(The Center Square) – A Republican state legislator from northern Indiana is questioning whether the state teachers union made a closed-door deal with Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb to stay out of the governor’s race this year and not support Holcomb’s Democratic opponent in exchange for Holcomb imposing a statewide mask mandate.
Rep. Curt Nisly, who represents Warsaw and Nappanee, said he noticed the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) took credit for Holcomb’s mask mandate, and then just a few weeks later, announced it would not endorse any candidate for governor in this year’s race.
“To me, that is a pretty direct connection of the deal with the devil,” Nisly said.
On July 14, ISTA representatives met virtually with Holcomb.
Eight days later, on July 22, Holcomb held a press conference announcing the statewide mask mandate, saying masks will soon become “the fashion of the day” in Indiana and people not wearing a mask could be charged with a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. He later retracted it and violating the order is no longer a misdemeanor.
In the announcement, Holcomb referred specifically to schools opening in the coming weeks, and said, “This might be one of the most important reasons, when you really stop and think about it, for all of us to wear face coverings,” adding that kids should not be getting “mixed messages.”
“When they leave schools grounds,” he said, “they need to see that everyone is doing what they’re doing.”
The same day, ISTA President Keith Gambill sent out a statement saying the union appreciated Holcomb met with them and listened to their concerns, and they were appreciative that he met two of ISTA’s “top priorities” – a statewide mask mandate and more detailed guidance on reopening schools.
“We appreciate Gov. Holcomb meeting with and listening to ISTA members’ concerns for the health and safety of Hoosier students and educators. Two of ISTA’s top priorities were met today – a statewide mask mandate and more detailed guidance on reopening schools. We will continue to advocate for doing what’s best for educators and the students they serve to ensure a safe learning and working environment.”
Four weeks later, on Aug. 19, the ISTA announced it would not endorse a candidate in the governor’s race this year.
When reached last week, Lindsay Shipps Haake, spokesman for Democratic candidate Woody Myer’s campaign, called the union’s decision “disappointing.”
“I honestly don’t know what their protocol was, and to be honest with you, I’m not even sure what it was before, verses now, so that wouldn’t be for me to answer,” she said. “But what it comes down to is, yeah, they just told us they just decided not to endorse.”
The ISTA has been one of the biggest backers of Democratic candidates in statewide races and has consistently supported Democrats in governor’s races.
In 2016, the union’s PAC, called I-PACE, spent more than $300,000 in support of Democratic nominee John Gregg, and also supported him when he ran in 2012.
Myers is an African-American physician and venture capitalist who served as Indiana’s state health commissioner in the 1980s, under Gov. Robert Orr, and then in 1990 and 1991 as New York City’s health commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins. His views on education seem to align perfectly with the union’s. He’s for higher teacher pay, cutting back on the use of standardized tests and stopping the expansion of charter schools.
Nisly says Holcomb’s reference in his mask mandate announcement to doing it for the schoolchildren immediately got him thinking.
“When he said that, I went through my logical process and I came up with three conclusions in my head. One is he’s just doing this out of the goodness of his heart. Two, somebody’s got a gun to his head and said, ‘You must do this.’ Or three, he had made a deal with the devil.”
He says when he heard that ISTA had taken credit for the mask mandate, it became clear to him.
“The fact of the matter is,” he says, “the ISTA is the one that’s been backing the Democrats for the last 10 years. They’ve been the force backing every Democrat. Every Democrat that’s been successful has been backed by them. So for them to make the switch and to be supporting Holcomb, you’ve just got to put up your, ‘What’s going on here?’”
The ISTA did not return calls requesting comment. Holcomb’s press secretary, Rachel Hoffmeyer, did not return two calls seeking comment, only sending an email referring questions to the Indiana Republican Party. Holly Lawson, the press secretary for the Indiana Republican Party, did not return two calls seeking comment.
In Indiana, the mask mandate and the governor’s executive orders shutting down most small businesses in the state for more than two months have infuriated many conservatives and buoyed Libertarian candidate for governor Donald Rainwater. An online poll in early September that shocked many in the state showed support for Holcomb had dropped to 36 percent, with Myers at 30 percent and Rainwater at 24 percent.
The Indiana Republican Party has insisted the poll, by San Francisco-based Democratic polling firm Change Research, is inaccurate and on Oct. 7, released its own internal poll showing Holcomb at 60 percent, with Myers at 21 percent and Rainwater at 7 percent.
The three candidates met for their first debate Tuesday, with Holcomb defending the mask mandate, comparing it to wearing a seatbelt in a car or shoes in a restaurant; Myers saying if he’s elected, there will be a mask mandate with consequences for violators; and Rainwater saying it’s up to citizens to decide what risks they’re willing to take and government’s job to safeguard their liberty.