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4/1/2012 6:47:00 AM
New Indiana secretary of state seeks to create new image for tainted office

Maureen Hayden, Herald Bulletin CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief

INDIANAPOLIS — When longtime state Sen. Connie Lawson was named Indiana’s new secretary of state, she asked her seven grandchildren to join her children and husband at her swearing-in ceremony.

For the Hendricks County mother and grandmother, the presence of family served as reminder of life outside the Indiana Statehouse.

With her new job, she’ll likely be spending much more time inside the Statehouse than she did as a lawmaker in Indiana’s part-time legislature. Beyond her official duties, her assignment includes restoring credibility to an office tainted by scandal.

On March 16, Lawson was picked by Gov. Mitch Daniels to replace Charlie White, a fellow Republican removed from office after he was convicted of six felonies, including voter fraud, perjury and theft.

Daniels called Lawson, 62, the “obvious” choice to be the state’s chief elections officer.

He noted her past experiences as a county clerk and legislator who’s grappled with both the nuts-and-bolts of elections as well as the public policy issues that affect them.

Lawson hasn’t always made politicians happy. When she was on the Senate elections committee, she pushed for legislation that bars candidates from using campaign donations for personal expenses.

Lawson’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle praise her experience. Senate Democrat Leader Vi Simpson (of Ellettsville) describes Lawson as a “nose-to-the-grindstone” worker.

But they also describe Lawson as an antidote to the political poison emanating from the messy White matter that had dragged on for months.

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, Lawson’s longtime friend and former Senate Republican colleague, said the appointment “sucks the negative air” from a bad political climate. White had waged a bitter battle with his own party over whether he should step down before he was forced out.

Republican state Sen. Luke Kenley, a 20-year Senate veteran (of Noblesville), said the difference between White and Lawson is how they see public office.

Kenley said for White “it’s all about politics.” In describing Lawson, Kenley borrowed from a scriptural image, describing her as someone who’s in the political world, but not of it.

“For Connie, it’s all about the substance of the office,” Kenley said. “It’s about helping other people. That stems from the servant’s attitude she has about public service.”

For her part, Lawson would rather talk about what lies ahead — including overseeing the May 8 primary — rather than her predecessor’s troubles.

“We need to stay focused. We have work to do,” Lawson said.

Lawson uses the word “focused” to describe herself.

The second of eight children married her high school sweetheart, Jack Lawson, when she was 18 and went to work at the local phone company while he finished college. Within a year, she was promoted to a supervisory position.

She later helped her husband launch his auction business and raised two children before taking a job at a local title company. In that job, she frequently visited the county clerk’s office.

When she heard the clerk’s term was almost up, she thought to herself: “I could do that job.” What she won’t say aloud, but admits to, is that she also thought she could do the job better.

Lawson wasn’t the candidate the local GOP party wanted, but she didn’t care. She knocked on doors, introduced herself to voters and won the primary. That’s all she needed to win the general election in her Republican county.

Lawson soon became active in the state association of county clerks, and started lobbying legislators on issues important to county officials.

When a Senate seat opened up in the district where she lived, she once again thought to herself: “I could do that job.”

Lawson came to the state Senate in 1996. She earned a reputation as being collegial and hard-working, said Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime observer of the Legislature and publisher of the weekly “Indiana Legislative Insight” newsletter.

She’s been neither a lightning rod for partisan opponents nor an ideologue in her own party. “She does her work,” Feigenbaum said. “You’re not going to find her on the far side of a particular issue.”

Kenley, who chairs the Senate appropriations committee, concurs. Two years ago, when he proposed cutting state dollars to mental health services to balance the state budget, it was Lawson who convinced him not to do it.

“She worked like a demon to fight me on that and she won,” Kenley said. For her efforts, Lawson was named the Indiana Legislator of the Year by the Mental Health Association of America.

Democrats fought to keep Daniels from being able to fill White’s spot. The state Democratic Party challenged White’s eligibility to run in 2010, after questions arose about where he lived and voted.

Those questions led to White’s criminal prosecution for voter fraud and other charges, his felony convictions in February that forced his removal from office, and court fights over who had the right to appoint his successor.

Lawson’s likability won’t end the story. She knows it may take a long time before she can unlink the connection in voters’ minds between White’s name and the title of Secretary of State.

Till then, she looks to her 83-year-old mother, who worked as a missionary in Indonesia after she was widowed, for inspiration. “She has a lot of courage and a lot of strength,” Lawson said. “She’s a good role model.”

2016 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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