Ritz vs. Pence

Why Glenda Ritz and Mike Pence are at war

Since Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz were elected just over a year ago, they’ve been at odds over how Indiana’s education system should be run.

But this fall, what was a sometimes awkward but generally polite disagreement has turned to open warfare.

The question is: Why?

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State Superintendent Glenda Ritz

The answer comes down to three fundamental divides that have thrown Pence and Ritz’s relationship into conflict: their very different beliefs about education, polarizing reactions to unexpected events, and irreconcilably opposite understandings of why voters elected Ritz in 2012.

The tensions have left education leaders, teachers and students across the state uncertain about what direction Indiana will head on critical issues like how schools are graded and how children will be taught.

At their core, Ritz and Pence disagree about education

Ritz is the only Democrat holding statewide office in strongly conservative Indiana, and her campaign platform directly opposed some of the favorite education ideas of Pence as well as Republicans who have set the agenda for years in the legislature and on the Indiana State Board Education.

Before running for office, Ritz was working as an elementary school librarian in Indianapolis’ Washington Township schools. She was president of her school district’s teachers union and had been a leader in 2011 of Indiana State Teachers Association’s opposition to private school vouchers.

Policies that Pence sees as justified accountability, Ritz has often viewed as unfairly punitive toward students and teachers.

For example, Pence supports school choice — private school vouchers and public charter schools — as a competitive force for positive change for traditional schools and an escape hatch for kids who want better options. Ritz, meanwhile, sees those programs as a drain on public dollars that could otherwise support student learning and pay teachers’ salaries.

Ritz decided to run against over her Republican predecessor, Tony Bennett, out of frustration with too much testing, especially a new third grade reading test that could be used to block low scorers from advancing to fourth grade. Pence, meanwhile, supports test-based accountability as a way to ensure that students have worked to master the material and teachers have effectively helped them learn.

In the wider picture, Pence generally adheres to typically Republican views on education that are shared among mostly conservative Indiana lawmakers. Ritz’s views are traditionally Democratic, a minority view in the Hoosier state.

Given such deep philosophical divides, it’s perhaps more surprising that Ritz has found any common ground with Pence and the Republicans at all. And indeed, early in her term, she did. But she has moved away from that approach — in part because of what’s happened since.

Events sowed distrust

In fact, after a few months on the job in early 2013, Ritz had won respect from some Republicans, including Pence, for working toward compromise.

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Robert Vane
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Kip Tew

Among those early victories, in January, Ritz made common cause with Pence by supporting a bill he pushed to more strongly connect business groups with vocational programs. In February, she struck a deal to hand off oversight of four Indianapolis schools in state takeover to Greg Ballard, Indianapolis’ Republican mayor, diminishing a divisive issue on which she and the state board stood far apart.

Republicans in the Senate even preferred her approach to evaluating Common Core standards over a different bill put forward by their Republican colleagues in the House.

Seeking compromise was a smart move, according to Republican political strategist Robert Vane, Ballard’s former press secretary who now runs his own public relations business. He compared her surprise election to that of his former boss in 2008, when Ballard upset Democrat Bart Peterson in the mayor’s race. Ballard, he said, immediately moved past bruising politics to governing on issues where he could collaborate with Democrats.

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Former state Superintendent Tony Bennett

One big event in July seemed to derail that collaborative spirit.

That was the release of emails written in 2012 by Bennett and his staff. The emails led to complaints that Bennett tried to manipulate A to F grading for the benefit of a favored charter school — and the resulting controversy culminated in Bennett’s resignation as education commissioner in Florida.

The emails were obtained from Ritz’s office by journalists using state public records law, but Bennett’s allies blamed Ritz, whose staff released the emails in response to reporters’ requests. Later, even after a consultants’ review of A to F grading called Bennett’s changes to the formula “plausible,” he was hit with ethics charges, based on the emails, for using office resources to campaign.

The email controversy was quickly followed by moves by Pence and the board that Ritz objected to.

In August, Pence created the new Center for Education and Career Innovation, giving the state board a separate staff from the Ritz-led Department of Education. As Ritz and the board clashed over when to release A to F school grades, board members wrote a letter to Republican legislative leaders asking them to have the Legislative Service Agency calculate the grades. Ritz responded by suing the board, claiming it violated state transparency laws for deciding to send the letter outside of a board meeting.

Finally, there was last month’s board meeting, which Ritz abruptly ended rather than allow a vote that she thought could further limit her power.

Vane argues Ritz has herself to blame if she feels boxed in now. It seems likely, he said, that Ritz’s staff mined Bennett’s emails for embarrassing information, giving into a distracting obsession, he said.

“The Democrats who swept her into office, a lot of that was they just hated Tony Bennett,” he said. “They haven’t focused nearly as much on student scores as they have on settling political scores.”

But Kip Tew, an attorney and the former state Democratic Party chairman, said releasing the emails was simply the right thing to do.

“It was not politically stupid of her to do that,” he said. “It was showing the public what was wrong behind the scenes over the course of Tony Bennett’s reign as superintendent of public instruction.”

Tew suspects Republicans used the Bennett emails as an excuse to get more aggressive with her.

“I think the Republicans, since election night, were planning to marginalize her,” he said. “They smartly waited to do the marginalization until the legislature was out. They have all the power and ability to push her around. She basically stands alone at the statehouse.”

Different interpretations of Bennett’s 2012 defeat

The aggressive tactics employed by both sides since the summer are strongly driven by the disconnect in how each sees the results of last year’s election.

Republicans doubt Ritz can ever repeat her 2012 performance. They think she is a one-hit wonder.

If Pence and the Republicans really believe Ritz is a one-term problem and a politician who is all bark and no bite, then it makes some political sense that they would work around her to push their agenda, feeling no need to compromise.

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Gov. Mike Pence

“The big question for her politically is, was the Ritz coalition an anti-Bennett coalition or something more?” Vane said. “If he’s not on the ballot can she pull it off again? I think the odds are very much against it.”

But Ritz’s supporters often cite the fact that the 1.3 million votes she earned in 2012 were more than Pence or anyone else on the ballot attracted, suggesting she is a force to be reckoned with and perhaps even Pence’s equal.

If Ritz and her advisers believe they can garner anywhere close to the same number of votes again, then it makes sense that they publicly challenge Pence if they think he is trying to curb her power.

“Her victory was broad and deep,” Tew said. “The mandate was people wanted the reforms to stop. Her victory, and the size of it … I think the overall message of voters was slow this down.”

But how much political power came with Bennett’s defeat? Talk of Ritz as strong enough to be a potential challenger to Pence in 2016 may be overly optimistic, Tew said. But if Pence and his allies believe there is no consequence to bullying Ritz politically, they’re wrong, too.

“People who think she is a powerhouse overestimate her,” he said. “But people who think she can’t hurt them underestimate her.”

 What happens next?

However they got here, Ritz and Pence now face the difficult tasks of extricating themselves from a battle that has brought them both increasing criticism. But how can they move forward?

The first step may be for each side to determine what it wants and how it can get there.

Ritz wants to be able to run the Indiana Department of Education without answering to Pence on matters that have always fallen under the state superintendent’s purview, like leading the process of setting academic standards and managing test data. She’d also like an honest debate on areas of disagreement, like what types of tests the state should administer and how to manage school choice.

Pence would like assurance that Ritz will faithfully execute Republican policies that pre-date her arrival or that have clear support from himself, legislative leaders and state board members. He might be willing to hear Ritz out on issues that she feels strongly about, but probably wouldn’t commit to much more than that.

“You have to understand how your personal philosophy meshes with political reality,” Vane said. “No one is saying she didn’t win or shouldn’t have a voice.”

But Democrats may not be ready to cede the point on whether Ritz holds enough power to force change. They might instead urge her to make a stand.

“Gather your army that put you in power and have them begin communicating with their legislators about the things they care about,” Tew said he’d tell Ritz. “Make sure the legislature knows she got elected, and these people are watching them. Reactivate the army and the grassroots to tell legislators if they mess with her and take away her power, they do it at their peril.”

Ritz vs. Pence

Glenda Ritz drops out of governor's race

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz announcing her ill-fated bid for governor last June. She pulled out of the race 10 weeks later.

Glenda Ritz announced today that her run for Indiana governor is over.

When Ritz boldly announced a run for governor on June 4, she said only by unseating Gov. Mike Pence could she give schools the support they need.

A little more than two months later, a humbled Ritz closed down her mistake-prone and financially wobbly campaign, saying she would instead focus on education and support services for kids by seeking re-election to her current job.

She remained critical of Pence even while bowing out.

“Now is not the right time for me to run for governor,” Ritz said in a statement. “The people of Indiana know we need a new governor, a governor that supports public education that directly affects their abilities for better jobs and stronger communities. As superintendent, I will continue to advocate for what is right to educate our children to improve our economy for all Hoosiers.”

In two months as a candidate, Ritz showed none of the political shrewdness and innovation that propelled her to a stunning victory over then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett in 2012.

Ritz attracted a wide following of educators and small donors, along with union dollars, against Bennett, generating strong enthusiasm through smart social media and word-of-mouth strategies.

But this time her events were less energetic and her campaign was less focused.

Last month, Ritz admitted mistakes and promised to re-file campaign finance reports that appeared to show her campaign violated state law by accepting contributions during the legislative session when lawmakers were crafting the budget, which is illegal.

Reporters sometimes ran into disconnected phone lines or an old voicemail greeting trying to reach the campaign, which never hired a permanent spokesman.

Still, an optimistic Ritz told the Indianapolis Star just last week her campaign was just getting organized. She envisioned strong fundraising ahead and a quality campaign.

While Ritz stayed close in early polling, she trailed far behind Pence and Democratic front runner John Gregg when it came to raising money. Ritz reported raising just over $30,500 so far this year in July, while Gregg had raised $1.76 million and Pence $1.63 million.

Given those troubles, some were not surprised Ritz pulled out.

“I think it was probably a good decision,” said David Dresslar, a former superintendent and director of a University of Indianapolis education leadership center who is now working as a consultant. “I think the reality of fundraising and getting an early start and the war chest John Gregg has developed has really given her an uphill climb.”

The failed campaign could potentially help Ritz by allowing her to focus on her re-election campaign. She is likely to be a formidable candidate to keep her job despite sometimes bitter Republican opposition.

But such a quick exit also diminishes some of the arguments Ritz has made for why Hoosiers should trust her more on education policy than Pence.

For instance, her supporters were fond of pointing out Ritz got more votes defeating Bennett in 2012 than Pence did in his victory over Gregg, suggesting she was more popular than Pence.

Ritz also regularly suggested her disputes with members of the Indiana State Board of Education were really battles between her and Pence. But far from setting the stage for a head-to-head run against Pence in 2016, her campaign turned out to be an early washout.

Dresslar said he doesn’t think Ritz’s ill-fated try for governor will be bad for her or diminish the stature of education issues in 2016.

“I don’t think that this exploration necessarily hurts her,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can fault her for considering this. Education will continue to be a hot-button issue.”

Ritz and Pence became bitter rivals within months of taking office. Pence launched the Center for Education and Career Innovation to support the appointed state board members, and Ritz was deeply critical of it, saying the center undermined her work.

Earlier this year, Pence dissolved CECI but at the same time pushed for a bill to remove the guarantee in state law that Ritz chair the state board. The bill passed, but the change doesn’t go into effect until after the 2016 election.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she still supports Ritz and was not disillusioned by her decision. The union was the largest contributor to her 2012 campaign.

“I would like to know a little bit more about the decision, but I think I know her well enough to know that she’s probably considered what the outcome could be in both the governor’s race and the superintendent’s race,” Meredith said. “I’m wondering what’s going on with (the superintendent’s) race in particular, if that’s had anything to do with her deciding to withdraw or if she’s just wanting to stay focused on what she’s doing.”

Perhaps it’s a case of unfinished business, Meredith said. There are policies in the works, especially around teacher training and pay, that are just getting off the ground, she said.

Either way, Meredith was confident ISTA teachers would stand behind her.

“Our members love her because she is a champion for the children they serve,” she said. “If this is what she thinks she needs to do to make sure they are served well, then they will support that.”

The fact that Ritz is an educator with a long track record of supporting teachers is why teachers like Carlota Holder, who works with students learning English as a new language at Creston Middle School in Warren Township, believe in her, Holder said.

“I trust her,” Holder said. “She was a teacher. She knows what she’s talking about. Where (Pence has) made these poor choices, and we’re now seeing the effects. If he gets re-elected, I don’t know if there’s really any hope for teachers.”

Holder said she was surprised when she heard from her husband after she left work today that the Ritz campaign for governor was shutting down. She’s disappointed Ritz dropped out.

Ritz could have done more to help kids as governor, Holder said, especially when it came to issues like expanding state support of preschool and fighting poverty, than she can as state superintendent.

“I wholeheartedly believe that because she got it the last time that if she ran again (for state superintendent), she’d win,” Holder said “But then I just wonder, are we going to deal with the same drama that we’ve dealt with already this year? I don’t think any of us want that.”

EARLIER:

Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz announced today she is no longer running for governor, saying she needed to focus instead on her work in education.

The announcement was first reported by WTHR. Ritz will seek re-election as state superintendent, according to a statement by the Indiana Democratic Party.

She recently came under fire after allegations surfaced that she accepted money from donors during this year’s legislative session, a violation of campaign finance law because it was a budget year.

Read Ritz’s statement here:

Over a million schoolchildren are starting school. They begin this school year with the hope and optimism that education can make a difference in their lives. The best use of my time and talents will be to serve our children, their families and the taxpayers of Indiana as superintendent of public instruction. I must continue to be 110 percent engaged in supporting public education.

Now is not the right time for me to run for governor. Under my leadership I have brought the discussion of public education into the public discourse and have started to fundamentally change how we support schools. My work is not finished, and my passion is stronger than ever. I am resolutely dedicated to educators students and families from pre-K to graduation.

Recent stories in the news media have pointed out that we do indeed have major issues that impact our families. Two of them particularly concern me — the rising childhood poverty rate and a major decrease in the numbers of college-level students pursuing majors that will lead to teaching. Both of these issues require a re-doubling of my commitment to serve as superintendent and to provide the needed wraparound services to our children and to address the barriers that have been put in place to attract and retain teachers.

The people of Indiana know we need a new governor, a governor that supports public education that directly affects their abilities for better jobs and stronger communities. As superintendent, I will continue to advocate for what is right to educate our children to improve our economy for all Hoosiers. With the help of all of you, we will keep education the focal point of the gubernatorial race.

Many of my supporters will be disappointed with my decision, but I know that we share a vision for education. My heartfelt thanks goes out to those who have so passionately supported my campaign for governor.

With my personal commitment to doing what is needed to prepare this and future generations for the challenges of tomorrow, I will enthusiastically seek re-election as your superintendent of public instruction.

Analysis

5 ways Glenda Ritz's run for governor will change education and politics

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz at a meeting of the Indiana State Board of Education earlier this month.

Just when it looked like Indiana’s fierce education debates could simmer down, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s run for governor could turn up the flame.

On June 1, a retooled Indiana State Board of Education met for the first time, with pledges all around to focus on the needs of students and move past political sniping.

But two days later, Ritz’s announcement included political broadsides to Gov. Mike Pence, criticizing his education policies as detrimental to the state’s economy.

As Ritz now steps beyond a focus just on schools, here are five ways her run for governor will change the game for Indiana’s ongoing conversation about education.

Education is likely to be a central issue in the 2016 election.

Schools were only a small part of the debate in the 2012 race for governor between Pence and his Democratic opponent, John Gregg. In fact, education really was not a big deal at all that year until Ritz’s shocking defeat of Tony Bennett on Election Day. Ritz and the race for state superintendent were largely ignored by the media, and even Bennett dismissed her call for a series of debates. Ritz and Bennett instead held one joint appearance.

As long as Ritz remains in the 2016 governor’s race, education will be a central theme this time. She will certainly force a conversation about education in the primary election, as she is one of the state’s few high-profile Democrats. Ritz so far has trained her fire on Pence, rather than on her Democratic opponents, Gregg and state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, with Pence’s management of education policy as her primary target.

There could be hotly contested primary elections next May

As it stands now, Indiana is looking at a three-way race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Pence for the next 11 months. All three candidates have different strengths and claims for why they should be nominated. Ritz is the state’s best-known Democrat currently in office and has had some success in political wars with Pence. Gregg lost a surprisingly close race with Pence last time and could do better this time given Pence’s recent decline in popularity and political problems. Some Democrats believe Tallian, who is less well-known, might be the strongest match for the political views of core Democratic voters.

On the Republican side, Pence could also face a primary race. Fort Wayne car dealer Bob Thomas has toyed with running, Former Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle also has suggested he might help find a challenger for Pence in frustration with the governor’s support of a religious freedom bill that prompted a backlash against the state. This is unusual. Primary challenges to sitting governors are exceedingly rare in Indiana.

So it appears there could be one, or possibly even two, big primary election votes to select the party standard-bearers for the 2016 governor’s race.

The race for state superintendent could also get interesting

If she is not picked by voters to be the Democratic nominee for governor in May of 2016, Ritz has said she likely would seek renomination at the party convention to run again for state superintendent. Ritz said she was looking for a back-up candidate who could run for her current job if Democratic voters choose her to take on Pence.

But that could get tricky.

It might be difficult, first of all, to get a strong candidate willing essentially to be on standby. A run for statewide office is a difficult challenge that requires a strong commitment. Also, Democrats will likely not want to lose the only statewide office they control.

Meanwhile, Ritz’s run for governor provides an opening for a Republican challenger, and it might create an incentive for any Republican considering a run to get into the race early. With Ritz focused on the governor’s race, there will be an opportunity for a Republican opponent to push a different vision for the office and emphasize that her attention is divided between the job she was elected for and the one she hopes to have next.

Pence also could be helped if an ally were to declare early a run for state superintendent. Together they could coordinate critiques of her work as superintendent.

Politics could heat up again at the Indiana State Board of Education

Changes in state law this year prompted the 10 other board members besides Ritz to be reappointed, and about half the appointees are new faces. There has been much optimism that an overhauled board could move past infighting, which some have characterized as at least partly driven by politics.

But eight of the 11 board members are still Pence’s appointees. Ritz’s run for governor will ensure that she will be publicly critical of Pence and speak regularly about her policy differences with him. The new board is still more aligned with Pence on policy questions, so that could raise new tensions.

Hoosiers will finally get to decide who they like better: Ritz or Pence

Since her election in 2012, Ritz supporters have frequently cited the fact that the 1.3 million votes she received were more than Pence earned in the governor’s race that year, implying that she is, in fact, more popular than he is.

But there’s been much dispute over the meaning of Ritz’s 2012 win. Was it more an affirmation of voter affection for Ritz, then a political unknown, or a rejection of sometimes blunt-speaking Bennett, whose rhetoric angered many educators. Some of the tension between Pence and Ritz comes from the fact that both of their camps interpreted the 2012 results differently.

In 2016, Ritz will test the theory that she has more support and public trust than Pence. If she does, and she can convince voters they can also trust her on issues beyond education, she could be the next governor. If Pence beats her in the general election, he’ll have a strong argument that most Hoosiers prefer him and his approach. If Ritz fails to secure the Democratic nomination, Pence will be able to make the case that even Democrats aren’t ready to put their full faith in Ritz.