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Ride Along with Mitch

Can the astonishing popularity of Indiana’s penny-pinching governor carry him to the White House in 2012?

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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 For a MitchTV fan, nothing can quite compare to seeing the thing play out in person. Daniels said I could go along with him to a couple of weekday events north of Indianapolis, but the day before we were to leave he decided to ride his Harley, leaving me to trail him in a black Sequoia with the state troopers who are a governor’s ever-present companions. When Daniels goes by motorcycle, another trooper will ride a bike a respectful distance behind. “I can pretend, at least, I’m all by myself,” he said. “It gives me the illusion of privacy for a little while.”

Our first stop that morning was North Central High School, in Indianapolis, where the governor was scheduled to bestow a statewide academic award on a prizeworthy math whiz. Daniels grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from North Central in 1967. His grandfather, born Elias Esau, came to the United States from Syria in the early 1920s. He chose the name Daniels at Ellis Island. After a few years Elias—now called Louie—made enough money to return to Syria and find a bride. He brought her back to Monongahela, Pennsylvania, and earned a good living running a pool hall and, his grandson says, making book. Mitch’s father married his mother, of Scots-Irish descent, in the Valley, and Mitch was born there, in the same delivery room that gave the world Joe Montana. After the sojourn in the South, his father landed a job selling pharmaceuticals and brought the family to Indianapolis. “It’s the typical immigrant story,” Mitch says. “Something that could only happen in America, and it happens all the time.”

North Central gleamed. A glass elevator stood in the polished foyer, and a ramp curved up to a balcony where one wall was devoted to the school’s Alumni Hall of Fame. A picture of Daniels—straight A student, president of the student council, delegate to the national Boys State convention in 1967—has pride of place, next to a photo of BabyFace, the music producer who has evidently been forgiven for discovering Paula Abdul. Later I remarked to Daniels how the schools I’d seen in Indiana all had the same gleam and polish: immaculate athletic fields, vast cafeterias, swimming pools.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s a problem.” 

I’d meant to flatter him but he sounded appalled. 

“When we were first campaigning, I started to notice, we’d drive through these rural counties, these very poor counties, and we’d drive up over a hill and on the other side you’d see a brand-new high school that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright had just been there. Enormous gold-plated buildings. It turned out we had higher capital expenditures for educational construction per square foot than any other state. There’d be a bond issue and then the architects and contractors would run amok, spending money on things that had nothing to do with academics. I understand why it happens. The school board likes it because they get to play designer for a year. But we couldn’t afford it.” 

Daniels put a 120-day moratorium on new school bond issues. “We’ve told them, if you propose a project that costs more per square foot than the national average, be prepared to show cause.”

Daniels is a font of statistics, but one comes to his lips more than any other. “Only 61 cents of every education dollar gets into the classroom in Indiana.” School funding increased every year under Daniels before the recession, and since the downturn, when most areas of state government have seen cuts of 25 percent or more, education has been reduced by only 2 percent. Yet the local school boards and their Democratic allies in the state legislature continue to complain. Daniels calls education funding “the bloody shirt” of Indiana politics: “It doesn’t take long before somebody starts waving it.” One of my favorite bits of Daniels video on YouTube shows him at a press conference defending a bill to end “social promotion” in the state’s grade schools. School districts were appalled that the bill would pass without “additional resources” to educate the kids who would be held back.

A reporter asked him about it.

“By the time a child has finished third grade, the state has spent $40,000 and the school district has had 720 days to teach that child to read,” he said, tight-lipped. “If that child can’t read by then, there is a fundamental failure in that district. And they’ll need to remedy it. The most unacceptable thing to do is to shove that child along to fourth grade into almost certain academic failure. That’s a cruel thing to do, it’s a wrong thing to do, and we’re going to put an end to it.” 

The reporter pressed: But won’t the schools need more money? 

Daniels’s eyes got wide.

“More than $40,000 to teach someone how to read? No. It won’t and it shouldn’t and any school district that can’t do it ought to face consequences.”

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