GOP schools chief Jennifer McCormick stands by Democrat Eddie Melton as he launches run for governor

While touting bipartisanship, Republican State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick stood by Sen. Eddie Melton on Tuesday night as he announced his run for Democratic nomination for Indiana governor.

But her show of support for a potential opponent of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb also shows the strained relationship between McCormick and Holcomb’s administration.

“When I got into office I learned two things rather quickly,” she said while introducing Melton. “One, do not over-assume there is an appetite for bipartisan activity in Indiana. Secondly, I learned, do not underestimate the power of bipartisan activity when it is used in a positive manner.”

McCormick said she met Melton when he stopped by the state Department of Education, which she called “the Ellis Island of the statehouse,” to ask questions. She called Melton an “all-around good man.”

Tuesday’s was the latest appearance for the pair, who both advocated for lawmakers to cross party lines on education issues during a joint statewide education policy listening tour in July. The collaboration sparked rumors that McCormick was vying to become Melton’s running mate, which would be an explosive political move.

No mention was made about McCormick joining Melton’s campaign during Tuesday’s announcement, but the speculation underscores the evolution of McCormick’s relationship with Indiana Republicans. She went from being the GOP’s handpicked challenger to former Superintendent Glenda Ritz, an outspoken Democrat, to openly sparring with fellow Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.

After years of public clashes between former superintendent Ritz and then-governor Mike Pence, some expected McCormick to work more smoothly with the Republican supermajority. But McCormick differentiated her education policy through her skepticism of diverting dollars from public schools, her calls for more accountability for charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, and her push to change the state’s A-F grading system for schools.

While McCormick has repeatedly said she doesn’t consider education to be a partisan issue, her decision to support Melton’s campaign highlights the divide between the state’s Republican supermajority and the bulk of public school educators in Indiana at a time when teachers are angry about pay, school funding, and the accountability system.

McCormick announced nearly a year ago that she would not seek a second term as state superintendent, a position which was set to become governor-appointed after her tenure. The superintendent from Yorktown, Indiana, has stayed quiet about what she wants to do next.

In a campaign video posted Tuesday, Melton pledged to increase teacher pay: “We need to invest in our schools and value our teachers.”

Melton, a first-term senator from Gary, Indiana, and a former State Board of Education member, also said Tuesday that the state needs to fully fund schools, put an end to high-stakes testing,  and end the “aggressive expansion” of vouchers, among other calls. He’s repeatedly said that education should be a bipartisan issue, including when he launched the listening tour with McCormick.

Melton will face two other candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, former state health commissioner Woody Myers, and the CEO of a local company that develops digital strategies for retailors, Josh Owens, who is also Indiana’s first openly gay gubernatorial candidate.

The Democratic primary will be May 5. The winner will face Holcomb, who has already announced that he will seek a second term.