Lots of people thought Joe Kernan should be governor of Indiana. He wasn't one of them. His intention was to quit politics altogether. But now, as the result of the death of Governor Frank O'Bannon in September, Kernan has the job he didn't want. There is general consensus that he has the skills to tackle the state's serious economic problems, but it's unclear whether he will have the time and political support to do so.
Kernan, who was lieutenant governor for seven years, had already announced his retirement plans when O'Bannon, his Democratic ally, died following a stroke. Sworn in to fill the remaining 15 months of O'Bannon's term, Kernan has shown no sign that he intends to change his mind about seeking the job next year. In that case, anything he wants to accomplish he'll have to do quickly--and in the face of what is likely to be formidable Republican opposition.
A POW during the Vietnam War, Kernan was South Bend's longest-serving mayor before O'Bannon tapped him as his running mate in 1996. He thinks two decades of public service is enough, and had signaled his desire to return home to run South Bend's minor-league baseball team.
However reluctant he may be, there's no question that Kernan, 56, comes to power well prepared. Indiana's lieutenant governor has constitutional authority over the departments of commerce and agriculture, and Kernan, who had a close working relationship with O'Bannon, took a lead role in tax reform last year and in crafting a $500 million economic development package this year. Those very successes, though, may undermine his ability to accomplish more. With the state still strapped for funds and facing pressure to cut property tax rates, there may be little money for Kernan to fund any new proposals.
Kernan is a much more voluble figure than the unobtrusive O'Bannon but shares the same focus on reviving the state's blue-collar workforce. Indiana still relies heavily on the manufacturing sector and in less than four years has lost 132,500 jobs--more than all but four other states. It was against this backdrop that Kernan helped shape the 2002 law eliminating inventory and gross receipts taxes and revamping the state's property, sales and income tax codes. He held together a coalition of business groups and labor unions that pushed the package through despite opposition to the gambling expansion and tax increases it included.
Even in the continuing economic doldrums, however, there is little feeling of urgency among legislators for doing anything ambitious before the effects of the tax restructuring package are fully felt. "He's in a funny spot," says University of Evansville political scientist Robert Dion. "You want to continue the thrust of the administration you were part of, but at the same time you'd like to leave your own mark--but you only have 15 months to do it."
Kernan is on good terms with the legislature's Republicans, but those ties may be strained in the months ahead. Republicans have a lock on the state Senate and are just two seats shy of holding a House majority as well. They believe voters are ready to elect a Republican governor after 16 unbroken years of Democrats in that office. The GOP has essentially cleared the field for Mitch Daniels, President Bush's former budget director, to be the gubernatorial nominee. Given that situation, Democrats still hope that Kernan will change his mind, even though he recently reiterated his refusal to run.
"I think his experience as a prisoner of war will affect his decision," says Jack Colwell, a veteran political reporter with the South Bend Tribune. "He has said a number of times when he was a POW that if he ever got out of that hell, he would regard each day as precious and not waste it on things he really did not want to do."