly on how Gregg was House Speaker when Indiana’s surplus disappeared and payments were delayed to schools. He said Indiana was in a sea of red ink and sinking.

But Gregg defended the fiscal decisions made after 9/11 by the Democratic House and Republican Senate when the economy cratered.

He said they used the surplus to continue basic services so schools didn’t have to close or police didn’t have to be laid off.

Bell’s strongest moment came during a section about expanding prekindergarten when he noted that “this is another issue where government is reaching farther into the family.”

He said eventually there would be a push to mandate pre-K.

Both Holcomb and Gregg support expanding pre-K access though Gregg is for an universal, optional program and Holcomb would focus on helping the poorest and most at-risk children.