Gov. Holcomb to push for hate crime law with a list

CARMEL —If there’s a bright, shiny object in the General Assembly at the midway point, it is one that has been fashioned with red and black spray paint. It occurred at a Carmel synagogue last summer and resulted in the arrest of two western Indiana men.

But it changed the dynamic on whether Indiana should have a hate crimes law, prompting Gov. Eric Holcomb to make it a priority, as Indiana is one of only five states without one. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s long overdue,” Holcomb said in December, vowing to be a vocal proponent. “I’m convinced the overwhelming majority of Hoosiers feel the same way.”

He’s correct on the “overwhelming majority of Hoosiers” aspect, with an Indiana Realtors Poll in December showing 73 percent back such a law. But that’s not the majority that matters; it’s the 40 Republicans in the Senate and 67 in the House, and they are balking at the so-called “list” of potentially afflicted demographics (i.e. race, gender, sexual identity) that was deleted from Senate Bill 12. Of the 45 states with hate crime laws, only Utah has one sans a list.

The Republican governor, now at odds with his legislative GOP super majorities, offered another way: Use federal code language and place it in the sentencing phase of hate crimes. Holcomb provided a history lesson: “We have all kinds of lists. We just passed a lot of bills with lists. We have a list in the 1st Amendment.; we have 27 amendments. We have a list in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We have ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ and I will be happier when we have this list, as well.”

The governor then read: “Under federal law, criminal acts committed because of a person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or because the person was engaged in a federally protected activity (voting, jury service, etc.) can be charged as hate crimes. This applies right now in the State of Indiana, and what I would suggest is that we take that exact language.”

“Place this in the sentencing phase, not the reporting phase where we already have language, not in terms of the policing efforts, but in terms of the sentencing, what is in front of a judge,” Holcomb reasoned. “And this, ladies and gentlemen, I would submit to you, will get us off the list.”

How vocal will Gov. Holcomb get on this issue? That remains to be seen. Meeting with reporters last Wednesday morning, Holcomb said, “I want a list. I want to get away from the vagueness. I’m going to spend the next two months encouraging the public. They need to contact the legislators that vote.”

That suggests a good, old-fashioned barnstorming tour where a governor goes directly to the people to make the case, encouraging folks to call or write their legislators.

Over the years, Hoosier governors have opted for an array of methods to move recalcitrant legislators. Gov. Robert Orr used to keep a photo of a road grader in his desk drawer and would show it to stubborn legislators, asking something along the lines of “Do you want to see one of these in your district?” Gov. Evan Bayh vowed to stimulate the “white-hot heat of public opinion.” Gov. Mitch Daniels used a series of local town hall meetings to get an NFL stadium built.

Holcomb is in a different spot. He has Republican super majorities, whereas Bayh had a 50/50 House to deal with in several sessions and Daniels had to deal with a Democratic House for four years. So, Holcomb is writing new chapters as these super majorities extend into an unprecedented time span.

Does the governor now cajole? Threaten? Brandish both carrots and sticks? Seek that federal compromise? Would he use the veto? “It’s too early for the v-word,” Holcomb said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” The problem there is that the super majorities can easily override a gubernatorial veto, and that would be embarrassing.

Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray is steering through his first controversy at the helm, was asked about a veto. “We haven’t had that conversation at all,” Bray responded. “To become a victim simply because of your race, your religion, your sexual orientation, is repugnant and it’s wrong, and we need legislation that’ll help to prevent that. That’s the intent of Senate Bill 12.”

SB12 is in Speaker Brian Bosma’s court where it will be debated in the House. He explained, “It’s my goal to pass a bias crime statute to get us off the list without a list, and I think that can be done.”

Do you think the governor will sign a bill with no list? “I have not asked him that question yet,” Bosma said. “It’s a little early for that kind of discussion. I know he would prefer a list. So, we can see where the magic of the legislative process can help us land.”

But here’s the true magic of the legislative process. It’s you. Call or write your legislator. Tell them that true Hoosier Hospitality means being a state with a hate crime law, like 44 other states and the federal government have.

Brian A. Howey of Nashville is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at HPI Statehouse correspondent Jacob Curry contributed to this column. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.