Frank O’Bannon (1997-2003)
Frank O’Bannon was born to a long time political family out of Corydon, Indiana. O’Bannon’s grandfather Lew O’Bannon was the chairman of the Indiana Historical Society’s committee on publicity for the state’s Centennial events. In 1924, Lew was a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. However, he and Carleton McCulloch lost to the Klan candidacy of Ed Jackson. Lew also purchased the Corydon Democrat, a newspaper that became the family business. Lew’s son — Frank’s father — Robert O’Bannon served in the Indiana Senate for 26 years until he was replaced by Frank in 1969.
Frank O’Bannon attended school in Corydon, graduating from Corydon High School in 1948 as the class president. He then earned a degree in government from Indiana University in 1952, after which he served for two years in the Air Force. After leaving the military, O’Bannon earned a law degree at IU, opening a private practice in Corydon in 1957. While he worked as a lawyer, O’Bannon maintained his connections to the family newspaper, working as a journalist and photographer.
O’Bannon was a conservative Democrat, favoring the death penalty and installing the 10 Commandments on the Statehouse lawn. In the Senate, he was floor leader for the Democrats for 11 years, developing a reputation for being able to work in a bipartisan fashion. In 1988, he explored a run for the governor. Despite the feeling among some that O’Bannon’s seniority should carry the day over the young Bayh, O’Bannon abandoned his gubernatorial efforts and threw his support behind Bayh. He became lieutenant governor for the eight years of the Bayh administration, then ran for governor in his own right in the 1996 campaign.
In 1996, O’Bannon was considered an underdog against Steve Goldsmith. Goldsmith had been Marion County Prosecutor, Indianapolis mayor, and the lieutenant governor candidate alongside John Mutz during Mutz’s unsuccessful campaign against Evan Bayh. Republicans had been out of the governor’s office for eight years in what has, particularly for the last century, been a mostly Republican state. Goldsmith’s pro-business, privatizing vision of government ended up being a little tough to sell, however, in the face of accusations of influence peddling and claims that his cuts to government had left it unable to perform essential functions. O’Bannon was able to point to his long years of service, his deep Indiana roots, and the very popular Bayh administration. Additionally, O’Bannon was personally very likable. As another opponent, David Macintosh would say, “How are you going to run against someone who is everyone’s grandfather?’”
My one encounter with Governor O’Bannon was unimpressive on my part. He was governor for most of the three years when I worked at the State House (1996 – 1999) One day, I was rounding a corner, heading back from lunch, only to find myself face to face with the governor. I was surprised and a little stunned, and all I could get out was a nod and a “hey.” For his part, he smiled and said, “hello.”
I had better success with his lieutenant governor, Joe Kernan. The lieutenant governor’s office is on the same floor as the Legislative Services Agency. So, on two or three occasions, I found myself taking an elevator with Lt. Gov. Kernan. He engaged me in brief, pleasant small talk on those occasions which left me. Nothing significant, but those pleasantries left me with a very favorable impression of Mr. Kernan.
O’Bannon’s campaign against Goldsmith was successful. He won by about 4% and 100,000 votes. The late 90s were pretty good economically. The Internet was starting to grow, employment was strong, and the State’s treasury was full. The Senate remained firmly under the control of the Republicans and Bob Garton, but in 1996, the House was equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. After a previous even split in 1988, the General Assembly had adopted a provision whereby the party that had won the top race on the ticket (Governor or Secretary of State depending on the year) would get the Speaker’s office in the event of a 50/50 split. So, O’Bannon had a Democratically controlled House to work with. The Democrats improved their lead in 1998.
“O’Bannon was able to cut taxes by $1.5 billion, hire 500 more police officers in the state and win increased funding for schools and extended health insurance for poor families.” The Office of the Public Access Counselor was created after a group of newspapers noted obstacles to obtaining public records in Indiana.
In 2000, Governor O’Bannon ran again. This time, his Republican opponent was David McIntosh, a lawyer and member of Congress from Kendallville. He had been an advisor to Dan Quayle among whose notable positions — if Wikipedia is to be believed — was as an advocate for rolling back environmental protections, allowing businesses to increase pollution without notifying the public. As a Congressman, he apparently fought to get rid of regulations in the food and health industries. McIntosh was not successful against O’Bannon. He lost by 15%. McIntosh promised a 25% reduction in property taxes while O’Bannon stressed education and argued that the property tax cut would harm education in Indiana.
Times were tough for everyone after the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent market downturn. “Indiana lost 120,000 jobs, tax revenues dropped, and O’Bannon had to cut social services and other services in order to spare education.”
On September 8, 2003, Governor O’Bannon suffered a stroke while in Chicago and remained unconscious. On September 10, the Speaker and President pro tem sent a joint message to the Indiana Supreme Court that Gov. O’Bannon was incapacitated. Lt. Governor Joe Kernan became acting governor. Gov. O’Bannon did not recover and passed away on September 13, 2003. Joe Kernan was sworn in as governor in his own right.
In case anyone was wondering, I was somewhat more articulate in my few encounters with Joe Kernan than I had managed with Gov. O’Bannon. As Lieutenant Governor, Kernan’s offices were down the hall from Legislative Services when I worked there. He was always extremely pleasant, and I was struck by what an approachable guy he was.
But, even though I liked him, I’ll keep his entry brief. Kernan was born in Chicago but moved to South Bend. He went to college at Notre Dame and graduated in 1968. He entered the Navy in 1969 as a Naval Flight Officer and, in February 1972, he was shot down over North Vietnam while on a reconnaissance mission and held as a prisoner of war for 11 months. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts, and a Navy Commendation Medal.
Before serving as Lieutenant Governor, Kernan was mayor of South Bend from 1987 to 1997. Initially, Kernan had not intended to seek the governor’s position, but when Gov. O’Bannon passed away and Kernan became governor, he decided to run in 2004. His run against Mitch Daniels was unsuccessful, and he became a private citizen after that.
One notable effort with which he was involved after leaving the State House was a joint study with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on local government reform.