Glenda Ritz ready to be governor? Maybe

Sounds like someone’s been listening to the occasional Glenda Ritz for governor rants that come from mouths of Hoosiers frustrated by Statehouse efforts to undercut the lone, duly-elected Democrat in a Statehouse office.

After a long, lonely session, one where Ritz and her friends in an overmatched Democratic minority at the Statehouse had to fend off a semester’s worth of Republican power grabs, the superintendent of public instruction said she might be game for taking on Gov. Mike Pence in 2016.

“There’s absolutely nothing off the table,” Ritz told reporters a day after legislators limped home and the same day Democrat John Gregg announced he’d make another run for governor in 2016.

Maybe nothing’s off the table.

So why is it so hard to shake the idea that what Ritz is contemplating is similar to watching a restaurant toy with the notion of expansion before it’s really established itself in the current location.

You know the spot: Even if service can be shaky at times, you like what you order in a place that understands its strengths. But once that place starts to overreach, expanding the menu or opening a second location before it’s really ready, nine times out of 10 it’s not going to end well.

Ritz could be that one in 10 who’s positioned to expand her brand from a life spent in education to one seeking to lead the state.

Her campaign themes practically wrote themselves this session, one dismissive blow after another from Republicans. Ritz’s critics alternated between doubts about her qualifications, frustrations over her ability to work with the State Board of Education and wariness about her willingness the reverse trends in testing, vouchers for private schools and other GOP-led school reform initiatives.

Her slogan is ready-made: Not Just a Librarian.

It would rank up there with My Man, Mitch.

And it will resonate with more Hoosiers than a Republican supermajority seems willing to believe.

Last-minute tweaks in Senate Bill 1 — a bill that will dilute some of Ritz’s authority by allowing the governor-appointed State Board of Education to elect its own chairman to control policy making agendas — pushed the changes to 2017. That’s after the next superintendent election in 2016, giving Ritz a little breathing room.

Why that idea, pushed by voters ticked that their candidate was getting hip-checked mid-term, didn’t dawn on Republican leaders in the General Assembly until the waning hours is a mystery. (Same goes with why the General Assembly had to do last-minute surgery to remove a provision that would have transferred more authority over voucher schools from Ritz to Pence. Unbelievable.)

As it was, and as the session played out, the target on Ritz’s back was big and clear. And Pence always seemed to be the one lining up the arrow.

The fact that Ritz is surfacing as a credible option to Pence is a real indictment of the governor, who just a few months ago seemed willing to be courted to run for president. You know, as in: Of the United States.

This year left Pence a bit stranded.

Bill Oesterle, the Angie’s List CEO who helped orchestrate Mitch Daniels’ first run for governor in 2004, has been publicly calling for a return to a Daniels era in the state Republican Party. Daniels, now Purdue University’s president, insists that vision doesn’t include him on any ticket. But Oesterle, livid about how backlash over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act blindsided Pence and injured the state, hasn’t been shy about picking at the Statehouse’s increasingly insular views.

While Ritz might have been laser tight on what was happening in her corner of the Statehouse — a sizeable corner, no question — Indiana was getting a good look at a larger truth with Pence: The governor’s office might wind up going to the unqualified, but it really isn’t a place for amateurs.

General Assembly leaders kept distancing themselves from Pence, as they picked up the pieces the governor didn’t always know or acknowledge were broken.

Even pastors who rallied around Pence during the rise of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act soured on the governor, holding a rally last week to call him out for giving into to pressures to clarify the law in ways they believe leave it pointless.

To say Pence has been a guiding force at the Statehouse or in the state would be a lie. He’s been exposed.

Another year like this and Ritz might be able to ride a purely anti-Pence sentiment at the ballot box just as she rode an anti-Tony Bennett disgust in 2012. That year, a grassroots, teacher-led rebellion produced a stunning victory for Ritz over the incumbent architect of Indiana’s school reform movement.

(Then again, Gregg could do the same thing just as easily. But I digress …)

But is Ritz ready? Really ready to be more than superintendent?

That’s a stretch. A sad story of constant persecution, even when factoring in whatever actual bullying factor came her way from Republicans, can’t be the beginning and end of any political resume. From abruptly walking out on House committee testimony over SB1 to suing the State Board of Education to resolve getting shut out of discussions, Ritz hasn’t exactly set the bar.

If Ritz is serious about being governor, she has another year to prove she can overcome the obstacles laid out in front of her as superintendent.

Because while Ritz might have been laser tight on what was happening in her corner of the Statehouse — a sizeable corner, no question — Indiana was getting a good look at a larger truth with Pence: The governor’s office might wind up going to the unqualified, but it really isn’t a place for amateurs.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.