Mitch Daniels was born in Pennsylvania, and the family moved to Indiana for his dad’s job with a pharmaceutical company. He graduated from North Central High School with honors and went to college at Princeton. While there, he got into a legal scrape involving drugs. These days that incident might have seriously derailed his future prospects, but it was the early 70s, Nancy Reagan had not yet told us to “just say no,” and so he got through it with two nights in jail and a $350 fine.
Daniels’ entry into politics highlights a recommendation I would make to anyone. Get involved with group efforts. It leads to social connections that can lead to other positive things in your life later on down the line. Now, in Daniels’ situation, this happened on a grand scale, but I think it works the same for all of us in a kind of fractal way throughout our lives. In Daniels case, he participated in the campaign of William Ruckelshaus to unseat Birch Bayh in 1968. This was an unsuccessful campaign, but it led to Daniels serving as an intern in the office of then mayor Richard Lugar. Lugar went to the U.S. Senate, and Daniels went with him. He eventually became Lugar’s chief of staff which, in turn, led to him becoming executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a political advisor to Ronald Reagan.
In 1990, he followed in his dad’s footsteps to some extent and took a job in the pharmaceutical industry where, it sounds like, he made a pile of money.
In 2001, he returned to the government, serving as the the director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was nicknamed “the Blade” for his ostensible skill at cutting budgets, but during his tenure, the federal budget surplus turned from $236 billion to a deficit of $400 billion. It’s probably not fair to lay that at his feet. The Bush administration pushed tax cuts first without worrying too much about the spending cuts. Daniels also got egg on his face by estimating in 2002 that the Iraq War might cost on the order of $50 to $60 billion, characterizing an estimate of $100 to $200 billion as “much too high.” The actual cost has been more like $2 trillion.
In 2004, Daniels left the federal government to run for governor. His main primary opponent was Eric Miller who advocates for legislation of conservative morality. Daniels had more of an economic message and beat Miller handily in the Republican primary. He went on to face Joe Kernan. Daniels won by about 190,000 votes. In 2008, Daniels would run again, beating Jill Long Thompson in a walk — winning by almost 500,000 votes.
Going from memory, the three biggest initiatives during the Daniels years were the movement of Indiana onto Daylight Saving Time, the sale of the Indiana Toll Road, and the shift from property taxes (with tax caps) to sales and income taxes. (Also notable was the rise of a small but scrappy blogging institution out of west-central Indiana.)
Daylight Saving Time had long been an issue in Indiana. Moves to adopt it like the majority of the country were a perennial source of bills in the General Assembly. Traditionally, about half were for it and half against it, but the pro-DST crowd was generally split between Central and Eastern Time enthusiasts. But, with some major arm twisting, this time the bill to adopt DST squeaked through each stage of the process; culminating in an aye vote by Rep. Troy “I’ll Never Vote for It” Woodruff — who had pledged never to vote for it — that pushed DST over the finish line. Woodruff would be voted out of office, then find work in the Daniels’ administration with the Department of Transportation where he again found himself in the headlines.
The Indiana Toll Road was something of an anachronism because building on it began before the passage of the Federal Highway Act. So, it wasn’t funded in the same way. The State lacked the political will to raise tolls, so maintenance was an issue and the bonds weren’t retired to make it a free highway. Gov. Daniels’ saw opportunity here, and, in 2006, sold it to a foreign consortium for 75 years in exchange for an infusion of cash. The consortium could raise tolls on the motorists of Northern Indiana without worrying about voters, and the rest of the state would get money to fund transportation projects. The money lasted for about six years and was almost gone in 2012 with about 69 years remaining on the lease. The roads funded by the project remain, however. Critical as I have been about the deal, I can’t deny that I enjoy the fact that the Hoosier Heartland has been completed, and travel from Lafayette to northern Ohio is much easier than it once was.
The property tax issue has a long and complicated history. I am no fan of the tax caps written into the Constitution, they have numerous unintended consequences, but I also recognize that the problems and solutions surrounding that issue can’t be laid at the feet of any one politician or political party. For his part, Daniels viewed the problem during his term as being similar to that faced by Doc Bowen during his term and, consequently, he looked for similar solutions. Property tax freezes were offset by an increased sales tax and the potential for local government to increase local income taxes. Another part of the solution was the State taking control and responsibility over school funding. (This, in turn, created more opportunity for the “school choice” crowd to cash in on the privatization of schools.)
At the end of Daniels’ term as governor, he appeared poised to make a run for President in the 2012 campaign, but it never transpired. Ultimately, he was selected by the Purdue Board of Trustees (many of whom he appointed) to be the President of Purdue University and has served in that capacity since 2013.