Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels visits the Lewis and Clark Bridge for the first time since its completion in this 2017 file photo. Daniels was instrumental in initiating the Ohio River Bridges Project, as he was sitting governor when Indiana and Kentucky partnered to make the project a reality. File photo | CNHI News Indiana
Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels visits the Lewis and Clark Bridge for the first time since its completion in this 2017 file photo. Daniels was instrumental in initiating the Ohio River Bridges Project, as he was sitting governor when Indiana and Kentucky partnered to make the project a reality. File photo | CNHI News Indiana
Richard Lugar is the two-word answer. When asked what attracted him to politics, former Indiana governor and Purdue University President Mitch Daniels immediately responded with the late U.S. senator’s name.

The decay of big cities was a big issue when Daniels was in college, and he was impressed by how Lugar transformed Indianapolis as mayor.

“He turned Indianapolis from Indiana-no-place into one of the great city success stories in the country,” Daniels said of Lugar, who was Indy mayor from 1968 to 1976.

Daniels went to work for Lugar one summer, and a relationship was created that helped determine both men’s careers.

Daniels went on to serve as Lugar’s chief of staff in the Senate. With a wife and young family, Daniels sought to move out of Washington and back into private business. But Lugar was convincing and talked Daniels into multiple extensions.

Thinking he was out of politics in 1984, Daniels got a call to work for President Ronald Reagan’s administration as a political advisor. Daniels returned to Indiana in 1987 and worked in the private sector, but his story was just beginning.

After joining the company in 1990, Daniels went on to become president of Eli Lilly and Company’s North American pharmaceutical operations. He likely would have stayed with Eli Lilly, but President George W. Bush had other ideas for Daniels. In 2001, Bush appointed him as the director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget where he served until mid-2003.

Then came a decision that not only shaped Daniels’ career, but influenced much of today’s Indiana.

Daniels entered the gubernatorial race and easily won as a Republican the same year that President Barack Obama carried the state.

As governor, Daniels helped Indiana balance its budget for the first time in eight years, led sweeping education reform and found ways to fund infrastructure projects on a level never seen before in the state.

Many pushed Daniels to run for President of the United States in 2012, but instead he stayed in Indiana and went on to take the helm of Purdue University — a position he held until resigning in June.

Though most think of Daniels as a governor, he insists that his life has been about far more than politics and policy.

“As governor I gave the speech over and over. Government is not the end, and should not be the center of life,” Daniels said.

“Government is what people, men and women of goodwill, ought to do so the important parts of life where people can make their living, raise their families, volunteer — can flourish.”

PRESIDENTIAL MATERIAL

Daniels, 73, was governor of Indiana from 2005 to 2013. The Republican defeated incumbent Democrat Joe Kernan in 2004 and easily won re-election in 2008.

Daniels’ success in Indiana garnered interest well beyond the Midwest. With the national economy sagging due to the Great Recession, some political minds believed that incumbent President Barack Obama could be in trouble in his 2012 re-election bid. Daniels had a proven track record of sound fiscal management, both in his private business endeavors and in governing the Hoosier state.

“First of all, he disagrees with me. But I think not only could he have won the Republican nomination, I think he could have beaten Barack Obama in 2012 just because of the economic factors,” said Brian Howey, a veteran Hoosier journalist and publisher of Howey Politics Indiana.

Howey covered the Daniels’ administration. The former governor’s ability to reach seemingly anyone would have served him well in a national election, Howey said.

“I’ve watched him deal with astrophysicists and speak to people who were selling tomatoes at roadside farm stands. The guy just had a knack for connecting with people,” Howey said of Daniels.

The behind-the-scenes tug of war to persuade Daniels to enter the presidential race inspired the book “Run Mitch, Run”. But Daniels didn’t run. Mitt Romney went on to win the Republican nomination, and he was defeated by Obama in the general election.

But does Daniels regret his decision?

“There’s no point in regretting it, so I don’t,” he said. “Government is something if he or she gets the chance, they should go participate in, but not as a career.”

Instead, Daniels believes his decision not to enter the race made him a stronger governor.

“We were not a lame duck administration. Some of the biggest things we did were in years seven and eight.”

Education reform, automatic taxpayer refunds, Right to Work and ending the state inheritance tax were approved during the last two years of Daniels’ administration.

“We were able to sprint through the tape because I wasn’t off running through Iowa somewhere,” Daniels said.

A LASTING LEGACY

Though much has been made of the last few years of his administration and Daniels’ choice not to run for president, the former governor’s two terms in Indianapolis are widely considered to be among the best in the state’s history.

“Of all the governors I’ve covered, he’s definitely the strongest one,” Howey said.

He was an innovative governor who launched programs like Major Moves, a 10-year transportation plan that led to the completion of 87 new roadways, 60 new or reconstructed interchanges and the rehabilitation or replacement of 1,400 bridges from 2005 to 2015.

“If you talk with Democrats in the General Assembly, even though they didn’t agree with everything he wanted to do, he was definitely in charge,” Howey said.

With Daniels as governor, the state had four consecutive balanced budgets, added thousands of miles of bike lanes and designated more than 50,000 acres as protected wildlife reserves.

But it was perhaps’ Daniels personal style as candidate and then governor that many remember the most.

He never ran a negative campaign commercial, a trend that was continued by the two Republican governors that followed him in Mike Pence and Eric Holcomb.

Daniels never stayed in a hotel on the campaign trail, electing to spend the night in the homes of friends and supporters.

It was his willingness to meet with anybody and everybody that spurred some of his major accomplishments.

Daniels recalled speaking with a highway worker in Warren County who told him there was no way the state could afford to complete its long list of road projects. Daniels said that conversation inspired Major Moves.

Sitting on a barstool in Clay City, Daniels said two women told him about their struggles in garnering child support checks from deadbeat dads. Upon further research, Daniels discovered the state wasn’t collecting child support in an efficient manner, so he set about changing the broken system.

Daniels ran for governor because he felt the state was under-performing and struggling economically, but on the road he found out about issues that were beneath the surface.

“There were a lot of surprises because I would learn about other problems for the first time,” Daniels said.

“There’s no better example of that than the Ohio River Bridges Project.”

The Ohio River Bridges Project partnership between Kentucky and Indiana was certainly controversial because it included tolling and a sizable price tag. But Daniels, whose wife Cheri Herman Daniels is from New Albany, heard from Southern Indiana leaders about how the new bridges could spur economic growth in the region.

“They told me if someone would ever get that done there’s huge potential here, and they were right,” Daniels said.
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