Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch hopes voters will choose experience over politics

Gun Rights

play
Show Caption

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles on each of the six Republican candidates for governor. Read our profiles on Mike Braun, Brad Chambers, Curtis Hill, Jamie Reitenour and Eric Doden.

It seemed the Boone County residents had mostly exhausted their questions about the LEAP district and what’s happening to their farmland, which was the subject of the listening session Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch held last week at the county fairgrounds.

One county councilor decided to change the subject.

“Axe the tax,” Kevin Van Horn said, repeating Crouch’s slogan for her campaign promise to eliminate the state income tax, prompting a knowing grin from Crouch. “Let’s assume for a moment that you become the governor.”

“I like that assumption,” Crouch said, prompting laughter from the crowd of 60 or so.

“How are you going to convince the legislature that this is what needs to be done, but more importantly, where are the dollars going to come from to compensate that loss from the money that’s coming in right now?”

Crouch beamed.

It’s been the headline-grabber of her campaign and the butt of snide remarks on the debate stage, with her five opponents accusing her of merely propagating a gimmick. (Crouch shrugs at all that ― jokes on them, she says, they’re giving her free advertising.)

But to Crouch, it’s a real idea, and in the Boone County pavilion, she takes four whole minutes to explain the logic and the facts and figures behind the execution ― far too long for the debate stage or an ad.

She remains steadfast it can be done in a gradual way, through a combination of shrinking the size of government, spurring economic growth and putting excess reserves toward it, though experts are skeptical an elimination of a tax that makes up a third of state tax revenue won’t result in increasing some other tax or cutting services. Plus, she can’t do it without the support of the General Assembly, which means some candidates have accused her of making promises she can’t keep in an effort to win votes.

Indiana governor candidate Q&A: Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch on the issues

Nonetheless, this is the Suzanne Crouch that her supporters want more people to see, but that doesn’t fit as neatly onto those quippy debate stages and airtime. They say she has the encyclopedic recall of a county-level public official who would rather not bother with the fanfare of politics. If the job of governor were won purely off the merits of training through the ranks of local and state government and having the most endorsements from the public servants in those jobs ― 165 at latest count ― the job would be hers.

But this is politics. Experience in government isn’t everything, and there are five other people who want the job: U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, who polling says is the frontrunner; former Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers; Fort Wayne entrepreneur Eric Doden, former Attorney General Curtis Hill and Indianapolis mother Jamie Reitenour.

Crouch is the one with the strongest attachment to the Gov. Eric Holcomb administration, which could be a liability in a Republican primary. Far gone are the days when the person in the No. 2 position is the heir apparent. Even as she struggles with her ties to his administration the people closest to Holcomb have largely opted to support someone else: Chambers. Holcomb has yet to make an endorsement in the race.

But she also has the most credibility in the mental health conversation, having spoken publicly in great detail about her family members’ struggles with suicide and addiction.

Van Horn was an undecided voter. But two things swayed him that day: Mental health is also a priority for him, and Crouch held eye contact with him during her entire four-minute answer to his question.

“She looked me straight in the eye, she answered the question, and she’s got my vote,” he said afterward.

‘All I ever wanted to do was local government’

A county auditor is the record keeper, the financial overseer, the conduit for all county business. It’s not glamourous or even that high-profile, but it’s the job 34-year-old Crouch wanted in 1986.

She had had some accounting experience, as the bookkeeper for her family’s construction company, and proximity to politics, as executive administrator of the Vanderburgh County Republican Central Committee and the southwest Indiana campaign director for Sen. Richard Lugar. The seat had been a Democratic stronghold for more than 30 years, and her opponent was the sitting chief deputy auditor. She knocked on more than 40,000 doors, pregnant, the Evansville Courier and Press reported. Then she lost by about one percentage point.

So she tried again in 1994. Again she faced a Democratic opponent who was chief deputy auditor; this time, she bested him by 12 percentage points and was part of a Republican wave sweeping county department heads.

Crouch said recently she had never aspired beyond county commissioner, which she would become after two terms as auditor. She describes her trajectory as a series of happenstance requests: She hadn’t thought about being state representative until Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, called asking her to run for Becker’s old House seat. When former Gov. Mike Pence asked her step into the state auditor role to fill a vacancy, she initially said no, but Pence asked her to take the weekend to think about it. And then Holcomb tapped her as his lieutenant governor, she thought, “well, okay, this is what I’m doing.”

“All I ever wanted to do was local government,” she said. “I’m a big believer God puts us in places for a reason; what’s meant to be is meant to be.”

Auditor is not the kind of job that makes many headlines. What the newspapers did note were her efforts to put county commissioner meeting minutes and video online for the first time; later, as commissioner, her meetings would be televised for the first time.

What might not have made the headlines as much was her reputation behind the scenes. Friends like Marsha Abell, who also served as county clerk at the time Crouch was auditor, say she didn’t play favorites and meant business when it was time for business. She led the county through the Y2K transition methodically and calmly, Abell said, pulling the books apart to scrap a couple grand here and a couple grand there to pay for new computer systems.

“I never had her not knowing where something was in that budget,” Abell said. “She was always prepared.”

Indiana governor’s race: Candidates have raised more than $18M. Here’s who has raised the most.

Colleagues across the aisle, too, considered her a deep researcher who thought things through.

“I feel she always developed insightful and intelligent responses when reaching her decisions,” Democratic county commissioner Mike Goebel wrote in an email.

Bill Nix, who served with her as a commissioner for one year, credits Crouch with the idea to build a bike path near Burdette Park, a county-owned park on the edge of Evansville ― a no-brainer idea these days but less in vogue back then.

When Becker decided to leave her House seat to run for the state Senate, she called Crouch. Crouch had proven herself a “go-getter,” Becker said, especially when, as county party chair in the early 90s, Crouch helped Becker fundraise heavily and garner 47% of the vote against an incumbent mayor. (Crouch’s fundraising skills persist: her gubernatorial campaign, with the support of Republican kingmaker Bob Grand, has been keeping up with her independently wealthy opponents. In March, for example, the campaign raised more than $1 million in one week.)

But it took some convincing.

“When I called her,” Becker recalled, “she said ‘Just tell me this: Is it as political as it is at the local level?’ I said, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet.'”

Going public on mental health

Even as a state representative for eight years, Crouch’s legacy was local, and chiefly in the areas she’s now well-known for: mental health and health care in general.

As vice chair on the House Ways and Means committee, Crouch secured funding for the IU School of Medicine to build its own regional facility in Evansville. Earlier in her tenure, she pushed for funding in the state budget to provide grants to organizations, like Youth First in Evansville, to embed behavioral health professionals in schools in an effort to prevent substance abuse and mental health issues.

“I think she was an early adopter of making this a priority,” said president and CEO Parri Black, while making clear that Youth First does not support or endorse any candidates.

This was the mid-2000s, well before Crouch went public about her own family’s history.

Her mother experienced bouts of depression and anxiety all of Crouch’s life. Crouch’s sister, Nancy, died by suicide in her early 20s after a silent struggle with depression. Her brother, Larry, died more recently after a lifelong struggle with alcohol addiction. Her daughter, Courtney, lives with bipolar disorder.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated a mental health crisis, particularly among young people. As lieutenant governor, it seemed like the right time to use her platform to encourage more conversation and more solutions, she said. The first time she spoke publicly about her family ― she thinks it might have been a Zoom talk with employees in the Division of Mental Health and Addiction ― it felt awkward, a little scary, and a little painful.

“It wasn’t that I was ever ashamed or embarrassed of my family. It just, you know, didn’t ever feel like it was anything that was important to talk about,” she said. “But then during COVID when I saw how we were all being affected, I thought, well maybe if I talk about it, that gives other people permission to talk about it.”

This would become a hallmark of her time as lieutenant governor. In 2021, she formed the Indiana Mental Health Roundtable, a coalition of the biggest names in health and business that seeks to amplify efforts around the state to reduce stigma and increase access.

In an unusual move, in 2023, Crouch testified during a hearing on Senate Bill 1, the session’s marquee mental health bill that Holcomb eventually signed into law alongside a $100 million appropriation in the budget. The law enables the state’s community health centers to broaden their services so they can qualify for federal funding and be able to provide crisis response teams when people call the 988 suicide hotline.

In March, Crouch aired a new TV ad in which she mentions Nancy’s battle.

“I think it takes a lot to wear all that so publicly,” said Lloyd Winnecke, the former Evansville mayor and a friend of Crouch’s. “Arguably no one else has used a platform to this extent.”

Does Holcomb help or hurt?

Covid brought Crouch another challenge: an association with a Holcomb administration that many populist Republicans are now condemning as an example of extreme government overreach, citing emergency shutdowns and mask mandates.

Besides her “axe the tax” platform, this is the main source of jabs from her opponents.

“The lieutenant governor wants to not talk about the past,” Hill said in his closing statements at the first gubernatorial debate. “Well we know why: because she’s tied to the past. The past of a failed administration.”

Generally speaking, Holcomb is still popular. In the latest Hoosier Survey from Ball State University‘s Bowen Center for Public Affairs, his approval rating was about 61% among respondents who identify as a “strong Republican,” and 51% among those who “lean Republican.” And that doesn’t include about a quarter of respondents who don’t even know who Holcomb is.

But Crouch is competing for those more moderate, Holcomb-supporting Republicans with at least one other candidate ― Chambers ― and there may not be enough of those voters to go around, said Chad Kinsella, director of the Bowen Center.

Crouch started out by walking a fine line, distancing herself somewhat from the actions of the Holcomb administration without being too harsh, given that she was there, too. That schism has only grown wider, though.

Last summer, her digs were more subtle: While her opponents attacked the LEAP Innovation District in Boone County as a concept, Crouch didn’t take it that far ― her criticism has been about the lack of transparency felt by local elected officials.

During this year’s legislative session, she took an openly oppositional stance to an executive agency, the Family and Social Services Administration, over its handling of the $1 billion Medicaid forecast miscalculation that resulted in cost cuts that impacted families caring for medically complex children. Holcomb, meanwhile, has been defending FSSA, as Crouch repeatedly calls for audits.

And on the debate stage, pledging like the rest of her opponents to never again hand down mask mandates and to have health experts “on tap, not on top,” Crouch has made her critiques more direct.

“We can’t go back and change what happened, but I’ve learned from the mistakes of our top executive,” she said at the first debate, without actually naming Holcomb. Asked at a later debate how she’d grade Holcomb‘s two terms, she gave him an A for the state’s favorable business environment and a C for his response to COVID-19. Like many other Republicans, she didn’t publicly share any opposition to Holcomb’s emergency order back then.

Unsurprisingly, Crouch prefers to shift the focus onto her own actions as lieutenant governor: Her overseeing Indiana’s expansion of rural broadband; her collaboration with the General Assembly to transition the Indiana Destination Development corporation from a state agency to a quasi-government agency like the IEDC ― a move enabling the attraction of private dollars to tourism and marketing efforts; her advocacy for legislation emerging from recommendations from the Intellectual Developmental Disability Task Force she chairs.

“I can’t change what is and what has been; all I can do is move forward,” Crouch said. “And all I can do is tell people what I have done, and when I am gonna do, for them. And it’ll be what it’ll be at the end of the day.”

The chromosome in the room

When Crouch first ran for county auditor, reporters duly noted the fact that she was pregnant, requiring Crouch to answer for the concern that her impending childbirth wouldn’t impact her public duties.

Gender was a topic, too, when Crouch actually became county auditor, because in that election, women outnumbered male department heads for the first time.

“At the polls, I don’t think gender plays a role in people’s decision-making process,” Crouch told the Evansville Courier and Press in 1994. “People just look at the candidates running for office and their qualifications.”

This is still her mantra today, and it’s the thinking of other women who support her.

“We don’t want to elect her because she’s a woman. That’s not the idea,” said Elaine Bedel, CEO of the Indiana Destination Development Corporation. “We want the best person for the job, and it just so happens that the best person for the job is a woman.”

Qualified women in Indiana have historically struggled to gain the backing of the party establishment for gubernatorial runs, from either party. The most recent example was Susan Brooks, a sitting U.S. representative who wanted to replace Mike Pence when he was tapped for Donald Trump’s ticket. But Pence’s pick was Holcomb, a party official who had never held public office. Party delegates chose Holcomb over Brooks by one vote.

On stage with her competition, Crouch doesn’t play identity politics. She keeps it tongue-in-cheek, sometimes making a joke about the one physical characteristic that makes her different from the others: her red glasses.

At most, she hopes her gender enables her to be a role model for young girls.

“I want to be that kind of person that people look up to and young girls look up to and say, ‘You know what, I can do it, and you know what? Her family’s not perfect, but that’s okay,'” she said. “And so the gender thing… I’ve been told by my pollster, it’s not an issue in races.

“I guess we’ll see,” she laughed.

About Suzanne Crouch

Age: 72

Home: Evansville

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Purdue University.

Family: Husband, Larry Downs, and daughter Courtney.

Previous experience: Indiana lieutenant governor 2017-present; Indiana State Auditor 2013-16; Indiana state representative 2005-13; Vanderburgh County commissioner 2002-05; Vanderburgh County auditor 1994-2002.

Support from outside groups: Indiana Right to Life PAC, Carpenters Local 1005, National Rifle Association A Rating (Questionnaire)

Contact IndyStar state government and politics reporter Kayla Dwyer at kdwyer@indystar.com or follow her on Twitter@kayla_dwyer17.

You Might Like

Articles You May Like

Is the SOG Seal Pup Full Tang? – SHOT Show 2016
Donald Trump will address the NRA in Texas. He’s called himself the best president for gun owners
Biba: Kittery Trading Post’s fearmongering on guns bad for businessTim Biba 
Woodfin: Trump’s praise of NRA ‘sickening’ as Birmingham reels from ‘tough week’ of gun violence
Ms. Katherine (Kat) Rummell named Montgomery County Chair for Dedication of Col William Barrett Travis Alamo Letter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *