Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Crucial time for Indiana

Frank O'Bannon: Governor mourned

Indiana lost more than a governor when Frank O'Bannon died Saturday, several days after suffering a stroke in a Chicago hotel. It lost a popular public figure who embodied many of the qualities to which Hoosiers - indeed, all Americans - aspire.

Democrat O'Bannon, 73, was well liked on both sides of the political aisle, with a down-to-earth, folksy quality that charmed even foes. He was, observers say, a genuinely "nice guy" who succeeded in politics.

O'Bannon was a basketball player at Indiana University - you can hardly get any more "Hoosier" than that - and started his career as a sportswriter and news photographer. He renovated log cabins and, while in office, went bird watching with fellow Audubon Society members. In keeping with his style, there will be no public funeral, but citizens can write messages in a memorial book Thursday in the Statehouse Rotunda.

As governor, he made his biggest mark in education reform. The standards he pushed to establish for public schools are among the toughest and most detailed in the nation. He also championed early childhood education. And under his watch, the state overhauled its tax system and built an economic development plan.

His death comes at a critical time for Indiana. Like many states, it faces a large budget deficit - $800 million and growing - and must find ways to trim spending and encourage growth. At the same time, many residents are demanding property tax relief. Politically, it's a tricky situation.

Fortunately, Indiana has an experienced leader to take over. Joe Kernan, 57, O'Bannon's lieutenant governor since 1997, was sworn in Saturday. He's already proven his skills by spearheading O'Bannon's tax-reform and development initiatives with the General Assembly. "It's not someone who has been sitting on the sidelines. He has been in the game," House Speaker Patrick Bauer told the Indianapolis Star.

Kernan's toughest challenge, observers say, may be in finding a political balance: He needs to move quickly to make budget fixes and needed reforms, but he can't be perceived as stepping on O'Bannon's legacy. Kernan has announced he won't run for the office next fall, but insists he's not going to be a "lame duck" governor.

We mourn with the people of Indiana in their loss, and wish them and their new governor the best.

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